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Zenith UK

What makes working women successful?

It's getting easier but does it still need to be this hard? Are companies and people in the communications industry adequately supportive of women? Hearst, BBH UK, Portas Agency and Zenith UK shared frank insights...

l-r: Wildman, Riley, Wackett, Cowan and Cummins
l-r: Wildman, Riley, Wackett, Cowan and Cummins

To mark International Women’s Day, Zenith UK’s CEO, Natalie Cummins, revealed the findings of Zenith’s recent study of working men and women in the UK.

The results showed that women generally consider the key strengths behind successful women to be strength and resilience, whereas men feel it to be diplomacy.

Is this indicative of a wider issue of benign sexism in the communications and creative industries? And is the industry sufficiently supportive of women, particularly mothers?

Helen Cowan, founder of The Tall Wall and executive coach, invited a panel of industry leaders in media, publishing and advertising to tackle these questions. On the panel were Cummins; Hearst UK’s CEO, James Wildman; BBH UK’s head of creative, Martha Riley; and Portas MD, Caireen Wackett.

Cowan kicked off with a question to the audience: "Raise your hand if you believe the communications industry is better than the average when it comes to gender equality." Half the room raised their hand. But, majority of the room were women.

Deeper than gender?
The panel largely agreed that the industry is doing good work in tackling gender inequality, but more could be done.

Wackett emphasised the need for more women in leading positions because creative output should be reflective of the people buying the actual product and not just through "the male gaze". Consumers deserve more and women deserve to see real women in advertising.

Wildman said that the industry’s extreme influence on people means it has a huge responsibility to represent society.

"It goes deeper than gender," he said. "It’s about diversity."

He emphasised the need for "very responsible writing and purpose-led campaigns" to discuss societal crises such as mental health and body confidence. He cited the controversial Tess Holliday Cosmopolitan cover which generated "extraordinary" response and plaudits for raising body image awareness and encouraging conversation.

"We need to sort gender equality out first – that has to be the priority," Wildman said. "But we need to support everybody. It’s not about women versus men. We’re all in it together."

But are workplaces properly set up to support everyone in the industry today? Riley said that she feels the advertising industry has become more "rigid".

"As a society we have a working mentality that you have to work long hours. Actually, when you allow time for people’s lives people work better," she said. "Maybe flexibility needs to be formalised now because it’s very important for mental health… people should feel that they are allowed a life."

Onus on women
Conversation quickly turned to parenthood, and the burden on mothers.

Wackett explained that when she had her daughter, she "had no clue" how to return to work.

"It isn't just about the maternity and paternity packages, it's about that big hurdle of coming back to work. I had kids at the same time as our agency's founder Mary Portas had kids, it was down to us being honest with each other than informed our policies around childcare. We knew we had to make the transition, particularly for women, as stress free as possible. Our policies and benefits including night nannies and flexible working were put in place to let everybody have the most equal opportunity for success. 20% of our work force work flexibly now."

"Kindness is at the heart of what we do," she said. "There is trust. We are all here to do a job – but you can decide how that can work for you."

Wildman said that with 75% of the Hearst workforce being women, many of them mothers, initiatives are in place to encourage flexible working.

"We coach women on maternity leave and returning to work, to build confidence and support that transition as best we can," he said.

Cummins said that employers can feel "scared" to deal with the fact that women (and men) coming back after becoming parents have had a life changing experience and may feel emotional.

"Employers want to treat it like it’s no big deal – but it is," she said. "They need to acknowledge how it changes employees for the better. We need to have frank conversations with our employees on what they want their job to look like when they get back – is that a steady plateau? Or a steady or fast progression?""

Riley said that her own perception, after taking nine years out to raise her children, was that so much time had passed she wouldn’t fit in or understand new technology. But she picked things up fairly quickly with skills she already had, new skills she had developed from being a mother – and "having a fresh perspective".

Cummins said: "I don’t think I would be CEO now if I hadn’t had maternity leave."

She said that each time she came back to work after maternity leave, she was in a new role and had to prove herself with a new client. "I felt a bit on the back foot. Each maternity leave jolted me out of being comfortable and energised me."

She also said that it should be totally acceptable for new parents to want to plateau for a while, and should know they have every support in doing so. Riley added that part of problem is the focus on parenthood and returning to work as a women’s issue. "Maybe men want to plateau for a bit while they have babies too," she said. "Paternity leave and maternity leave need to be in the same conversation. It can’t be a separate issue."

Wildman agreed that there is an unfair share of responsibility taken by women, for example, when children are ill it’s usually the mother that takes time off work.

"It reinforces that inequality," he said.

Men speaking up
"We need more male role models to lead the way on this," Wildman said. Because they might not be as good at communicating or as comfortable talking about emotional things as women, male employees should be encouraged to "take shared parental responsibility more seriously. We should celebrate dads taking greater involvement in the upbringing of children," he added.

Interestingly, questions from the audience focused mostly on around keeping men engaged.

So how do we encourage more men to take an active role in promoting equality?

Cummins stressed the need for more initiatives and discussions that make it clear that meritocratic principles rather than equality or diversity principles are at play. "White middle class men are feeling like they are being hunted so we are not getting it right," she said. Adding that companies must make it clear that if you work hard and do well you will be okay – nothing else matters.

"Perhaps we are the wrong people to be on the panel," suggested Riley. "For us it has been totally about merit, but there must be people who clearly don’t think that. How do we hear their voices?"

She added that she’d like to understand why there is a huge drop-off in women creatives when approximately 60% of creative students are female. In her experience, a lot of male creatives praised her work but didn’t give her the job.

Ray Barrett – one of Britain's first black agency creative chiefs – told Riley that people were just being nice to her and her work wasn’t up to scratch – "you need to work harder," he said.

"It was fantastic advice," Riley said. "Nobody had said that… I think they thought we (women) couldn’t take the brutal reality. Clear, honest advice helped."

The current rate of progress suggests it will take 108 years for the gender gap to close. "I’m feeling more confident than that," said Cummins. "When my boys go into the workforce ten years from now they will think it’s totally normal for women to be doing the same jobs as them, for some to be better than them, and for many to be in senior positions. We don’t need to worry about the future, as much as we might have thought."

Cowan conlucded that gender equality is about just that - equality. It’s not simply accelerating women up the career ladder. More honest, maybe sometimes uncomfortable, conversations should be encouraged by leaders in organisations to ensure everyone’s needs are heard and met.


Eleanor Kahn