Agenda: The gender issue

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 24 March 2016
Image: AdNews Gender Issue

This article first appeared in the 18 March edition of AdNews 'The Gender Issue' a themed edition that explored sexism and gender diversity in the advertising industry and marketing.

A month ago AdNews editor Rosie Baker hosted a roundtable to discuss ‘the gender issue’ in the advertising industry. It was to put a stake in the ground and push an agenda for change. The company was high calibre, the discussion illuminating, and what comes next, the action, will be powerful.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year, which fell on 8 March, was ‘gender parity’. It was also one of the biggest themes that came from the roundtable discussion AdNews held a month before.

The idea behind the roundtable was to gather a cross section of influential and involved figures from creative and media agencies from networks and independents, industry bodies, clients and media owners, to build a foundation for change following recent events that have put gender equality back into the spotlight.

The attendees had disparate motivations but all wanted the same result – a stronger Australian ad industry. One that can attract and retain the best talent, offer a dynamic and inviting creative environment for everyone, from whatever background and life stage, and one that isn’t beset by claims of sexism and policies that belong in the history books.

What emerged were some key areas that need tackling and an appetite to make it happen. The one central point was that a more diverse industry means better output. How to achieve it is less simple but neither is it rocket science.

Jules Hall, founder and CEO of The Hallway, said: “We’re in the business of creativity and talking to people from all different backgrounds … diversity is a critical component to talk to the diverse audiences that every brand needs to have.”

gender panel

Commercial imperative

What was clear was that this isn’t a “women’s issue”. It goes far beyond it. Nitsa Lotus, Whybin\TBWA GM, said: “We’ve been talking about this issue for so long, but it’s not just a women’s issue. I think that if we make it a women’s issue then we’re leaving men out of the equation and that’s dangerous territory.”

Justin Di Lollo, STW business director, who has had a lifelong involvement with diversity and gender issues and was previously an advisor to the minister for the status of women in Keating’s government, contests that it’s not even a people issue.

“There’s something of much bigger national significance going on here,” he said. “If we want to continue to be a high skilled, high productivity, high creativity industry and contribute to the economy, we cannot do that with false barriers inside companies that stop people getting ahead. What we’re talking about here is of massive significance well beyond our industry.”

Michele O’Neill, strategy director at VCCP, who presented a paper on gender in the industry at the Agency Symposium last year, agreed.

“There is a bigger endemic issue at play here. I was part of this conversation 25 years ago when I left Sydney and I’ve recently come back and we’re still having it – there is something fundamentally wrong,” O’Neill said, adding that she has noticed it more starkly in Australia than elsewhere after 20 years overseas. “There’s a commercial imperative - to survive and thrive we have to recognise that the more diverse the group of people at the table, the better the outcome,” she said.

Jee Moon, VP of marketing at Luxottica, and the lone client represented in the discussion, offered that diversity does play a role in the selection of agencies, particularly when marketing to a female audience, so there is also an immediate impact on accepting the status quo.

“Why is it that when I sit on panels or in pitches that the teams coming in to present and talk passionately about diversity are middle-aged men in grey suits? This is something that affects the future of our industry and it isn’t just about women. It’s about the way we shape and format going forward,” Moon said.

Tony Hale, Communications Council CEO, pointed out too that the Australian ad industry simply “is not representative” of the Australian population in terms of gender, race and age, and it has to be. There is recognition that the council has done a wave of good work in the area of gender equality and offers advice and frameworks for getting it on the CEO’s agenda, setting up a diversity council and more, but even with those in place agencies like Leo Burnett have still struggled, which suggests it’s not enough.

Leo Burnett is just one example. Sarah Palmer, the agency’s head of talent management, who has been on the pointy end of things in recent months after Leos was castigated for its hiring of five white male CDs, said the agency still faces a problem in the creative team even though it has hiring and development policies designed to encourage diversity.

The hidden problem

Unconscious bias emerged as a key issue across the board. One aspect of the debate around M&C Saatchi’s 21st birthday party celebrations and whether it was appropriate, was that it demonstrated the unconscious sexism and bias at play. No one is suggesting there is a Machiavellian boys club sitting around, actively thinking of ways to keep women down, but it’s dangerous because it sits in the “hidden things” as Whybin\TBWA’s Lotus puts it. But Di Lollo said STW has been doing some work internally with some of its agencies around unconscious bias “to break up some of the glue that holds those old-fashioned constructs together”.

Because “like hiring like” is a common occurrence that results in male-dominated teams, enforcing diversity in interview panels, ensuring a role cannot be filled unless there is at least one female candidate, sending leadership on unconscious bias training, or simply making them aware that it exists, are what Di Lollo calls “simple hacks” that any sized agency can do.

Flexible choices

Flexible working practices was another hot subject. Flexibility in working for women is a key issue – but the reality is that it’s not just about women and mothers – so it’s another aspect that crosses over into the debate around unconscious bias.

