Work & Wellbeing Diversity & Inclusion

Resting on our laurels prevents us from identifying new barriers to inclusion in adland

By Dr. Anita Jack-Davies, Management consultant, culture and operations

March 7, 2023 | 8 min read

The advertising industry needs to move beyond representation in brands and create truly equitable workplaces that acknowledge and address intersectional issues, urges R/GA‘s Dr. Anita Jack-Davies.

Women and men on track racing; woman facing hurdles

/ Adobe Stock

Last week, at a business resources group roundtable meeting at R/GA, a co-chair of one of our culture collectives mentioned half-jokingly that the support she needs the most as a leader at our agency is childcare. We were on the Zoom call for a little less than an hour – but that time had an outsized impact on her ability to attend to her family.

As we ended the discussion regarding personal and professional development leaders needed in order to excel in their careers, I was struck by how persistent age-old barriers to gender equity in the workplace remain for women, trans and gender non-conforming talent. Not only that, but there are new challenges since the Covid-19 pandemic that we haven’t experienced before, such as hybrid work, that create a double-edged sword for some employees.

Unquestionably, there is an urgent need for us to do something, now. While for most of its existence the advertising industry was plagued by a gender imbalance where men greatly outnumbered women, particularly in creative and leadership roles, the proportion of women working across the industry has increased in recent years – including in key leadership positions.

Old problems anew

While the industry may be seduced into resting on our laurels due to the fact that the number of women in corporate executive positions has grown significantly, we must ideate on solutions for how gender equity shows up in today’s climate.

The fact remains that women, gender non-conforming and non-binary employees continue to face glass ceilings on the ladder to success. This includes the gender pay gap (especially for BIPOC women) and imposter syndrome related to achievement and merit. And as much as we’d like it to be a thing of the past, sexual harassment is still an issue in too many workplaces – particularly with many leaders enforcing return to office environments.

Finally, women in advertising often lack mentors and sponsors who can advocate for their talents and skills when they are not in the room. And while brands are increasingly challenging gender stereotypes and taking a stand on social and political issues, they need to go a step further. We need to urge brands to, as the Ad Council put it, “walk the walk,” and not just “talk the talk,” by supporting women in ways that align with the message of empowerment they espouse. Brands must support gender equity in ways that have a meaningful impact on our day to day lives. This need to “walk the walk” must be a call to action for marketers and leaders industry wide.

New problems adapt

As was evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, women continue to shoulder more child and elderly care responsibilities in the home, which has a major impact on their time, mobility, and decision-making. This impacts their ability to shoulder increased responsibilities for certain projects that can lead to promotions.

In fact, a New York Times article published in early 2021 insists that the pandemic created a childcare crisis that saw thousands of women leave the workforce to take on roles involving homeschooling and the health and wellbeing of their children.

However, hybrid work environments are also creating new barriers. According to a Women at Work report, although a majority of women prefer hybrid work, 60% of women working in hybrid environments reported feeling excluded from meetings and team engagement, with half emphasizing a lack of exposure to leaders.

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So, rather than assuming that gender inequities in advertising are a thing of the past, now more than ever, it is crucial for leaders to explore this topic in explicit ways.

What would agencies look like if we included gender equity as discussion points at weekly meetings? What would it look like if teams were tasked with solving a childcare issue that impacted a colleague, and in the process, supported that colleague to do their best work? What if we actually raise the issue of BIPOC talent in advertising by asking how race, ability, gender identity or sexual orientation impact their experiences at work? What if we made pay equity and gender parity an agency-wide goal that becomes embedded in our diversity, equity and inclusion plans?

Agencies must take responsibility for learning about, and acting on, various issues related to gender equity. There’s no shortage of resources to do so from groups such as the 4As and SeeHer. As agencies address gender equity issues, such as the makeup of creative teams, or employee policies, it’s vital to take an intersectional approach and ask difficult questions about team diversity.

We must also examine how agency culture is welcoming to talent across all genders, people of diverse backgrounds and ages. Paying attention to issues impacting different age groups will reveal whether a gen Z or millennial employee who is experiencing motherhood for the first time requires a space at the agency to breastfeed, or whether a gen Xer is now responsible for the care of an elderly parent who has recently moved in. We can expect to modify our approaches depending on the group in question – and this is the true meaning of equity. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, equity calls for addressing individual needs that often benefit the entire group.

In thinking back to my colleague who mentioned that childcare was the most pressing issue for her, my hope is that advertising agencies will continue the fight for gender equity.

This is an important time for us to celebrate wins and gains made by women in leadership roles across the industry, while also recognizing that the work is never done. We know that pain points remain. And as we recognize that racism, sexism, transphobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia and other ‘isms‘ morph and adapt over time, we must be ever vigilant in the fight for gender equity, because future generations are depending on it.

Dr. Anita Jack-Davies is management consultant, culture and operations at R/GA.

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