Advertising's empathy deficit knocks working mothers

From false initiatives, to discrimination and lack of flexibility, new research reveals how the advertising industry is failing working mothers.

Advertising's empathy deficit knocks working mothers

A research project into the barriers facing working mothers in advertising has criticised the industry for creating ‘false initiatives’ which create headlines, not change.

The research shows that discrimination, poor management and a lack of compassion are just a few of the issues raised by mothers in advertising. A state of play which makes it unsurprising that so many make the decision to leave the industry.

Bianca Richards, completed the research as part of her MA in advertising at the UAL: London College of Communication. She said as a young woman going into the industry this culture of discrimination is not something she believes any woman should ever have to face. "I wanted to shine a light on the lack of working mothers in advertising," she added.

The research drove the creation of the We’re the Reason, a thought-provoking short film with a script derived from the interview transcripts (below). The spot features the insight that "94% of mothers working in advertising believe the industry fails to accommodate their needs." (Richards notes that while she would have loved to have more diverse casting for the spot, with no budget at all, she had to rely on friends children.)

The advertising agency who cried wolf

Whilst it would be unfair to suggest that advertising agencies are not participating in any way to support working parents the research says there is a tremendous lack of evidence that proves the successfulness of any of the support programmes already in place.

Richards also cited the "false initiatives" in the industry, which rather than driving meaningful change appear to generate little beyond headlines. "There was a strong sense of agencies jumping on the bandwagon without supporting everyone," she said.

According to Richards, these initiatives didn’t translate to significant change in working practices, she explained: "There needs to be a significant shift in behaviour and culture we need to recognise you have to embrace flexible working and it needs to be more than just a policy."

A shift against outsourced childhood

The research also highlighted a lack of role models as a barrier to working mothers. A model of "success" which demands that getting to the top involves outsourcing childhood is not a route which appears appealing or aspirational. As one respondent noted: "I think I am guilty of putting a bit too much into work and my image and presenting my best self at work, leaving less than enough for home. I feel a bit shit about that. I’m trying to curtail this." While another respondent declared simply: "I didn’t want to be in a position where I felt I had to pick between my kids and my career, so I left."

A culture of fear and judgement

The honest responses are much needed in the advertising industry as, according to Richards, the research revealed there is not currently an open dialogue. She added: "A lot of women are afraid to tell their work they are pregnant in the first place."

This culture of fear was laid bare by a respondent who shared the fact that she was putting off having a second child because "it will just decimate my career".

Elsewhere, some of those women staying in the industry and navigating the pitfalls and potential of flexible working are hanging on by their fingernails – effectively subsidising their employers through unpaid overtime. As one respondent explained: "Flexitime roles just don’t exist. I work the equivalent of a five-day week here; on my days off i’m always emailing. I skip lunch and come in early every day."

While the research was focused on working mothers it also noted the struggles facing fathers. As one father who works flexibly noted: "Observers perceive women to take the maternal responsibilities over men. People always question, ‘why haven’t you got a nanny?" – to be honest I’d rather we bring up our kids than a third party."

The research was undertaken at a below-the-line London-based WPP owned advertising agency and polled a selection of women with children that currently or have formally worked in advertising. It identified seven key tripping points for working mothers in the industry, which are listed below, alongside a selection of comments from participants.

1. Long days and boozy nights

Drinking alcohol is a big part of agency culture, especially when it comes to entertaining clients and socialising with colleagues; long hours and the norm.

"The work culture doesn’t allow for a good work/life balance. It’s work hard, play hard culture and priorities change when you are a parent."
"The industry expects you to prioritise work over everything else."
"They refer to me as the ‘mum" and call me boring for not joining them down the pub after work."

2. Discrimination, pink-collar accounts, promotions and pay rises

Few women disagreed that they had experienced some level of discrimination at work, not only as a woman but more so as a mother. This discrimination came in the form of lack of opportunities for promotion or pay increases. In addition some felt they were sidelined onto bad briefs and their careers stalled as a result.

"Mothers are put on bad briefs because they think they’re easing you back in gently. But you end up stuck on them forever."
"I haven’t received a pay rise in six years i’ve been here. My other half who also works here, we both work four days a week, has much less experience than me, he’s only been in advertising for two-and-a-half years. He’s at a lower level and earns more than me and he’s had a pay rise in that time."

3. Lack of role models

Many respondents noted the lack of women in senior positions working in advertising and that agencies are lacking in particular role models of women with children.

"Mothers are like fucking unicorns, they basically don’t exist in our world"
"People need to start accepting flexible working, there’s still a huge stigma attached to it. I leave work when I need to. I sort the kids out and then I’m back on my laptop doing work again in the night. People constantly feel the need to validate the fact they’re working; this shouldn’t be a thing. The macho culture of the industry is penalising individuals."

4. False Initiatives

On the face of it it seems that advertising agencies already have programmes or initiatives in place to support parents. However, the research says it is questionable whether any of the programmes are successful or if they even exist. Some even believed they’re only created for PR headlines and as a result deemed the industry as unaccommodating to parents.

"The overall structure of the industry needs to change; it makes my blood boil. The agencies think they’re helping but they’re not. They initiate all these things but they’re not real."

5. Kids are a taboo subject

A lack of "open dialogue" for colleagues not only fails to accommodate the needs of parents by not allowing them to speak about their personal life.

"I found it hard to own my need to sometimes leave on time (or, heaven forbid, early!) and felt pretty panicky if my kids seemed sick and that time off or working from home was looking likely. I find I still massively underplay the fact that I have kids at home."

6. Poor management and attitudes to flexible working

Poor management and attitudes to flexible working has a significant negative impact on working mothers.

"Too many people don’t trust their colleagues to work from home enough and too many expect working to carry on into the evening."

7. Bullying nature

The research found in such intense and competitive environments stories of mistreatment and bullying are commonplace. Respondents noted that it is common to feel bullied, pressured and judged by co-workers for having responsibilities outside of work.

"Added pressure was put on me in my role when I was pregnant in order to force me to leave early and be replaced."
"The industry has a serious lack of flexibility or compassion for mums. As a result I haven’t returned since maternity leave. I chose to leave as I knew it wouldn’t be flexible enough. I have seen others discriminated against for prioritising child-care, ensuring they leave on time and how people questioned their commitment."
"I didn’t want to be in a position where I felt I had to pick between my kids and my career, so I left."
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