Gender equality is straightforward and complicated

A Future of Fairness includes a roadmap for companies to follow no matter where they are on their diversity and inclusion journey.

Our new report, A Future of Fairness, aims to give brands and agencies a series of tangible actions to consider on diversity and inclusion. In this chapter, we look at the key issues around gender equality in adland.

Part of today’s inequality can be blamed on yesterday’s hiring decisions and working practices – the workplace was a very different environment when many of the current male leaders were recruited – but that’s no excuse for the disappointing progress and poor statistics around gender equality in 2020.

Exact percentages might matter less if there were a real sense that every woman had the opportunity to and sexual harassment are still ingrained in agency behaviour – proven by the impact of the #timeTo movement – and, until flexible working and career breaks are the norm for all genders, motherhood will continue to hold too many women back from reaching the top.

COVID-19 has exacerbated gender inequality, as women take on the bulk of caring, home schooling and domestic chores, and are more likely to be made redundant than men.

Meanwhile, the UK response to the pandemic is led by men yet women leaders have proved among the most successful in dealing with the crisis – look at Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Angela Merkel in Germany, as well as their counterparts in Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Taiwan, and other countries around the world.

So, why do so few women make it to the top of agencies?

IPA data shows that women make up 52.6% of employees but only 28.5% of managing directors, CEOs and chairs.

Many women are still afraid to speak up about the discrimination they face, but not Sue Unerman, Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom. She says, "It’s about pragmatic feminism. Not saying 'it’s not fair' or 'poor us,' because frankly no one cares. The level of oxygen given to this issue has gone up exponentially, but the actual statistical change is marginal. Everybody has to be selfaware at all times – are you being inclusive enough? Are you being encouraging enough? Are you worrying about the right things?"

Through Creative Equal’s Equality Standard, agencies can access hard diversity data and real insight, which allows for a tangible set of measures to track progress and make change happen fast. For example, despite having an all-male board five years ago, Kinetic Worldwide, after undergoing Creative Equals’ Equality Standard, now has 40% women at senior level – and it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that Kinetic’s staff churn has since dropped from 28% to 11%, against an industry average of 30%.

Media agency the7stars has 40% women at senior level and 19% Black Asian and minority ethnic across the whole company – a diversity that springs from culture rather than targets. Founder Jenny Biggam, admits: "Our policies can be a bit random. We make them up as we go along."

For example, Biggam introduced the "bump bonus" because she hated the idea that women found it difficult to tell employers they were pregnant. Expectant parents receive a lump sum to help out with baby purchases, and to show that the whole agency is celebrating with them. On International Women’s Day, the men at the agency were allocated a female co-worker and asked to write an appreciation of what made her a special colleague. The results were published in a magazine that the women could take home with them on the day.

At FCB Inferno, the creative department has gone from 22% women to 56% women in just a few years. The change is thanks to a mix of organic progress, conscious hiring decisions, and a focus on creating an open, flexible culture for all genders, where time off for a parents’ evening or a three-day Hindu wedding is never questioned.

As recently as 2011, Nicola Mendelsohn, now VP EMEA at Facebook, became the first female president of the IPA. She initiated the Women of Tomorrow awards (which in 2020 became the iList), to identify future female leaders and create role models at all levels of the business.

It’s no good just being able to see a Karen Blackett or a Helen Calcraft. Young women need someone within touching distance of themselves.

Nicola Mendelsohn

Organisations like WACL and Bloom have long been supporting women in the industry. Bloom has recently focused on engaging men in the conversation by setting up The Exchange, a cross-mentoring pilot that brings women together with senior men, and has brought valuable perspective and insight to both sides. Bloom is also famous for its “Booth of Truth,” which invites members to share stories about their experiences in the industry – which unfortunately continue to include sexism, racism, ageism, and more.

Another organisation, SheSays, focuses on networking and support for female creatives. Fabiana Xavier, its London president, says, "The male culture is more naturally geared towards networking – they organise sporting events and are more likely to go to the pub after work."

If there were more women in creative departments, the ASA might not have had to introduce rules on gender stereotyping as recently as 2019. Even so, there was a substantial backlash when the ASA ruled that Philadelphia had taken the "rubbish dad" trope too far, and VW had portrayed a harmfully limited view of girls’ and boys’ aspirations.

There will always be a tension between the progressive and the socially conservative. Of course, advertising is not the cause of inequality, but it can contribute to its perpetuation.

Guy Parker, CEO of the ASA

The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced life and work into such public and private collision, may have helped push gender equality forwards by teaching agencies that flexible working is a more realistic option than many have assumed. Something that women have always known.

The lack of women of colour in top roles is going to be a big area of focus going forward. Working with organisations such as the Asian Women of Achievement Awards allows organisations to start recognising top, diverse female talent.

The Asian Women of Achievement Awards, led by Pinky Lilani CBE DL, is a platform that unlocks a culture of kindness and collaboration among leaders. She says, "We have built a remarkable informal community of influential women determined not only to build professional and personal relationships with one another, but to be advocates for an exciting generation of Asian talent."

Continue reading A Future of Fairness

The opinions expressed here are those of the contributors and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 10 November 2021