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Amid all the comment and statistics you’ll be presented on International Women’s Day, I thought I’d share some wider context and reasons for optimism about the position of women in the business of media, marketing and advertising.
Following decades of being marginalised, the role of women in advertising has never been so high on the agenda; both in terms of portrayals in ads themselves and within the agencies behind them.
Last year saw the launch of the Glass Lion in Cannes to celebrate progressive work in the field of gender representation, with Proctor & Gamble’s Touch the Pickle a taboo-smashing inaugural Grand Prix winner.
In the UK, there are a number of well-supported groups helping to change perceptions and provide inspiration and support, with arguably the most high-profile being Wacl (Women in Advertising and Communications London).
The power and scope of Wacl was brought home to me last year when I attended an event with keynote speaker Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister.
Speaking just weeks before the country went to the ballot box, in what everyone believed to be the closest run general election in many years, and where the only certainty was that Clegg and his party were set to be publicly humiliated, it was the hottest lunch in town.
In a disarmingly personal and well-received speech, Clegg admitted his Wacl appearance was not part of his hectic, pre-election schedule, but had proved to be “very hard to turn down” – thanks in no small part to having reached him via his wife and acclaimed lawyer, Miriam Durántez, who had friends in the club.
It was another great event, and while doing little to insulate poor Clegg, helped raise money for charity and served to underline how influential adland’s women really are.
Of course, there remains plenty to do. According to the latest IPA Census, women still only account for 27 per cent of senior executives at management level in advertising (chair/CEO/managing director or partner), and 38 per cent of all other executive management positions.
But the industry should feel proud of how far it has come; just 10 years earlier, these figures were a mere 15 per cent and 27 per cent respectively.
It’s particularly exciting to see senior female executives nearing 30 per cent representation. Research suggests that 30 per cent is the magic number; being the point at which a group stops being viewed as a minority and can start to exert real systemic and cultural impact.
The direction of travel is set, and women in advertising already set the bar to which many sectors now aspire.
At Bloomberg Media we work closely with the financial sector, where the gender gap is alarming and makes even adland of 10 years ago seem progressive: a mere 19 per cent of leadership roles are held by women, and just 4 per cent of CEOs.
A 2014 Oliver Wyman report came to the rather unsurprising conclusion that the financial services sector has an image problem, especially among women.
It stated: “The idea that financial services is a macho, male-dominated industry has been perpetuated by the sector’s portrayal by Hollywood (think Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street), and reinforced by the 'laddish' tone of some recent high-profile scandals.”
Bloomberg Media Studios has been working with Starcom MediaVest Group and Poke to explore the challenges faced by women in economics as part of a UBS campaign to spark meaningful debate in the sector.
We interviewed professors, researchers and leaders in finance and science and found the problem starts early in schools, with boys still far more likely to pursue mathematics related subjects than girls.
The late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom (who remains the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Economics, amidst 75 men) spoke publicly about her own struggles against the impediments of the system. She had been actively discouraged from taking any PhD, not least one in economics.
The picture has improved since Ostrom’s day, with the number of women taking STEM studies – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – rising from single digits to more than 30 per cent.
However, there is now growing concern around the huge numbers of potentially brilliant women who simply disappear from academic and commercial roles as careers progress. At the London School of Economics, for example, around 50 per cent of all female economists drop out before reaching professor level.
Those we spoke with attributed this so-called leaky pipe to a mix of social and systemic pressure points that are heightened during popular child rearing years.
It’s a worrying situation for an influential field that has far-reaching implications and help shape government policies.
The problem is heightened once you consider that many female economists specialise in important areas of economics not so keenly explored by their male counterparts, such as family, labour and inequality.
Attempts are being made to combat the problem, with trials of more flexible working practices and better data on the women who enter and leave the sector.
The European Economics Committee has launched the Women in Economics (WinE) Committee. Like Wacl, this is a self-funded organisation, driven by women in the sector, with the focus on helping to build supportive networks, mentoring and information sharing.
Unlike 94-year-old Wacl, WinE is barely a decade old and has yet to touch the sides of the many challenges that lie ahead.
For the economists we spoke with, the success of clubs like Wacl in setting the agenda and inspiring positive change is viewed as a beacon of hope.
And finance is not alone in needing inspiration; in the burgeoning tech sector only 17 per cent of tech specialists are women, according to the Chartered Institute for IT.
Across all sectors, Britain’s biggest companies in the FTSE 100 are at an all-time high of 26 per cent female representation in their boardrooms, but this shrinks to less than 10 per cent in the roles of chief executive, chief finance officer and chairmanship.
A diverse workforce is undoubtedly a healthy work force, and makes business sense too.
According to a McKinsey report, companies across all sectors with the most women on their boards of directors significantly and consistently outperform those with no female representation – by 41 per cent in terms of return on equity, and by 56 per cent in terms of operating result (more detail here).
Of course, this is no time for complacency. There remains plenty for women in advertising to still overcome to achieve parity; as Wacl president Lindsey Clay reminded us in October, the industry still fails to offer equal pay (with the pay gap currently getting wider).
But we should be proud to be part of an industry making such gains towards the rather humble aim of treating half of the population as equals.
Arif Durrani is Bloomberg Media's commercial editor for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Read Bloomberg's report, Why the odds remained stacked against female economists, and follow Arif on Twitter @DurraniMix
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