The Mad Men Industry – attracting and retaining women

After figures yesterday revealed the number of female creatives in Australia remains low, Miranda Ward looks at what can be done to get more women into the industry, from new initiatives to quotas.

According to the Communications Council 2013 Salary, women only account for 27.3 per cent of creative departments and represent 13.5 per cent of senior positions. However, according to a Mumbrella Survey, women aged 40 and older only account for 7.59 per cent of those currently employed, and women aged 30 – 40 taking up the bulk representing 36.7 per cent of the women employed, it is clear that as women get older they leave the industry. With agencies losing women suitable for senior positions, it needs to be asked how can an agency better retain talented and capable women?

“I think a good creative department needs diversity of experiences. There’s no point employing a bunch of creatives that are all the same. So having a spread of guys and girls of different ages and backgrounds brings different thinking to the briefs,” a respondent to the Mumbrella survey commented.

With having a family easily identifiable as the biggest hurdle for women staying in a demanding and competitive industry, agencies need to look at practical measures to help women cope with the demands of the job and being a mum. Flexible working hours or being able to work part time is one solution for working mums to be able to manage a career and the demand of parenthood, currently 8.10 per cent of female creatives work part time while only 1.70 per cent of male creatives have taken the option up.



For Suzie Shaw, CEO of Host, it was the support from the company that enabled her to balance a family life and a successful career.

“Each time I returned to the business after maternity leave, I was promoted. There was huge incentive to go back to work and be very committed,” she said of working in London when she started her family.

“Whereas here, businesses don’t have the same commitment to supporting women’s continued career once they start having kids. And I think it’s a societal thing – women here are less committed to return. They think the burden is on them for childcare, and for creating the family structure that needs to exist when you have children.

“Because there is a lack of women in senior roles, it creates a culture where women are not as comfortable or confident at that level, because you’re only working with men, who do have a different approach and a different mindset, and you don’t necessarily feel as supported.”

According to the Communications Council’s 2013 Salary Survey, women only accounted for 13.5 per cent of senior positions within creative departments.

But while Shaw knows she is lucky for the support she has had during her maternity leaves, she understands how difficult it can be for employers to offer flexible hours.

“What I don’t believe is the company should subsidise people’s lives,” she said. “I have seen situations where a company is offering flexibility for someone in their role, and it can impact everyone around them. Most big jobs just aren’t part-time jobs.

“We’re committed to making it work as much as we can and you can’t compromise the commercial viability of an organisation to enable people to have a job and a family.”

According to data gathered by Mumbrella, 8.10 per cent of the women currently working within creative departments work part time, while only 1.70 per cent of men currently work part time. However, not all agencies surveyed by Mumbrella provided the breakdown on full-time and part-time staff.

Indeed, while many of the agencies surveyed indicated flexible hours are occasionally an option many acknowledged how difficult this can be. None of the agencies surveyed indicated they provide childcare services, or a creche, in-house however most agencies acknowledged flexibility, working from home and job share arrangements are considered when a female employee needs to take maternity leave.

“We do, as much as possible, offer flexible or part-time working arrangements when a female staff member returns to work after maternity leave. Many have company provided laptops and/or smart phones that assist with providing flexibility and are able to work some days from home,” one respondent said.

While another said: “There are no formal schemes but more of an open and understanding attitude. If people are talented, and we know we can rely on them to get the work done, we are open to flexible working hours and being able to work from home. Technology makes this easier these days. And when the work demands longer hours, we try to make it up with time in lieu.”

Shaw said: “People need to accept responsibility for establishing a system around them that makes having a family and a big job possible.

“I also believe that individuals have to take responsibility. You have to accept that there is a cost for child care and you need child care if you want to work. “There has to be a negotiation between the woman and her partner – it can’t be entirely down to the woman to look after the children and family, because they’ll fall over.”

A respondent to the Mumbrella survey commented: “The trick is for agencies to have an open attitude to flexible working arrangements to make sure that talented female creatives can continue to work in the industry after having children. And the same goes for fathers that are sharing the role of working and caring for children too.”

However, with women generally earning 18 per cent less than their male counterparts, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, when it comes to the decision of who will leave work to care for a family, fiscally the decision points to the woman.

Former New Republique ECD Becky McOwen-Banks said agencies, and those employed within them from the lowest level to more senior levels, need to accept and understand working mothers will work differently.

“Mums do have to leave at a certain time but it also means once the child has gone back to bed they’re also back online,” she said.

“I’ve found that most women who do come back, particularly seniors, are more switched on they almost work into overdrive because they want to prove they’ve not lost anything, although they might have to leave at four or five to pick up the child from whatever childcare arrangements they have they’re then back online working from eight until 10.

“It’s that understanding that just because they’re walking out the door at five o’clock to collect a child it doesn’t mean they’re off to drink chardonnay with a friend in the sun, they’ll actually come back online and their colleagues need to be accepting of that.”



Katie McCarthy, recently appointed creative director of Naked Sydney, agrees saying flexible hours fit into a woman’s lifestyle.

“Women seem to crave more flexibility and transition time between projects. I think that’s why freelance tends to appeal to them and fit better into their lifestyle,” she said. “More flexibility in hours and in the types of projects would probably help retain female creative talent.”

Laura Sampedro former ECD at creative agency BMF and now creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in London believes the “industry should start with an overall improvement of personal and work balance”.

