When I was pregnant with my first child, I was sent to cover an event for female leaders in marketing that was designed to inspire the next generation of creative talent. This was in the heyday of Lean In and a chief executive told the story of how she had missed her daughter’s entire first week of school while working on a pitch. Like many people, I have never had a definitive notion of what "success" looks like – but I was sure that I wasn’t looking at my ideal of it.
Five years on, the conversation about role models and creative leadership is more nuanced. In part, this shift has happened out of necessity; with social media driving a new era of transparency, toxic business cultures are in the firing line. When every employee is a whistleblower-in-waiting, authentic and progressive leadership has never been so necessary for sustainable business success.
Yet a recent article in Campaign from creative director Nathalie Turton, describing how a London agency retracted a job offer because she asked to leave at 5pm three days a week to pick up her son, suggests there is still a long way to go. Are we kidding ourselves that advertising is a genuinely progressive industry?
At a recent Glug event, a young female creative explained the challenge facing industry leaders in brutally simple terms: "There are some who just don’t get it and they need to be managed out."
Painful though it may be, this issue is particularly pressing for the creative industries. If the companies that brands turn to in order to better understand and communicate with their consumers are not progressive enough to accommodate the needs of their own employees, let alone understand the broader changes in society, where does their value lie?
All too often business leaders have been guilty of appropriating the language of inclusivity and feminism while steadfastly maintaining the status quo. This disconnection between word and deed has been highlighted by the flurry of jargon and obfuscation surrounding recent gender-pay gap reporting.
Take the disparity between J Walter Thompson’s "Fuck the gender pay gap" campaign and its own fucking huge gender pay gap or the revelation that "Because you’re worth it" perhaps doesn’t apply to women who work at L’Oréal UK (who earn a third less than their male colleagues). The gulf between rhetoric and reality is a reminder that businesses and their leaders are not always as progressive as they claim, or believe themselves to be.
Amid ongoing economic uncertainty and the seemingly unending drive to get "more for less", everyone loses. As novelist Elena Ferrante writes: "Even today, after a century of feminism, we can’t fully be ourselves." She explains that not only is female power suffocated but also, for the sake of peace and quiet, "we suffocate ourselves".
The truth is that progress is hard. Calling out bad behaviour and pushing for change can be exhausting. Nonetheless, it is vital if we are to thrive as individuals and businesses.
We must not suffocate the progressive leaders of the future – or, worse still, push them out before they really get started. It is no longer enough to give a leg up to the few. We need to take the lid off the discrimination of the past and give everyone the space to breathe.
Nicola Kemp is the trends editor at Campaign.