Opinion: Women still have a long way to go to achieve parity

I had lunch recently with one of adland's grande dames, though she might not welcome being described as such.

Quite naturally the conversation turned to the subject of women in advertising and why, damn it, there are still so few senior women in the business. At a certain point, I must admit, I find such conversations uncomfortable. Not because I don't fully support any improvements in corporate structures that make it easier for women (and women who are mothers) to fulfil their full potential. Of course I do.

I know one woman in the business who, when she confessed in the mid-80s to her boss that she was pregnant, was told that it was her duty to tender her resignation. Let's not pretend that, if legislation hadn't come to the rescue, such things simply wouldn't happen any more.

But equal opportunities, flexible working, nurturing of talent: these are cross-gender concerns and, even where they might impact women more than men, demand cross-gender recognition and support. To make them single-sex issues is to make them more easily dismissed or even to reinforce the gender divides.

Then two things happened. I went to the Wacl AGM this week. For anyone who doesn't know, Wacl is a club of like-minded, committed, energetic and, frankly, inspiring women in the communications industry. The president Nicola Mendelsohn (the Karmarama co-owner, mother of four, committed supporter of charities such as Women's Aid, friend of Number 10 and first-class networker) handed over the Wacl mantle to the new president, Elizabeth Fagan, the brilliant and formidable marketer who now runs Boots' marketing machine. I'm always awed to see the time and energy these women devote to a club that is, essentially, about inspiring and supporting other women.

The other thing that happened this week was the arrival on my desk of a proof of our feature on the next executive creative directors (page 22). It includes a single lone female: Emer Stamp. We tried, I promise we tried to find more women. And we could have included more if our criteria for entry was a little less robust. We could have positively discriminated, if we'd wanted to, to manipulate the results and balance the sexes a little better. And that might, indeed, have had some small effect in increasing the chances of more female ECDs in the future. But it would not have been an accurate picture of where we are right now and it would have hidden some of the real issues about women in creative departments.

Oh, I know it's a perennial subject. If women in advertising generally seem under-represented at a senior level, in creative departments the issue is magnified. I don't have room to rehearse all the reasons why, but it's obvious little progress is being made in addressing them.

So, back to Wacl, back to the need for women, still, to continue encouraging each other to push forward. Yes, it makes me feel uncomfortable, but yes, there's still a significant way to go. The next step, though, must be to make this more forcefully an industry issue rather than a women's issue.

One of the very best things about Wacl is that it raises significant money for charity. This year the club raised £138,000, split equally between the president's chosen charity, Women's Aid, and the ad industry's own charity Nabs.

This week, Viacom Brand Solutions' chief, Nick Bampton, officially took on the chairmanship of Nabs and made it very clear that the charity needs the industry's full support now more than ever before.

One of the very best things about the ad industry as a whole is the mutually supportive framework that operates just beneath the surface competitiveness. I really hope that framework helps Bampton get all the support he needs to equip Nabs to deal with the casualties of recession. To get involved, check out nabs.org.uk.

Topics