As a service business by nature, agencies need to be able to be responsive, which means flexible working doesn’t always fit easily and that can be an excuse for not making it possible. The Hallway’s Jules Hall explained that it is making it work successfully by ensuring flexible working patterns are explained and understood by clients so their expectations are managed.

For J. Walter Thompson GM Jenny Willits, one of the simplest things about tackling the unconscious bias is about the language we use around flexibility. It’s assumed that it will be women leaving early to collect children and men are not encouraged to do the same.

“We talk about mothers – not parents,” she said. “Flexibility needs to fit the individual. Working parents – not just working mums.”

Mindset matters

Spotify last year introduced six months’ paid parental leave for men and women – redeemable until the child is three. National head of sales Andrea Ingham said: “The mindset has been to give our people what they need when they need it. It’s what we do for our customers.”

The idea of making it possible for everyone to “bring their whole self to work,” without fear of any judgement or admonishment drew broad support and part of the battle is making it acceptable for men to take up the same flexibility, to normalise it across the workplace.

Havas Worldwide head of strategy Imogen Hewitt said she had been “flabbergasted” in the past at the response in other sectors to men wanting to work part-time or flexibly to balance family life, adding that until it is accepted that there is value to being at home, nothing will change.

The cost of implementing flexible working schemes and things like paid parental leave often come up as barriers, particularly when agencies are facing ever-squeezing margins, but many small scale initiatives cost nothing, according to STW’s Di Lollo. It can also come back to a mindset around how agencies are remunerated – on an hourly basis for time spent. It can be a barrier for encouraging flexibility because it feels like those hours need to be clocked in the office at the desk.

Other structural issues such as the gender pay gap need to be tackled. Every agency has it within their power to audit salaries – and many would be shocked at what they found. Being armed with that information is enough to kick-start a push to ensure men and women with the same experience doing the same job are paid the same. Putting in place targets to encourage more women into leadership roles and creating an environment where there are role models for younger generations to aspire to were also discussed.

The economic and commercial argument for seriously stepping up efforts on diversity in the industry is one side of the debate, behaviour and mindset is another, but equally as serious is the long-term viability and attractiveness of the industry.

If advertising isn’t able to compete with other more appealing sectors it will not attract the most creative, the most inventive minds and so begins its downfall. There was a genuine fear around the table that this is already happening.

O’Neill, who also lectures at the University of Sydney said: “The kids I speak to want to go to Facebook, to Spotify, they maybe want to go to The Monkeys. No one wants to go to a network. We are so behind, but we need to be the industry that behaves creatively.” But she’s hopeful for change with the next generation of leaders coming through, although it hasn’t happened in the last 25 years.

And so a proposal.

“This is an opening gambit, this group can form our own good housekeeping seal of approval, create a charter, a kite mark that would become a differentiator for agencies – you’re either in or you’re out,” O’Neill said.

In the coming months, AdNews will crystalise some plans alongside key industry players to put in motion an initiative that will put a stake in the ground around gender parity in the Australian industry.

Start with the facts

Last month AdNews hosted a survey put out by SheSays, aimed at putting some facts behind the anecdotes about women’s experience in agencies. Some of the results are shocking, but not all that surprising.

In Australian creative agencies, 70% of women have personally experienced sexual discrimination, and mid-sized agencies of between 20-60 people seem to be the worst offenders, according to the survey’s results.

The survey polled more than 400 people across the Australian industry and found some common themes that put some numbers behind some common assumptions made, or denied, about creative agencies. It appears the boys club is alive and well, sexual harassment, bullying, intimidation and being discriminated against for deciding to have children are the reality – like it or not, it’s happening, according to the survey.

“My hypothesis is that small agencies run like a family and tend to foster respect, and large organisations tend to have gender discrimination policies in place plus they’re in the spotlight so can’t afford to slip up publicly,” suggested SheSays spokesperson Kristine Ballensky, strategy director at Initiative.

SheSays conducted the survey to understand gender discrimination in creative agencies – what are the barriers and issues we need to overcome to address the gender gap in creative and senior management positions.

“Rather than throwing more opinions in the mix, we decided to do a survey to start with some facts,” Ballensky said.she says


AdNews was a launch partner of the SheSays online survey which was backed by The Monkeys and Anomaly. The survey went out to AdNews readers in creative agencies and beyond, the SheSays database and Award School to canvass the next generation.

There was some feedback that the survey started with stereotyped positions, but Ballensky said it was a deliberate starting point to “provoke raw emotion” rather than having open ended questions which would make it difficult to track any changes the next time the survey is done.

“Using negative stereotypes as stimulus forces people to pick a side and offer a strong POV, something we desperately need right now,” she emphasised.

Of 419 responses, 82% were female (which means we still need more men to join the debate and add a perspective) 68% were from Sydney, 19% from Melbourne, and the remainder were from other states. Most respondents were in the 25-44 year-old age bracket. 73% currently work in a creative agency, 15% used to work in a creative agency, 44% are in a creative department.

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