US gender gap certification plan – the Australian view

By Alison Lowe | 10 November 2015
Sizmek's VP of global accounts, Carolyn Bollaci weighed in.

In the wake of news that an advocacy group in the US has created its own unique answer to closing the gender gap in adland's leadership ranks, AdNews asked several Australian industry leaders what they make of the scheme and its chances of creating change.

It was at the 3% Conference, an annual event for the 3% Movement, which champions female creative talent and leadership – and so named because they had discovered just 3% of creative directors are women – that the 3% Certified plan was born.

Through it, companies can apply to be audited on their measures to generate gender balance, receiving recommendations on how to improve. If implemented, they can be certified by the group as one which has taken concrete steps to bring more women into leadership.

We spoke with CEO of NewsLifeMedia, Nicole Sheffield; co-founder and director of boutique agency, Reborn, Sabir Samtani; Sizmek vice president of global accounts, Carolyn Bollaci and UM creative director and SheSays Sydney chapter founder, Yasmin Quemard, about the idea.

Is offering a certification on gender balance going to help the adland gender divide? Could and should this be here in Australia? What do they make of this US move? And why should we even care about who's at the top?

CEO of NewsLifeMedia, Nicole Sheffield, said that ensuring more experienced and educated female workers stay in the workforce and progress to leadership positions “is in everyone's interest.”

Despite this being the case, challenges remain and Sheffield suggested that certification could play a role in turning the situation around if it helps companies differentiate themselves in a competitive labour market.

“Millennials want to join organisations that are progressive and diversified ...Organisations that are not diversified will struggle to attract and retain talent,” she said.

Sheffield said she would support the implementation of the certification program in Australia as part of the “broader system” that already exists to support greater diversity in leadership.

A mother of four, Sheffield identified childcare as the number one obstacle for women - and men - seeking to obtain top positions.

“If the cost of childcare was tax deductible, it would be the most effective way to stem the continuing and alarmingly high departure from the workforce of highly skilled women in their 30s and 40s. Vogue ran an incredibly popular feature highlighting that a female needs to earn $104k per year ($77,570 after tax), which places her in the top 1.7% of all female wage earners, just to pay for full-time in home care for her children as the hours expected of any executive are onerous and often unpredictable. I know this first hand as I worked for five years when having my children to keep my career alive, with minimal financial gain.”

Sabir Samtani, director and co-founder at boutique Sydney indie agency, describes his company as “very mixed and multicultural” with four women in management and leadership positions. He views achieving gender balance as being as good for business as it is fair.

As for a gender balance certification, Samtani says he thinks the certification idea is a good one given that many larger organisations are staffed by a “very male dominated leadership”, in part because the time when women choose to have children often coincides with what would be the time when they are reaching for their next rung on the career ladder.

“It completely coincides with when they're jumping in their career,” he said.

For smaller agencies, however, a certification and the related auditing would be harder to pursue and possibly just less relevant, Samtani proposed.

That's both because just as it might be more onerous for small agencies to put the sort of female leadership-boosting initiatives in place that some big companies, like GroupM or Facebook, have touted, and because boutique agencies are less likely to suffer from a gender gap to begin with.

“There's generally less of the hierarchy and structures and some of the history, so for us, gender equality isn't an issue. It's not something that comes up in our work environment. It's different for the big groups and agencies where there are structures and clubs that form in the hierarchy.”

Vice president of global accounts at ad tech firm Sizmek, Carolyn Bollaci, counts herself as a supporter of diversity of all types in advertising. That said, she does not necessarily see award programs that celebrate women in the industry as helpful and neither does she see outside pressure such as the 3% Movement's initiative as likely to be a successful driving factor in promoting gender balance in advertising.

“(Women in industry awards) are very complimentary and I really appreciate that they take the time to highlight women but I don't think it's doing the industry a service.”

For Bollaci, achieving greater diversity is something which should be allowed to happen organically, driven by leadership that is committed to casting their net wide for talent.

“It's a process and it takes time. I don't have any conversations ever where people say we would prefer to have a top heavy male led organisation. The mindset is there, the willingness is there, people see the benefit of having diverse work places, it's the time it takes to get that up and running and it becoming a norm. We will see more diversity as the years go by.”

A New York native, Bollaci said the “hyper competitive” nature of the industry in the US means it might be moving more quickly towards greater gender balance than in Australia.
“Not that people aren't ambitious here but people are even more hyper competitive and ambitious in the States. People aren't as hyper sensitive to it here than they are in the US. They're racing to fix this issue probably a bit faster in the us than here.”

Though she heads an organisation dedicated to closing the gender gap in the digital industry through networking, mentorship and training, Yasmin Quemard, a creative director at UM Australia and the founder of the Sydney chapter of global women's empowerment group, SheSays, quickly admits the challenge of addressing the gender gap in adland is “complex”.

But in constrast with Bollaci's “wait and see” approach, the creative director said that simply hoping “humans want to create a better workplace for humans isn't enough”. Businesses have to see the value to their bottom lines of such improvements in workplace gender representation, which is where she believes auditing and certification could play a part.

Ultimately, however, Quemard's pessimism about the possibilities under current conditions extends further. She concludes it's possible nothing will change “in our lifetimes” significantly until brands make gender balance a priority in their business – and certification alone may not make a difference.

“I think if the auditing and certification has some real tangible consequences, if for instance if Telstra say, 'You can't be on our pitch list unless you have that certification,' then we'd start to see some change. Really it would be better to see the clients driving the pressure; they've got the money. I'd love to see that.”

Until that time, SheSays has taken the approach that while it might seem insurmountable, incremental change through grassroots initiatives such as those promoted and organised by SheSays can be powerful.

“We want to focus on how each individual can do something, however small,” she said.

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