Close-Up: Do women still face a glass ceiling?

Lack of role models and the biological clock can hamper a woman's progression.

The former Labour trade minister Mervyn Davies could be forgiven for sounding like a broken record when he recently called for a fresh inquiry into why there are so few women in board-level positions at British companies.

The issue has been a sticky topic for a while now, with government after government making it a priority, but investigation after investigation seemingly throwing up unsatisfactory solutions.

Advertising is by no means exempt from this conundrum. Recent IPA figures show that while the overall gender split in the industry is around 50/50, a whopping 79 per cent of those that go on to make it at management level are male.

"The figures are hugely disappointing," Nicola Mendelsohn, the chairman of Karmarama, admits. "The industry has recruited a fairly balanced proportion of men to women at graduate level for quite some years now yet fewer are moving into management. Choice, ability or aptitude are self-evidently not the reasons."

Instead, there seems to be a number of other factors that come into play. Alison Hoad, the vice-chairman of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, suggests that, on a basic level, the problem is a biological one. "Women get to the cusp of senior management at around the same age that they have children, and that throws them off course," she says.

Advancements in technologies and a shift in agencies' attitudes seem to slowly be helping to solve this problem. Hoad points out that she wouldn't be able to be in the position she is and work four days a week if it wasn't for BlackBerrys and video-conferencing, allowing her to stay in touch without having to be present in the office.

But even with these improvements, there seems to be a lack of motivation for younger women to strive to make it to the top.

One suggestion for this is the lack of female role models. If young graduates can't see women in their agency running the show, how will they be able to see themselves make it to the top positions?

Chloe Robinson, an art producer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, is starting her climb up the career ladder. She says: "Personally, I don't see a glass ceiling here, but then AMV is run by arguably some of the most successful women in advertising in people like Cilla Snowball and Farah Ramzan Golant. I don't know if things would be the same if I was at a maledominated agency."

Creative departments are perhaps the area where this problem is at its most troublesome. The Engine joint chief executive, Debbie Klein, states that she can count on one hand the number of female creative heads working in London, and suggests that this may be down to the fact that most creative directors tend to like mentoring and hiring those that they see as a "younger version of themselves", leaving many young female creatives questioning whether it's even possible for them to succeed.

And, Hoad says, this comes at a time when agencies perhaps need stronger female creatives more than ever. "Not only are you getting more and more senior female clients, the majority of spending power in families is increasingly overwhelmingly set with females," she says. "If an agency truly wants to get on top of these issues, then it becomes obvious that we need more women at the top level."

AGENCY HEAD - Alison Hoad, vice-chairman, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"I've never personally felt held back by my gender and I literally can't think of a woman that hasn't got promoted in this industry because of that.

"People can say that advertising is an old boys club, but I don't think that's the case; it's just that women at a certain level don't want things to be all-consuming once they have a family.

"Women also don't tend to manage their profile as well as men do. This can be a problem particularly when it comes to asking for things, like new job opportunities or more flexible working hours."

AGENCY HEAD - Nicola Mendelsohn, chairman, Karmarama

"I still believe that we will be able to make progress on gender equality but it might take longer than I would have expected or hoped. It just may well be that there are some more fundamental questions and some uncomfortable truths that we might need to face up to.

"One issue that has been raised more recently as an impediment is the attitude of senior management in holding companies. This may be the case, although I am yet to see detailed evidence on this.

"Nevertheless, it just goes to show that women getting into management will continue to be difficult but that should not discourage anyone from trying."

AGENCY HEAD - Debbie Klein, joint chief executive, Engine

"On pure numbers alone, the amount of women at boardroom level has improved, but we still have a number of issues that is stopping those numbers from increasing further.

"It's definitely not lack of talent. We have plenty of excellent young female creative teams - they say that good ideas don't have genitals - but there doesn't seem to be that progression to a higher level.

"Maybe it's that people tend to hire in their own image and that means that fewer women feel confident that they can get those top creative jobs."

CREATIVE HEAD - Caitlin Ryan, executive creative director, Proximity London

"In this industry, I still think there is an underlying black-and-white view that you can't be both a 'good mother' and a 'good creative director'.

"This is old-fashioned, sexist and will hold us back as an industry. I don't see the same attitude in mainland Europe or Australia.

"Until as an industry we address this - and show that many women (not a token few) can successfully manage both - I think a lot of women will continue to 'opt out' at the point that they are thinking about having a family."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.

Topics