“Some agencies know how to retain their female talent by being more flexible and establishing meeting policies, for example between 9.30am and 4pm.”

This would help women be able to drop and pick up their children from childcare arrangements without the stress of needing to be in the office to attend meetings as most child care centres have opening hours from 7.30am to 6pm.

McOwen-Banks thinks attracting and retaining women in creative departments moves the industry to another responsibility – breaking the idea that a woman is the homemaker both by encouraging women to work and have a family and create ads that reflect this.

“The ad industry has always been the breaker of trends so it falls to us to be out there saying we can do more than skip and shop,” she said.

“As long as we’re out there enabling women with the tools to learn how to ask for the promotion or to ask for the project they want to work on.

“It’s hiring girls when you’ve got the opportunity, not to fill a quota but recognising talent and knowing you can make them more than they are by providing them with tools and stopping it being a boys club.”

But while quotas might be one of the few practical measures to addressing the lack of women employed within creative departments in Australia, many women currently working in the industry oppose the idea.

“I’m not at all a fan of quotas, because I am a believer in meritocracy, but I do believe you have to address some of the conditions that make it harder for women to succeed,” Host’s Shaw said.

While women represent 51 percent of professionals, according to a World Economic Forum Global Gender Equity Index 2011, women only represent 2.5 per cent of  Australian Security Exchange (ASX) 200 Chairs, 3 per cent of ASX 200 CEOs and 4 per cent of ASX 200 Line Managers. And according to the Communications Council’s 2013 Salary Survey, only 13.5 per cent of women within agencies’ creative departments are employed in senior positions.

Indeed, an AHRI Survey found only a minority of managers at any level are required to satisfy measurable KPIs on gender equality:  18 per cent of senior managers, 14 per cent of middle managers, 12 per cent of team leaders and 11 per cent of supervisors.

For Margaret Zabel, CEO of the Communications Council, it is KPIs that should be discussed as opposed to quotas.

“With quotas people get caught up with what it can and can’t mean. What we should be talking about is KPIs, we should be setting ourselves targets,” she said.

“Gender diversity is a commercial business issue. Companies that have closer gender balance in both board and senior executive are better performing and out perform the market.”



Kristy Player, founder and creative director of Airborne, said she would find official quotas “restricting”, describing them as “dangerous”.

“When we hire we hire for the talent we’re looking for and someone who’s going to fit in with the team,” she said.

Airborne managing director, and Kristy’s brother, Scott Player added: “I’m firmly of the belief that the right person should get the job based on their merits or their skill, it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female.”

A respondent to the Mumbrella survey said: “Of course we wish we had more! However we are conscious of hiring and promoting staff based on merit and experience, not based on their gender.”

For Laura Sampedro, former ECD at creative agency BMF and now creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in London, being employed in a creative department is about being trusted.

“You need to be trusted by your ECDs or top managers for your own creative merits not forced by an imposed quota.”

For former ECD, most recently with JWT,  and AWARD chairman Mark Harricks it is a tricky topic to tackle.

“It can be quite offensive to have a quota system sometimes but what it can do is force the change that’s needed, there’s very much two sides to it,” he said.

“We haven’t tried it, maybe that’s why we need to do it, give it a whirl. It’s hard to knock something until you try it and we need to try something.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to doing it,” he added.

Harricks said quotas have been positive for boards, however a creative department is a different situation due to the lack of women working in the area.

“Having a quota system for boards has been fantastic thing because it forces the people who look to put people in place to look outside just the blokes and forces them to go find good women who are out there,” he said.

“With a creative department it’s tricky because there’s so few women out there in the workforce to choose from. If you want to have a  nice environment you tend to be out there scouring and you’re literally only seeing one in a bunch of guys and you tend to grab them, there’s not many around.

“It’s a bit like trying to fish for Marlin.”

It is for this reason ex-New Republique’s McOwen-Banks described quotas as a “double-edged sword” with women facing the risk of being put down by colleagues as having only been appointed to fill a quota.

“It was the same when the US introduced racial quotas and there’s still sniping about that going on,” she said.

“If we give women enough tools to say this is the game of what goes on in business, these are some tips in order to move forward and we provide to the men who are already in positions of power and positions of management and understanding that this might be how the female employees are thinking. If we do that education hopefully we’ll come together naturally and women will move up anyway.

“You don’t have to be a woman who’s blokish, you don’t have to be aggressive about it and I think that’s what’s exciting about it, allowing to be female and at the top rather than a woman trying to be a boy at the top which was the old version, the 1980s power suit version of women in business.

“It’s hiring girls when you’ve got the opportunity, not to fill a quota but recognising talent and knowing you can make them more than they are by providing them with tools and stopping it being a boys club.”

Naked’s McCarthy is in agreement, saying quotas should not exist in creative departments.

“What there should be is more encouragement of feminine values and approaches and creating an environment that is more welcoming to women in the first place.”



DDB’s Chris Brown, one of the CEO’s spearheading change as part of the Communications Council’s ‘male champion of change’ , says criteria is important.

“You have to put in criteria to ensure you’ve got the right balance. That is important,” he said.

“We recognise, as a business, that the right thing to do is to drive gender equality across all our different business units and therefore it’s about education and making sure people understand why we’re doing it.”

Miranda Ward


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