The world of work must change for true gender equality
A view from Carol Reay

The world of work must change for true gender equality

Why it's time to challenge working conventions and make the world of work fit around bright, able and ambitious women

In recent weeks, a time of toppled reputations, fiery debate about grid girls and the sleazy Presidents Club debacle, I keep reminding myself of a body of undeniable business evidence: that gender diversity means success. Crucially, in 2017 McKinsey reported that mixed-gender boards are 15% more likely to deliver above average profitability.

Understanding this to be true is easy.  Making it happen, however, is difficult.  Women hold only 15% of board seats worldwide and make up only 4% of CEOs and Chairs. In this context the numbers reported in adland look good. Progress may be slow but 30.9% of C Suite roles held by women is a better number than the dismal global ones. It’s not far off the Davies Review’s magic number of 33% (women on FTSE 350 boards by 2020). Those advertising numbers do dip below the 30% bar when you narrow it down to Chair and CEO roles. There’s work to do. 

"I could cope with the everyday sexism and the #metoo moments. They fuelled my ambition."

Marjorie Scardino was the first woman on a FTSE 100 board in 1997. Now there are 7. Progress of sorts but just 17% of high court judges are female, 29% of MPs and 20% of university Vice Chancellors. When you consider how long this topic has been hot, numbers are stubbornly intransigent.

These days I hold non-executive positions in the advertising world. My executive role is managing the global brand of one of the world’s largest top tier headhunters. My job takes me around the world and I see the leadership recruitment challenges from Sao Paulo to Sydney, from Houston to Hong Kong. Gender diversity is the hot topic that gets hotter. In a recent Odgers Berndtson survey 85% of leaders stated it as one the key challenges in the world of senior talent. Many issues come up for discussion from quotas of women on shortlists, to the fact that where you have female leadership, gender diversity doubles on boards (Deloitte). Women are a magnet for other women. 

Reimagining role models

The issue of role models, of course, is key. When I started in advertising there were precious few. As a graduate trainee I was thrilled when the agency brought in its first woman board member. My line manager, a man, was openly scathing about her being a parent of young children and thus unsuitable. I risked my job by pointing out to him that he was also a parent of young children.

I could cope with the everyday sexism and the #metoo moments. They fuelled my ambition. It was having children that got me, and made me a passionate advocate of real, serious change in the workplace if we are ever to see equality.

I had my children when I was CEO of an ad agency. A 12-hour day was a short one. I braved it, like you do; this was post-Thatcher Britain and to succeed I thought I had to tough it out and copy men.  But inside I was torn in two.

One event illustrates this: the night I tore the side off my car on a traffic-calming bollard in my road in West London because I was dashing home to make bath-time for the first time that week. I felt stranded in a world where there was no-one to talk to, precious few role models and where I couldn’t be my whole self. Once I asked an advertising colleague with kids older than mine how she did it. When she didn’t answer, I thought I’d breached some taboo but she turned to face me and she was crying. She told me how she left her jacket on her chair and slinked out secretly to watch her kids at sports day rather than simply saying this is what she had to do. That real self I wanted to be was a successful CEO and a connected mother.

So, adland, here’s my challenge:

In advertising I was paid to think the unthinkable – I relished re-imagining banking, applying brand reinvention tactics to politics, cross breeding adverts with sitcom shows.

Who, I ask, is thinking the big thoughts and reimagining the future of gender equality? A future where women can aspire to absolutely anything and not fear the compromise it might entail. For example, what if the whole world of work worked term time?

Sure McKinsey can prove that diverse boards make money. But productivity isn’t what makes me insanely committed to diversity. I’m committed because I’ve been a lone ranger and felt the pain, I know that it is possible to burn with ambition and burn with maternal zeal. 

I think to get numbers up from 30% to the 50% they should be, we have to think outside the box, challenge working conventions and make the world of work fit around its bright, able and ambitious women. Work can mould around women, not the other way round. Things can change.

Carol Reay is global CMO of Odgers Berndtson, non executive chairman of Transgressive X, non executive director at Springetts Brand Design and a proud member of WACL

To read more about Odgers Berndtson’s perspective on gender diversity click here