EDITORIAL: Embracing flexible work makes sense

What emerges loud and clear from the latest IPA census is that much hard work needs to be done before the industry accurately mirrors the society it operates in. Nearly 8 per cent of the UK population belongs to an ethnic minority; in London, the figure rises to 31 per cent. Yet while more than nine out of ten agency staffers are of Anglo-Saxon origin, less than two in 100 are black, the census reveals.

While the age of the average Briton steadily increases, agencies are going in the opposite direction. Almost half adland's staff is aged 30 or under. Just 5 per cent are over 50. Hardly a comforting thought for advertisers needing to reach an ever-growing body of consumers getting greyer by the day.

But perhaps the most glaring industry shortcoming exposed by the census is its continued unequal treatment of the sexes.

Women make up half the industry's workforce but a mere 7 per cent make it to the boardroom and beyond. Just 11 per cent of chairmen, chief executives and managing directors are female.

However, these bald statistics don't begin to indicate the size of the obstacles thrust in the way of women wanting to resume their careers in advertising and the continued reluctance of agencies to countenance flexible working. The helpline at Nabs, the industry charity, regularly fields calls from women so exasperated by the failure of the agencies, which may have invested thousands of pounds in their training, to meet their needs on return from maternity leave.

Indeed, an increasing number are turning their backs on the business for good to find more understanding employers elsewhere.

It would be all too easy and probably unfair to heap all the blame on agencies. Senior managers must constantly balance the needs of staff with the relentless demands of clients and, as a result, find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Their instinctive reaction has been to give little or no ground, partly because of reluctance to put extra pressures on a depleted staff which has to cover the gaps. But that position is no longer sustainable. Since April last year, employers have been prevented by law from refusing any reasonable request for flexible working. Failure can mean an industrial tribunal and heavy legal costs.

Like it or not, the issue won't go away, not least because the Government sees it as an important piece of social engineering that employers will have to adapt to. Above all, flexible working is important for basic commercial reasons. It is in agencies' interests to attract and keep the best people, regardless of their sex.


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