WPP's gender problem: proof that the same old isn't working anymore

This year, by law, all public companies in the UK with more than 250 employees must report their salaries by gender and identify the pay gaps. WPP released their report yesterday and to say it wasn’t pretty is an understatement. It is glaring to see it on paper and hold it out finally as irrefutable evidence of everything we have believed to be true, but could never point to as fact.

The easy thing to do here is to slam WPP for letting this go on for as long as it has. The sad reality is that I am sure they are not alone in having these kinds of discrepancies in pay between genders. (I can only imagine what the discrepancies would be across ethnicities.)

The fact is that these numbers highlight two very important issues in the gender imbalance of the industry: 1) the lack of female representation at the executive levels where the salaries are considerably higher and 2) the sheer number of women at the lowest levels who never make it to the executive level. To me, that continues to be the crux of the issue. How do we insure that we create a workplace that is not only gender balanced "by the numbers," but gender balanced in fair and equal career paths based on human needs.

On the same day of the release of this report, Cindy Gallop tweeted an anonymous message that she had received from a senior level agency mother detailing the line of questioning she was subjected to in a recent interview: “Is your child in daycare? Do you have family to support you and call on? How old is your child? Do you still breastfeed? You know they always get sick?” This was the 4th agency interview that had basically gone from the same script. Four different agencies.

COME ON! Do we really believe that this is an appropriate line of questioning for someone with many years experience who is willing to put in the work? Do we really believe that in this day and age, women haven’t figured out how to manage their home life and still deliver the highest quality product? Would we ever, EVER, ask a man this same line of questions in an interview? And, we wonder why we lose so many women from the entry-level ranks to the most senior positions in the industry. This is what we do to women. This is how we make women feel. UNWELCOME.

If you combine the continuing male dominated culture of agencies with hiring practices and lines of questioning like this, you have an environment that is decidedly unfriendly (ok, toxic) to females. So, how do we change it? In an announcement of a new nearly 50/50 management team at The Martin Agency yesterday, chief executive Kristen Cavallo made it very clear how this needs to be addressed: “Gender discrimination isn’t an HR issue. It’s a cultural issue. And the fastest way to change a culture is to level the playing field in leadership.” Brava!

All of that said, I’m not letting Sir Martin off the hook on this (or, John or Michael or Maurice or any other agency or holding company chief executive-male or female). There is simply no excuse for not addressing this head on and addressing it now. There is a preponderance of evidence that points to business success being directly related to the number of women (and people of color for that matter) in senior ranks and areas of influence in companies. Given the sliding lackluster performance of the agencies noted in this pay gap report, it’s obvious that doing the “same ole/same ole” isn’t working anymore.

We have recently celebrated the fact that women are beginning to find their way to the C-suite in agencies in numbers that are too big to ignore (sorry, Helen Reddy). We have reason to celebrate that movement. We should be hopeful that these women who are now in charge and setting the tone from the top could bring about the change that the industry so sorely needs.

We must encourage and support them in their efforts to accelerate the speed at which this is happening. AND, we need the men in the industry more than ever to support the changes that they bring about in creating environments that will allow both women AND men to flourish as human beings. I suspect that some of those changes will be uncomfortable for many at first. Yeah, and? I think it’s time to get a little uncomfortable.

It is, after all, a business of culture and if we can’t harness culture to make our own industry better, how can we possibly help our clients? #TimesUp

Nancy Hill is founder of Media Sherpas and former chief executive of the 4A's. She tweets @nhhill

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