Big Picture: Mad men, stonewalled women

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 3 December 2015

In the 27 November issue of AdNews Magazine editor Rosie Baker investigated why women are still fighting for a level playing field in agencies across the industry. You can read it all below. But if you want it as soon as it goes to press, you better subscribe here.

A little over two weeks ago, Leo Burnett hit the headlines and fuelled a new round of debate on the lack of women in creative departments thanks to a press photo of five new hires – all white males. Comment boards lit up with input and the issue spread beyond the Australian industry press to the mainstream media and then globally. While Leo Burnett has copped the flak, and made it worse by not engaging with the issue quickly enough,  the problem here isn’t the agency specifically, it's the culture of an industry. It's hard to put concrete numbers on the number of women in senior creative roles.

The Comms Council's latest figures put it at 16% and it’s an issue across both big networks and independents. There’s one multi-national, that until recently, is said to have held a hiring policy of “no chicks, no gays”.

In Sydney, Leos might have a heavily male skewed team, but it is one of the few agency networks that has a female CEO in Melinda Geertz who runs the Melbourne agency. But it took almost a week of radio silence until Leo Burnett CEO Pete Bosilkovski finally admitted there is a problem within the agency and across the industry and committed to “turning the conversation into action”.

In response to the debate, AdNews has collaborated with the Australian arm of SheSays, the global organisation that aims to boost more women into top jobs in the creative industry, to seek out solutions to this widespread issue. Many of the women we approached didn’t want to speak on the record because in the words of one, she would be branded a "feminist trouble-maker” and never get a job again.

It’s easy to dismiss the notion of a boys' club, but these fears women have about speaking up about their work situations and the double standards and discrimination they experience within agencies, are real. Some of the stories AdNews heard are jaw dropping. One young female creative says she was told by an agency CD that he’d give her a job if she had sex with him.

Others were told “don’t bring your feminist shit” into this brief and not to be “petty and jealous” if a young male creative’s idea gets more attention. Another story involved one woman quietly asking another in the office to borrow a tampon and she was told by a male who overheard to keep that kind of talk to their own time as it wasn’t suitable for the office. Many men would be appalled if their sister, wife or girlfriend were treated like this, yet it continues.

It’s more than 50 years after Peggy Olsen's Mad Men era and these scenarios should not be occurring.

Often the first response from male dominated management is to get defensive about the lack of women in-house but there’s a need to move beyond that. The fact that this debate gained such momentum means this is the time to take action and for agencies to look at their creative departments, their hiring policies and output, and to consider how true gender diversity could make the ideas and the work better. When so many client side organisations have progressive policies around equality in the workplace, flexible hours and paid parental leave, there are few agencies that do. It would be a starting point. Spotify Australia has just introduced the "very Swedish" concept of six months’ paid parental leave for men and women and Facebook offers up to four months’ parental leave. CEO/founder, Mark Zuckerberg, announced this week he will be taking two months off next year when his first child arrives.

• Kim Neidhardt, Freelance senior creativeMad men women picture
• Siobhan Fitzgerald, Senior creative, The Monkeys
• Lucy Kough, Senior creative, Ensemble
• Niccola Phillips, Head of art, M&C Saatchi
• Yasmin Quemard, Creative director, Ensemble and head of SheSays Sydney
• Jen Dobbie, Senior copywriter, IdeaWorks
• Kara Jenkins, Creative director, Isobar Australia and head of SheSays Melbourne

Why are there so few women in creative departments? 

Siobhan Fitzgerald: Women in society are disempowered; it is no different in our industry. The dominant voice in society and
advertising is male and women have a hard time finding and expressing theirs. Unconscious and conscious bias, different expectations of men and women, women being judged more harshly, and different levels of confidence.

Lucy Kough: At a certain age [many] women will want to have children. While they are pregnant, their bodies change and the physical shift can affect their ability to perform in an industry where late nights are the norm, relationships are formed at the pub after work and overtime can be the difference between a great idea and an award winner. [After having a child], a year out of advertising feels like a decade with the pace of it. I know because I’ve done it. How many male ECDS have a full-time wife at home? Women don’t just need support at the office, they need it from home and the community. Until we accept that men taking time out and working part-time to look after children is acceptable, there is no social room for their partners to excel.

Niccola Phillips: Because women aren’t given the same opportunity to develop and progress as their male counterparts.

Yasmin Quemard: Creative departments are the most competitive space you'll find in an agency. Can women handle it, most
definitely, but we have a few unspoken handicaps to contend with. I simply can't compete on the vocal front. It's not for the lack of decibels but for the years of conditioning for girls to be softly spoken. If I raise my voice and ask not to be interrupted I'm often asked if I'm okay. I’m never going to shout louder or stop thinking like a woman.

What are the challenges women face in creative teams?

