Parenting Pay Gap Agency Culture

‘It’s eye-wateringly difficult’: rising childcare costs are forcing parents out of adland


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

June 14, 2022 | 10 min read

Rising childcare fees coupled with the cost of living crisis are pushing working parents out of advertising.


Parents across the UK are being locked out of work by rising childcare costs / Aaron Burden, Unsplash

Last week’s IPA report shone a spotlight on the increasing number of women opting to go freelance or part-time, compounding the poor pay gap figures for the industry. The Drum takes a look at why childcare continues to hold the industry back from achieving its diversity targets.

Sarah Hesz spent a decade in advertising. She rose from managing accounts at agencies like Lowe and Chi&Partners to running marketing at VCCP and Arnold Worldwide, eventually steering the new business division at Mcgarrybowen where she was also deputy managing director. But the difficulties she encountered as a new parent balancing life with agency work eventually drove her away from the industry completely.

“There were a lot of things that made it extremely hard to be a working parent in a new business agency,” she tells The Drum. “No one ever prepares you.”

Now she is co-founder of Mush, a social app for mums, and chief commercial officer at Bubble, an app that connects working parents with on-demand childcare services. And, having forged agency connections in her early career, she has ensured the latter is now being used by agencies in creative industries, with the likes of R/GA and Creature signing up for the service.

“I now work in childcare, so I know exactly how businesses can help support their employees,” she says.

While she believes attitudes towards working parents are improving (“there’s a better understanding of work-life balance, and potentially more women in senior leadership roles setting examples than there were when I left six or seven years ago”), she says one thing that hasn’t improved is the cost of childcare (”indeed, it has gotten worse”).

What’s the issue?

Childcare costs have gone up by 3.5% for three- to four-year-olds over the last year, while parents are paying 2.5% more for under-twos according to research by the Coram Family and Childcare.

The survey also highlighted stark regional disparities in cost and childcare availability. Just 30% of councils in the east of England say they have enough childcare for under-twos, while the cost of 25 hours of nursery childcare for under-twos is 50% higher in inner London.

Ellen Broomé is the managing director of Coram. She says the results indicate that “many parents up and down the country will be locked out of work or struggle to make ends meet as childcare prices continue to go up and the availability of places goes down”.

This situation will ring true for many working across the UK’s creative industries. The IPA’s 2021 census, which charts employment levels across the UK, indicated a sharp increase in freelance and part-time workers on agency payrolls – more than double the number of 2020. There are now an estimated 1,242 women in a part-time role, compared with the 1,037 reported in 2020.

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Then there are the women dropping out of the industry altogether. Non-profit She Runs recently surveyed 50 companies, including Publicis, WPP, Unilever and Dow Jones. It found female representation at marketing, media and tech companies had dropped nearly 10% in 2021. Likely this is because advertising has emphasized getting people back in the office more than other industries due to the value it places on in-person collaboration, says She Runs.

The result is a 23.3% gender pay gap in favor of men, up from the 22.7% recorded in 2020.

One factor behind these stark statistics is the sharp rise in the cost of living and the knock-on effect of increased childcare costs, which are adding increasing pressure on working parents – especially working mothers.

“After one child, you’re already facing tough choices when going back to work – from emotional to logistical to financial,“ says Amy Bryson, chief marketing officer and managing partner at Iris. “But this becomes eye-wateringly difficult when you have more children. That means making real day-to-day compromises that can result in a step back in your quality of life.“

What can be done?

To combat the lack of accessible, affordable childcare, industry leaders told The Drum that, as we emerge from the pandemic, flexible working remains essential to accommodate the needs of working parents.

While the IPA census confirms that many agencies in adland are shifting towards more flexible working (over 85% of agencies indicate that, following Covid-19, they would be adopting a hybrid approach), businesses now have a responsibility to convert the learnings of the last two years into “watertight policies,” says Bryson.

“Simply put, there is no excuse anymore as even the most toughened cynics have been masterfully outplayed by the evidence the last 24 months have given us.”

However, as Kate Thrumble, executive director of talent at R/GA, emphasizes, flexibility is not a one-size-fits-all policy. “Circumstances can vary greatly from person to person, with different layers of complexity,“ she says.

“The last two years have really taught us the need to look at everyone’s circumstances differently and to continue building a more human future for our employees – one based on real human needs. We recognize more than ever that life can throw the unexpected at us, but it can be easy to generalize the term ‘working parents’ and put everyone inside the same bracket.”

For some, this will look like flexible core hours and non-mandatory office days. As Kevin Joyner, director of data solutions at Croud, explains, he finishes work at 3:30pm on the days he takes charge of school drop-offs. “This means making up for it with a somewhat early start of 8am and working the one-and-a-half hour train journey to and from work. However, it’s what works for me and my family.

“This allows me to create a lot of value for my company and our clients, without the need for me to compromise on my role as a parent.”

However, for those situations where plans have to change, Thrumble points out that emergency childcare funds can also make a significant difference.

“At R/GA, we have also now signed up for a fantastic initiative called Bubble, offering parents £300 a year to spend towards last-minute childcare issues, and if that works well as a resource we will be looking to increase this amount,” she said.

At M&C Saatchi Group, two new initiatives have been announced to aid working parents, including a centralized booking system and specialist content platform provided by Bright Horizons that will assist staff in accessing emergency care within two hours, whether they need in-home childcare, nursery care, a childminder, a holiday club or an eldercare specialist.

Accommodating the unexpected is crucial, says James Wigley, chief commercial officer at Jungle Creations. “My intentions for the first few weeks following the birth of my daughter were pretty standard as a secondary caregiver – take a couple of weeks and then return to work as normal as soon as possible.

“However, my daughter’s complicated birth resulted in me being the primary caregiver to our baby for the first six weeks, but thanks to Jungle’s extended period of leave and flexible approach to working, I was able to be fully present for my family when they needed me most.

“Parental policies are not something people generally consider until they have an immediate impact on a person’s life. And so when my family needed compassionate policies, it was incredibly comforting to know that Jungle had forward-thinking initiatives in place to support us.”

Wigley also implores that flexible parenting policies should be tied in with wider compassionate policies that support parents not just after birth and during childcare, but also “for couples grieving a miscarriage or going through IVF”.

In order to meaningfully address the soaring cost of childcare, agencies must proactively listen to workers and ensure they are advocating for an equitable, modern and family-friendly workplace by implementing robust policies to accommodate flexibility and help employees navigate the pressures of work and family life. If they don’t, they risk losing talent and contributing to wider disparities in gender pay equality.

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