The female perspective: Google, Maxus Global, Wunderman and others on why the industry needs 'real' gender diversity

Senior female industry leaders recently came together as part of a roundtable held by The Drum in association with Critical Mass to discuss the under-representation of women in key roles, and put forward their ideas for change.

There is a truism at the heart of the ad, tech and digital industries that too few women occupy senior leadership and managerial roles.

While huge strides have been made in addressing women’s rights, from enhanced maternity pay to flexible working and board representation, women are still woefully under-represented in key roles in development, planning and creative – they make up just 13 per cent of developers at Airbnb, for example.

The Drum, together with experience design agency Critical Mass, brought together a group of senior female industry leaders to discuss the issue and attempt to construct a charter for change. The consensus however was that emphasis had to move from women’s rights to lobbying for change for all: to create a modern, flexible workforce and to showcase technology as a great career choice from primary school upwards.

Ultimately, a more female-friendly industry is more diverse and more appealing to everyone. The discussion was summarised by the need to focus more on women’s success in business, rather than how successful women can ‘juggle it all’.

As digital consultant Julie Dodd, who has held both UX director and creative director roles at companies like the BBC and Zone, says: “My experience of being part of a conversation [about women] is that on the one hand it is extremely positive, but we have done a bad job of engaging men. When I talk about this with male counterparts there’s that ‘roll of the eyes’. We have created a cutoff point and we need to re-engage.”

Alicia Navarro, chief executive and founder of ad tech firm Skimlinks, says she personally has benefited from being in the minority. “All of my life I have been one of a few women in the room,” she says. “It’s offered me a great deal of opportunity. My experience of technology is it’s been very welcoming of women and very much a meritocracy.”

Yet her experience is not necessarily the norm, with others recalling how their careers stalled after having children, how colleagues have been omitted from pitches for being ‘too questioning’ and how women – more than men – suffer from a lack of confidence and a need to achieve perfection before asking for a raise.

Critical Mass chief executive Dianne Wilkins points to the “drop-off” in women between junior and senior management. At Omnicom around half the people on its advocate management programme are women, yet by the senior management programme only 20 per cent are. Some of this is due to women leaving the workplace to have children and not returning in significant numbers at that senior level.

Part of the problem may stem from working in a time-based economy when companies today should be looking at other measures of success. Catriona Campbell, director of Seren, points to innovative brands such as Wonga-owned Everline, which has scrapped set holidays and working hours. It has restructured its business around what motivates its staff and has seen retention rates soar, she says.

Jenny Smith, strategy and planning director at Maxus, also points out the danger of not changing the way that things are done simply because that’s how they’ve always been done. “Sometimes that path has been developed by men and as a woman it’s not as easy to walk. There are hurdles, a difference of experiences.”

Google UK head of marketing Nishma Robb suggests that it’s not just a matter of the ratio of women in key roles but their behaviours. “Women sometimes struggle to speak up or be heard, to not be talked over and interrupted. We know this is a challenge for women so just having a good balance of women is not enough.” It’s something that resonates with Lauren Pleydell-Pearce, creative director at Wunderman. “Confidence is a really, really important point. When I was younger women strove to be perfect before asking for a raise, yet guys only had to be about 43 per cent happy with their work before asking for one.”

Mentoring should be encouraged to help with this she suggests, though she “strongly disagrees” with female-only mentorship programmes. Smith says that for today’s chief executive, the watch-out is that new entrants will not look like them (white and male) so the well-worn paths of progression will no longer be interesting, motivating or practical – either for women or, increasingly, their male counterparts.

Amaze chief executive Natalie Gross adds: “The fact is there’s a problem and there are many more things we could do to change that problem. It’s about getting women into the workplace. Most people are around this table because of an underlining issue of representation in our industry and how we go about changing that. We all have a responsibility whether that’s being a role model or influencing government or industry policy.”

Real change, they say, will not come from the positive discrimination or setting of quotas; the way to enact change and ensure ‘real’ diversity is to make the digital industry an exciting and progressive career choice for everyone.

That job needs to start in schools, says Tiffany St James, co-founder of digital and social media agency Transmute, Ted speaker and former head of social media for the UK government, who believes real strides are being made through coding for kids programmes in schools, with more and more (though not yet half) girls getting involved.

Navarro questions whether girls always need to want to go into technology and digital over other industries, adding that a real, thorough overview of the many options available should be produced and circulated to schools, universities and career services.

As Sara Jones, senior lecturer at City University London’s Computer Sciences department, advises: “There may be differences [in the career choices of men and women] but there needs to be a quality of opportunity.”

It’s time, says Campbell, a rare female Bima Hall of Fame inductee, for women to stand up and be true role models: not for being able to juggle work and home, but for being great at their jobs. “How many women are putting their stories out there? And what are those stories?” she asks. “I don’t want to tell the ‘juggling’ story all the time.”

Navarro concurs: “It often feels forced. That’s when the men roll their eyes. I want to inspire women because I’m the best at what I do rather than because I’m a woman.

“We’re sometimes guilty of perpetrating the problem by making it feel like its men’s fault. We need allies, not victims.”

Roundtable Participants

Dianne Wilkins, chief executive, Critical Mass

Jen Smith, head of strategy and planning, Maxus Global

Tiffany St James, co-founder, Transmute

Catriona Campbell, director, Seren

Nishma Robb, commercial marketing lead, Google, and community lead for women@Google

Julie Dodd, consultant

Sara Jones, senior lecturer, City University London

Lauren Pleydell-Pearce, creative director, Wunderman

Alicia Navarro, chief executive, Skimlinks

Natalie Gross, chief executive, Amaze

This feature was first published in The Drum's special Cannes issue, guest edited by Maurice Lévy.

Photography by Bronac McNeill

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