CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/WOMEN IN ADVERTISING - Has enough been done to help women's careers?

Positive discrimination is not the industry's favoured solution, Jenny Watts finds.

When the 2002 IPA agency census was unveiled last week, it showed that women are still finding the advertising career ladder difficult to climb. Nothing new in that then.

While women continue to comprise nearly 50 per cent of staff, they only represent 10 per cent of chairmen, chief executives and managing directors, and only 16 per cent of art directors and 20 per cent of copywriters.

And the problem remains at grass-roots level too. Of the 26 students on Watford's copywriting and art direction course this year, only three are female.

When Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's executive creative director, Peter Souter, became the president of D&AD, he made increasing the number of women in creative departments his agenda. Two years later and with the IPA census revealing what it did, it seems, despite his efforts, his words have had little impact.

For this article, we asked a range of industry figures what they have done to make advertising a more attractive career for women.

Their responses show they are addressing the issue with practical steps, such as improved maternity leave and flexible working hours. But these are for the benefit of the whole agency rather than just women , and most say their hiring policy is more concerned with attracting talent rather than positive discrimination towards females.

Tony Cullingham, a course tutor at West Herts College (formerly Watford), says that, from his perspective, nothing has changed in the past two years.

"It's too complicated and big an issue to change," he says. "You've got to be pretty tough. On my course, students arrive £10,000 in debt and have to fight their way into the business. Maybe some women aren't up for the fight."

Souter, for one, thinks positive discrimination is the answer. "If you take out cars and financial services, 75 per cent of purchasing decisions are made by women, but only around 15 per cent of the ads they see are created by women," he says.

"I think we need some kind of positive discrimination, not because women aren't the equals of the male counterparts, but because the barriers in front of them are massively unequal."

But his view isn't universally popular - women who have battled through the system and secured senior roles often see no reason why other women shouldn't do likewise.

To encourage debate on the matter, the IPA held sessions at the end of last year, but one female creative who attended thinks singling out the subject for special attention can actually do more harm than good. She remembers: "A lot of women didn't want to do it. They think that if you make an issue out of it, maybe people will start to take on women just because they feel they should. They could take on women who aren't as good, just to redress the balance."

Another IPA initiative, in conjunction with D&AD, has had a more positive response, however. The two bodies joined forces to put on a travelling exhibition featuring top female creatives' work. The body of work, by the likes of M&C Saatchi's Tiger Savage and Mother's Caroline Pay and Kim Gehrig, will tour colleges to attract female talent at an early stage.

Others think things are improving regardless, and that the top-line census figures don't acknowledge the vast number of women who opt to go freelance after having a baby, still remaining involved in the business.

JEREMY MILES - Chairman of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

The agency has a female managing director in Helen Calcraft, a female planning director and a female creative team. But for Miles it's about attracting top talent, regardless of gender.

"People have been slow to pick it up and I don't think enough has been done. Some people are a bit antiquated in their views. I find this debate annoying because at the end of the day it's a meritocracy and it's based on talent and that's ultimately how we reward people," he says. "Helen happens to be female, but she's outstandingly good at her job."

MT RAINEY - Joint chief executive of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

Rainey points out that having a woman in the management team inherently informs of the agency's heterogeneous nature. Her point, however, is that the more talented the agency's people, the more profitable and successful the business. "We are so hungry and eager to find the most talented people that we are blind to things like gender and race. Because talent is the over-riding factor."

BRUCE HAINES - Group chief executive of Leo Burnett and IPA president

Haines says that women have recently come to make up 60 per cent of the agency's staff. However, he says the initiatives it has introduced to make the environment attractive to women are things they should do anyway, such as flexible working hours and shorter working weeks. "But I haven't noticed that they've been taken up by women any more than men. And I wouldn't believe in offering it for women alone."

STEPHEN WOODFORD - Chief executive of WCRS

The agency has a female head of TV, planning, account management, and one female creative director and Woodford says the agency has introduced a whole range of benefits to make life more family friendly. Its improved maternity package includes six months off on full pay, with the option to take more time off at a lower pay-level. Staff can also work shorter weeks if they want to. "When we're talking to people about joining, we make a big deal of these benefits," Woodford says. "It's not just about attracting women, it's about attracting male talent too."

STEF CALCRAFT - Partner at Mother

One-third of the creative department at Mother is female, and women make up more than 50 per cent of the agency. They're also in the process of hiring four new strategists, three of whom are female. "There's no financial penalty for having a family," Calcraft says, citing four months on full pay, with two months' bonus upon return and a job guarantee.

CILLA SNOWBALL - Chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

The agency has both a recently promoted female chief executive and managing director, and recently hired a female board account director. However, Snowball recognises that the agency needs more women in the creative department.

"We're making changes to redress that and recruit more," she says. She also doesn't think women's success should be measured only in terms of those who've made it to the very top. "We should look at all levels. This obsession with the senior management level can be counterproductive sometimes."