A media answer to media's diversity problem?

21 Jan 2019  |  Erika Mari 
A media answer to media's diversity problem?

Bountiful Cow's Erika Mari reflects on the disappointing results of this year's IPA diversity survey and the concerns she has as a 35 year old woman working in the advertising industry

I’ve worked in media for 12 years, and spent a lot of time thinking about how far I can progress as a woman, what future opportunities will be open to me, and at what cost.

While the IPA’s latest diversity survey shows that 52.6% of all staff across media and creative agencies are female, that figure drops to 32.7% in leadership roles. And if we look at ethnicity or age diversity in our industry, the picture is even worse.

Aren’t we meant to be the consumer experts? To grow our clients’ business, we have to understand their diverse audiences. Why, then, wouldn’t we create a workforce more representative of the people we are trying to influence?

Over 85% of purchases and purchase decisions are made by women, and we have a rapidly-growing over-50 population. Forty percent of all Londoners - where most of our agencies are based - are non-white… yet when we look around, we predominantly see young, white, metro men. This matters.

Gender and ethnic diversity drive profit and, at a time when network agencies are struggling with transparency and challenges to their business models, it’s odd this fact hasn’t prompted faster change.

We need to get a more diverse range of people interested in media in the first place; to hire, grow and retain a diverse workforce through their careers; and get better diversity in senior leadership roles.

So if MediaCom’s Karen Blackett or Amplify’s Pippa Glucklich represent a ‘conversion’, then what does the rest of the diversity sales funnel look like?

Awareness - even more platforms for diverse spokespeople

It would be unfair to lay all the blame on business leaders. I’d like to see the national media do even more to give more column inches and airtime to female leaders.

Initiatives like the government-backed apprenticeship scheme or the Women of Tomorrow Awards are barely mentioned outside the confines of the trade press. Our female leaders are undertaking trailblazing work, so let’s do a better job of selling our story nationally, so the female leaders of tomorrow can feel inspired.

Now he’s left WPP, will the media still turn to Sir Martin Sorrell at Davos 2019 this week or is there room for someone else? Perhaps Nigel Vaz, who recently became the IPA’s first BAME president, will have a more active role in representing the sector.

Consideration - Removing bias when promoting and hiring

When interviewing or promoting we’re drawn to people similar to ourselves – in gender, age, background, skill set.

We have to make a conscious effort to identify personal unconscious biases and actively push against them when making decisions. With a c-suite that’s predominantly white and male this is even more important.

Conscious biases are different - we know about these but are unlikely to ever admit them. One that particularly counts against women of a certain age or life stage, is that they might ‘go off and have (another) baby’.

Is this a problem of perception or reality? The answer lies not in criticising leaders for their conscious biases, but fixing the issues that underpin them. Tackling these problems starts with their acceptance and this needs brave leaders.

This means promoting and actively encouraging the right work/life balance for both men and women - things like flexible working hours - and not offer it with one hand whilst taking it away with the other through judgement and discrimination.

We need better back-to-work programmes for women who return from maternity leave, to avoid any suggestion that the ‘time off’ has impacted their performance or productivity, or whether they remain as committed to their roles.

And finally, ageism. In Campaign’s ageism feature last year, Nicola Kemp wrote that “if you look around your average London creative shop, you would be forgiven for believing that women simply shrivel up and turn to dust after the age of 35”… which made me laugh, before remembering I’m 35.

There are inspirational strong female leaders, such as Karen Blackett, Verica Djurdjevic, Philippa Brown, Pippa Glucklich, Satin Reid, Tess Alps and Jenny Biggam, who have proved that it is possible to progress and exist meaningfully in adland beyond 35.

Consideration - think proof and potential when promoting, and mind your language

We need to have an equal judging criteria for men and women when hiring or promoting.

Women are conditioned to only apply for jobs they believe themselves already qualified to do, whilst men tend apply for jobs that will stretch them and they believe they can grow into.

In a 2017 interview, actor and writer Sharon Horgan said: “I guess the advice is just be a pushy cow, don’t be afraid to learn on the job. Men aren’t afraid to do that.” Whilst I agree with her, it bothers me that women should be perceived as ‘pushy cows’ for showing the same level of drive, passion and determination to progress as men.

The end result is generations of women, who start off feeling encouraged to be as ambitious as their male counterparts (during education), quickly start doubting themselves after entering the workforce, lose confidence and start to question their capabilities.

This is why two-thirds of women reported ‘imposter syndrome’ in the last 12 months. The implications of the obstacles that women face in the workplace are huge, and cyclical. Oh and let’s not forget the overwhelming guilt in feeling that we aren’t good daughters, friends, mothers, partners etc.

Conversion - measure success, optimise, repeat

The good news is that the industry is very ‘aware’ of why there is so much inequality in the workplace, and industry bodies, agencies and media owners have developed processes and programmes to try and turn things around. However, given we are still well off hitting our targets, perhaps more needs be done to regularly evaluate and develop best practice for such programmes. Perhaps then we’ll find out how to fix our leaky leadership diversity funnel.

At Bountiful Cow I can proudly say that I am part of a senior leadership team which is 50% female, but it is so much easier to get it right when starting from scratch, than trying to turnaround a mature business. As we grow we will need to work hard, and be honest with ourselves, to ensure we can maintain equality.


Erika Mari is client baroness, Bountiful Cow

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