Jen Dobbie: If and when we disagree with feedback, being told it’s an emotional or subjective response. It may be, it may not be, but as we’re in a creative team – and if we assume we’re meeting the brief – then all reactions from everyone are subjective. Would that response ever be given to a man?

Kara Jenkins: With the lack of senior female creative mentors and role models it’s hard for women to envision themselves in a senior creative role. Managing motherhood and a senior creative position can also be difficult if you don’t have the support. Paid maternity, flexible hours or job share isn’t really the norm in most agencies. I am lucky to have found support from Isobar. I have great flexible working arrangements while I juggle being a creative director and look after my two and a half year-old twins.

Lucy Kough: [Women] are a minority group and when you are the minority you are different. It is a sweeping generalisation but men are bred to be more competitive and women more polite and collaborative. Creatives are bred in the wild. It’s one big competition and not everyone plays fair. So when that happens and women don’t conform to the environment by changing their nature, they get left behind. Women in general will be more likely to admit the stuff they don’t know or don’t have to do a job whereas men will more likely fake it through the stuff they don’t.

Kim Neidhardt: The constant pressure to be one of the boys and being wheeled into a meeting as ‘the token woman/mother’.

Niccola Phillips: I think there’s a general trend towards viewing young men as full of promise and giving them big opportunities. Whereas there seems to be the perception that young women aren’t experienced or creative enough and they are often given the small and complicated jobs. I think men are given more ‘freedom to fail’ whereas women are held accountable for mistakes along the way.

Why has there been slow progress in getting more senior women on creative teams?

Siobhan Fitzgerald: I think unconscious bias plays a much larger role than we’re aware of and that men are simply not aware of the problem. That plus lack of flexible work hours and paid parental leave.

Jen Dobbie: The same attitude that causes the issue in the first place – an ingrained belief that there isn’t an issue. It’s simply seen as women having a whine about life and being emotional about the workplace.

Lucy Kough: Women see the barriers and can’t see the success stories. They weigh it up and know the odds are against them. People assume if you go to have a baby you probably won’t come back, and if you’re pregnant, you’ve checked out. People assume you stop thinking about your career because you are about to have a child. Do people assume that of men?

Niccola Phillips: There’s no lack of enthusiasm from female creatives at entry level but I think many female creatives grow discouraged as they’re overtaken by their male peers.

What could creative directors and management do tomorrow to improve the situation?

Niccola Phillips: Give women the same opportunities and air time that you give men. Don’t wait for the ‘girl’ briefs to come through the door. Give the women the opportunity to work on everything. If women are quiet or hang back, ask them for their opinion. Don’t just ignore them.

Jen Dobbie: Be supportive. I’m currently working somewhere with a very supportive CD and management team. When negotiating my role, I explained I’d need to leave early every day to collect my daughter from day care. They discussed if they could make it work and agreed. They also avoid late afternoon client presentations and WIPs to ensure I can be there.

Yasmin Quemard: Explore beyond the world you know so you can appreciate when different perspectives come your
way. Dig how a woman thinks. Start with a book. Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman is an excellent read. My male goto- equivalent is Mark Pollard. He is constantly teaching me about the social conditioning holding males back today. This means I’m (hopefully) more empathetic when I’m faced with an alpha male in varying degrees of flight or fight mode.

Lucy Kough: Listen. What motivates a woman can be really different to a man. Create an environment where you don’t need to be a dominant personality to dominate creatively. Commit to fostering development plans for mid-weight female creatives. Show them the path to leadership and support them. Set the KPIs so that it all feels like an even playing field. The change will only come from ECDs creating a culture of diversity in their departments. Make a pact to hire a creative who is not like you, be that a female, a man who is stylistically different, or someone with different strengths to you. Commit to diversity awareness initiatives.

Kim Neidhardt: It’s easy. Come to the party. Be just as determined as the women to make it work. Stop pretending that those who spend 12 hours a day at the agency get more done/do better work than those that just get it done and go home.

Over the next five years, what could your agency and the industry do to support more women?

Yasmin Quemard: We need clients to put the pressure on agencies. If agencies don’t put in similar policies and initiatives and develop a culture that fosters gender diversity then not only do they lose talented people, they should lose clients too. When it affects the bottom line creative departments will change.

Jen Dobbie: When it comes to women with children, I think men see us as equals in terms of our capabilities at work but
forget we are doing the same job as them at work and the same work their wife does at home.

Kim Neidhardt: One agency needs to step up and create a parental leave scheme. All others will follow.

Siobhan Fitzgerald: Take affirmative action, with programs that encourage and incentivise women to stick around and rise through the ranks.

Niccola Phillips: Hire more women and more senior women. Promote senior female creatives to CDs. Invite women to speak, to judge awards and share opinion pieces.

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop me a line at

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