'Paradigm shift' needed to improve gender diversity in senior creative roles

Little progress has been made on improving the diversity of creative leadership—one of adland's biggest weak spots. What is required to fix this?

Feb 28, 2022 02:32:00 AM | Article | Jessica Goodfellow

Every now and then, when awards season comes around, or when a list of the most-awarded creatives of the year is released, the conversation about the gender imbalance of the creative advertising industry bubbles back up. Agency leaders and diversity advocates demand to know why, in this day and age, far more men than women are winning awards, despite all the focus the industry has put on gender diversity.

The reason for this perpetual creative gender gap is not that the industry isn't making progress in improving its gender diversity. Rather it's that the industry isn't being granular enough with its targets and initiatives.

Most agencies have achieved, or have a goal to achieve, gender balance in their organisation as a whole. Over the past few years, many recognised that working towards an equal gender split without reviewing how it shifted with seniority wasn't fixing anything, and put targets in place for senior leadership.

But very few review their gender split by discipline. As a consequence, little progress has been made on fixing industries or functions that skew male at a senior level, like creative and technology. A gender imbalance in creative awards reflects the fact that the vast majority of executive creative directors and chief creative officers continue to be male.

Fixing this isn't as simple promoting or hiring more women into senior creative roles, according to industry leaders that Campaign Asia-Pacific interviewed about this issue. There are deep-rooted biases and stereotypes within the creative industry that need to be addressed for women to feel respected. 

Campaign spoke with three agency leaders in APAC who are passionate about improving the representation of women in creative leadership, to see what initiatives they have put in place, and what actions others in the industry can take so we're not still having this conversation in a few years' time.

This piece is part of a series of articles that will explore gender imbalances and biases that continue to plague the industry in anticipation of International Women's Day in March.

Campaign: Is enough focus being put towards women in creative roles, in existing diversity initiatives in APAC?

Natalie Lam, chief creative officer of APAC and MEA, Publicis Groupe

Absolutely not. I think it’s a bigger and deeper cultural challenge. Many countries in Asia are still patriarchal societies with deep-rooted beliefs and behavioral codes for man and woman, I’m even encountering that with my own family, and not surprisingly this is common in our industries. For those who know me, I’m not a confrontational person nor a hardcore feminist in any shape or form, but I find a lot of ideas about gender are quite outdated in our societies, unfortunately. I go simply by “do I want to be treated like this?”

To create systematic change we need to 1. start with widespread awareness that there is indeed a problem, and 2. take actions. Unfortunately, a lot of times people are so unaware, they are tone-deaf to the issues even if you hold them up in front of them. We need to start there as the most important initiative.  

Tuomas Peltoniemi, EVP and managing director APAC, RGA
 
I would love to be able to say yes to this, but we're not seeing enough visible shifts across the industry. This topic has been front-and-centre in industry conversations for at least the last 10 years, but the fact that this debate still exists proves that not enough is currently being done to create actionable change in diversity, equity and inclusion.
 
Hannah Melanson, copy director, Digitas ANZ
 
The keyword here is ‘enough’. And, unfortunately, the simple answer is no. There’s no doubt we’re seeing improvements in diversity initiatives across the board in APAC, but if ‘enough’ was being done, the results would be more than marginal increases year-on-year.

We work in an industry where agencies multiply their revenue, expand their teams and win new business with eye-watering success rates, taking home awards for their triumphs in the process. So, why is the success of our diversity initiatives—and the elevation of female creative leadership—incremental at best?

The solution we need goes well beyond bridging the pay gap or overhauling the hiring process. The solution we need is a paradigm shift.

What is your agency doing to tackle this issue?

Lam:

Actively building awareness to change unconscious bias, calling out behaviors in our own interactions, and calling out unfair stereotypes portrayed in our own work. The important thing is also to explain why, instead of just calling things out, so everyone leaves with a thorough understanding.

