Lindsay Pattison: Is the gender gap in the advertising business genuinely closing?

Lindsay Pattison

One of the greatest privileges of my job and role at WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications, London) is the opportunity to spend time with incredibly inspiring women.

At a recent WPP Women in Leadership Day the mighty Charlotte Beers spoke about how she’d “always rather be in charge”. This got me thinking about our industry, and whether it truly supports the most ambitious among us to realise our goals.

At first glance, the IPA Agency Census stats make for bleak reading. Women make up 50 per cent of our overall workforce but while we start out in advertising with a 50/50 split, this gender balance shifts massively as just 25 per cent of women hold the most senior positions.

That’s not to say things aren’t improving – they definitely are. The number of women in other executive roles has shot up in just one year from 29.5 per cent to 37.1 per cent. And we are actually better at getting women on boards than business more broadly, with 23 per cent in our top 100 companies and no all-male boards; although women tend to largely hold non-executive director roles.

What WACL would love to see now is greater visibility to represent the significant and growing number of senior female voices in our industry. Given that women now account for 37.1 per cent of senior level positions and that 50 per cent of the total industry are women, you’d expect the representation of women across the sector to be somewhere between the two figures.

Our brilliant VP Lindsey Clay has taken the time to keep a record of how this stacks up and alarmingly, the men-to-women ratio across a sample of trade media, articles, events and awards averaged at 77:23. We must do better. One woman on a panel of four is not enough. And asking a token woman with just two weeks to go in a moment of panic? Just not good enough!

A lingering problem – and not just in our in business – is unconscious bias, the deeply ingrained beliefs, assumptions and thought patterns that can inhibit women from achieving their goals. Although just attributing this to the unconscious attitudes of men may be too simplistic; women often hold themselves back. A lack of self-belief can be our own worst enemy.

On the positive side, it is an issue that forward-thinking organisations (including WPP) are looking to address with training initiatives. Another empowering option is for women to strive to close what I perceive as a ‘confidence gap’. The casual slights of a male-dominated industry are still definitely lurking – from the subtleties of boardroom body language to the often alarmingly sexist banter heard everywhere from golf jollies to the canteen.

A perception issue lingers as our societal norm still dictates that women do and should by default collaborate, seek consensus and stay quieter than our male counterparts. And we tend to stick together in male-dominated settings, because it’s easier. And who can blame us? Women face a penalty for assertiveness. Academic research from the US finds that women ask for $7,000 less when negotiating on their own behalf than when negotiating on behalf of someone else. It’s disheartening, on the eve of International Women’s Day, to discover that women globally earn 77 per cent of the amount paid to men.

Women can counter this by learning the art of carrying confidence – a nuanced skill. Techniques include knowing when to use silence vs when to project, how to diffuse tension or, conversely, how to thrive in the heat of debate.

The parameters are unfortunately different for women and men, so the advice often becomes confusing. When does confidence become arrogance? When does assertiveness cross the line to make people feel uncomfortable? What, and where is the line?

One thing I am certain of is that we must build and nurture confidence, we must 'walk the talk' and be visible, we should speak up and challenge any persisting gender inequalities and that often means being brave, taking a deep breath and ‘diving’ right in to the gap.

Lindsay Pattison is worldwide CEO of Maxus and president of WACL

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