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How to find, promote and keep your female creative directors

Walk into most any creative department you’ll find an interesting mix of people at play. Amid the hipster neckbeards and asymmetrical haircuts is a hive of talent, enjoying the demands and the freedoms of the job. You may also notice an equal balance of men and women creating together.

Jump up one rung or two on the corporate ladder, to a creative director position, and the picture changes dramatically. It becomes more homogenized – lots of bald, white guys with glasses. I have held the position of creative director and, though not bald, I am a white guy and I do wear glasses. The lack of female representation in leadership roles is not news – especially in our industry.

Unfortunately, it shows. According to research by The Terry & Sandy Solution, a startling 91 per cent of women don’t think advertisers truly understand them. Think about how that number could shift if we had more females leading the work.

So, what can be done? For starters, we can all do more to keep our female talent. We can make it ridiculously hard for talented women to leave and, if they do opt out, we can do more to bring them back. Our industry needs them!

Most agencies aren’t creating a working environment that understands how women work. An atmosphere where women are prized, respected and understood becomes a building block of a more stable, sustainable and enjoyable place to work. If women believe they have to choose between work and family, most women will defer advancement and more responsible roles at work in favor of family.

But some agencies are ahead of the curve, making positive changes to diversify their creative teams. Some are adopting Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Returning Talent program by helping women re-enter the workforce after caring for family. Digital agency Possible changed pay structures, added flexible working hours and extended parental hours to retain female talent. And Deutsch NY has been reported to have 38 per cent women at the partner level. You may also notice my firm’s Executive creative director is a female (@tessatinney). That’s no accident.

It’s not just the company responsible for the imbalance. It’s up to women to make behavioral changes as well. Entrepreneur and ex-ad honcho Cindy Gallop says foster an environment where women in all positions can accelerate diversity by speaking their mind. Women, more than men, are reluctant to speak up with an opposing or out-of-the-box opinion for fear of mockery or ridicule. Gallop suggests women break down stereotypes on their own because: “If nobody speaks up, nothing changes… Just say what you think. Because it’s easy, and you can, and good things will happen.”

Gallop also recommends “communication through demonstration”, asking women to find opportunities to take action for the benefit of women. She says: “Make your best possible point through action.”

The micro-steps that women take on their own will eventually provide a macro-result: gender balance, perhaps even female dominance in our industry. But when only 11 per cent of creative directors are women, there’s still a long journey ahead.

To get there requires a cultural shift, according to gender intelligence expert, Barbara Annis. To start that shift, leadership needs to consider and act on:

1. Commitment without concession

You may say you want to achieve gender balance, but whether or not that actually happens is dependent upon how much it matters to you. This clarity of your intention is the first step in creating any kind of measurable change.

2. Being conscious of unconscious bias

We all have predilections that weigh in on our decisions to hire and promote. Without exposing and understanding them, we are destined to do what we know and what’s comfortable. When it’s a boy’s club at the top, it’s easier to bring people into the fold who look like you, act like you, think like you. Smart organizations will see the benefit of multiple perspectives.

3. Studying the wiring

The physical differences between men and women are obvious, and we are just as different on the inside. Women simply process information differently, brainstorm differently, and—put in leadership roles – would likely run things differently. Savvy companies understand these neuro-biological differences, and are smart to build teams from a foundation of diversity.

4. Mentorship and sponsorship can help right the ship

Women too often shy away from leadership positions simply because they don’t think they can manage it. Mentorship programs are a pragmatic solution, helping to provide women with the practical skills (and confidence) required to handle extra responsibility. And sponsorship programs designed in conjunction with mentorship can also be helpful. A sponsor is usually a high-level leader within the organization who helps to increase a woman’s network and credibility within the organization.

5. Love moms

Women are opting out, choosing not to compromise their precious time with family by taking on the extreme demands of a creative director position. Create the vision that female leaders can grow, advance, and keep their positions if they have families. This is not an unusual request today. Even men, including vice president Joe Biden and potential speaker of the house Paul Ryan, are putting family first.

6. Don’t just add numbers

Artificially flooding leadership positions with women is empty. You risk putting under-qualified candidates into vital roles and enduring criticism from talent you may want to keep and promote. The goal is to make gender-intelligent choices, assess talent accurately, and to move beyond making convenient choices.

7. Meritocracies are not enough

We can talk about promotion based on ability, but the destructiveness of gender bias (see #2) plays a more subtle yet more significant factor in how women climb the corporate ladder.

And remember, transformation begins with leadership. Culture change starts at the highest levels and works its way through an organization by education, training and action. More balanced leadership requires patience, persistence and a constant reminder of what’s in the best interests of the client, and their customer.

Greg Monaco is a founding partner of Monaco Lange

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