We’re building a female creative mentorship program to groom high potential, mid- to senior-level female creatives across APAC and MEA  in two ways: career development and creativity development. I’ve seen too many cases where a female creative gets hired or put in high positions simply because someone needs to fill a quota, instead of making sure the skill set fits the position. That’s not setting up anyone for success. For the near future I want to move towards more female representation in the creative disciplines with great work to back up their positions; for the long term, I wish we’d never need to pay attention to gender again but can purely focus on the work. 

In the US, Publicis Groupe has committed to seven concrete actions including investment of €45 million in DEI efforts and social justice over three years. Similar plans are being launched in other regions. We’ll be able to learn from our most successful initiatives in other markets, see where we are making progress, and identify where we need to focus our energy to drive further change. 

Peltoniemi:

We continue to ensure we consider a diverse shortlist for every open hire and every internal promotion. This is built into our hiring approvals process. We also have an annual pay-equity process in place to ensure there are no diversity biases in our compensation across the region.

But it's not enough to make hires and promotions for a diverse workforce. RGA needs to be a place where everyone feels equally seen, heard and empowered. To this end we have multiple programs in place, such as our homegrown WomanUp program, which provides a monthly forum for Women to support each other in their leadership journey. We have also run our RGAiD program for a number of years to promote acceptance, diversity, and equity in the workplace through awareness programs, training workshops and other initiatives. In addition we provide executive coaching to support women on their leadership journey. We are far from perfect, but our motto is progress over perfection, and we continue to make changes into everything we do to ensure equity at RGA.

Melanson:

In my seven-year tenure at Digitas I’ve seen several initiatives undertaken to support diversity and inclusion, both by the agency and Publicis Groupe, including the creation of an APAC-wide female creative championship program I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.

The Groupe is also currently engaging inclusion expert Winitha Bonney to help our agencies understand how we can lift the number of female creatives in senior roles, including a deep dive research piece to inform specific programs that will ultimately make Publicis and its agencies a hub for female creatives.

Importantly, Publicis has started looking beyond the impacts for our employees alone, becoming a founding member of UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance in Australia—an industry-led initiative that aims to tackle harmful stereotypes in advertising and ensure diversity is a priority throughout the entire creative process—an important step not just for the people who create the work, but for those who consume it.

What’s one action you would like to see agencies take to address this issue?

Lam:

Start with the very basics of respect. I don’t think once you have a big title you’re above everyone else. You need to be even more relevant to justify a fancy title, and be open to learn from everyone. To change and succeed, we need everyone on board, men and women. I hate to say it, boys club + ego really doesn’t make it easy for female creatives. Let’s start by going straight to the work instead of letting attitude get in the way. 

I'm now working at an organisation where, at a global level, 50% of our workforce is female and 40% of our key leaders are women, although less so in creative roles—I won’t hide. We’re working actively to improve on that, not because we need to meet a quota, but because true diversity makes the work better. We’d like to be a place where we’re known as the best place for female creatives to work in the near future, and somewhere down the road, a place for all great creatives to work, period. 

Peltoniemi:

A great way to empower women to take on more senior positions at agencies, while being able to have a say in work-life balance, is to create an environment that is truly flexible. At RGA we have a "you do you" policy, which is now permanently in place globally. Employees are not required to return to the office, and people get to decide where and how they want to work.  We believe this will go a long way in creating a more equitable workplace, and in creating more opportunities for women to advance their careers without compromising other areas in their lives.

Melanson:

The amount of anecdotal evidence demonstrating the lack of female creative leadership is far reaching—but there is a noticeable absence of detail when it comes to the data. If agencies began approaching the problem with the same fervour and fidelity as they do for their biggest clients, I think the numbers would have their own stories to tell.

Imagine if individual agencies actively monitored the data at every stage in the journey from junior through to senior leadership. We can’t pinpoint the pain points of a woman’s experience in creative advertising on anecdotes alone. If we want to create meaningful change in our industry, we need to first understand how and where we’re failing women.

The first-hand accounts we share with each other as female leaders will always be an essential forum, but the power to drive measurable and meaningful impact is in the data.

(This article first appeared on CampaignAsia.com)