What does it take to make it as a female CEO in the Australian media, marketing and entertainment industry? In a piece that first appeared in Encore, Nic Christensen investigates.
It didn’t take long for a flood of congratulations to arrive. Within minutes of the news of her appointment as chief executive officer of media agency MindShare breaking, Katie Rigg-Smith was inundated with congratulatory messages.
Many of the messages she received were from the usual suspects: colleagues, competitors and industry observers but there was another group quick to congratulate the 34-year-old, who is now the only woman currently leading a major Australian media agency.
“I received a lot of emails, Facebook and LinkedIn messages from young women saying they were excited to see a female become CEO,” says Rigg-Smith.
She tells Encore that while she received a number of messages from women in the sector, including former MediaCom CEO Annie Parsons, she had never really given the absence of female media agency CEOs that much thought.
“I’m flattered by (the congratulations), but I guess I hadn’t really looked up to see that there weren’t many females there,” she says.
The lack of women in senior management positions is a long-established issue and certainly not one confined to the world of media agencies.
Across the advertising, media and entertainment industries, and in spite of decades of affirmative action, there are a lack of women in senior roles, particularly at the board and CEO level.
CEO of Screen Australia, Ruth Harley, has worked in the film, television and advertising industries and says the situation is slowly improving.
“I recall going to my first senior executive meeting when I started at TVNZ, and this is a long time ago, but there were 50 people in the room and it was ‘lady and gentlemen’ – I was the only woman,” says Harley. “I’ve not been into a room where it was ‘me and gentlemen’ for a long while but all the statistics tell you that women are still under-represented, particularly in the commercial sector.”
Indeed, scores of studies confirm this. At the board level, across the ASX 200, women represent only 15.6 per cent of directors, according to a survey by the federal government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency. And of the 24 largest Australian media companies, recent analysis by news and opinion website New Matilda found only one – Newcastle broadcaster NBN – had a female CEO, Deborah Wright.
Joe Pollard, CEO of advertising agency Publicis Mojo, says that from her perspective there is a problem. “We lose a lot of great female talent in their mid-30s for a lot of different reasons. If they have children, they may choose to take their foot off the accelerator,” says Pollard. “It is less about maternity leave and more about supporting women back into the workforce full time.”
Pollard, a mother of two, says she was able to stay on the path to senior management only because she was supported by her husband and her employer at the time, Nike.
“I had my first child at 35 and I was supported very well with on-campus daycare at Nike,” she says. “Being supported to come back to work full time by your partner and the company where you work is probably the single biggest reason I stayed on the acceleration path.”
But Pollard says Australia has a long way to go compared to the US where she was based while working for Nike.
“Having moved back to Australia, I don’t think there are massive amounts of support to come back to work full time,” she says.
Journalism academic and feminist activist Wendy Bacon says the lack of female CEOs is a reflection of the fact many women aren’t appointed beyond middle management. “There are certainly many women employed in the middle ranks of many (media and marketing) organisations,” says Bacon, a professor with the Australian Centre of Independent Journalism who led the recent New Matilda project examining the number of women in the media. “They may still be a minority but a significant number of women don’t get beyond the junior and middle ranks.”
Bacon’s analysis showed that across various sectors of the media and marketing landscape, men continue to dominate senior roles. For example, an analysis of the executive teams of 12 media organisations showed only 17 per cent were women. In the world of newspapers, women fare slightly better with a survey of 418 newspapers across Australia showing a third had female editors. According to Bacon, these numbers show that the ‘glass ceiling’ still exists. “If you take the glass ceiling as something which is built on the basis of objective evidence, then you would have to say it is still there because the evidence is that women aren’t going into the top levels,” she says.
This perspective is shared by Zenith Optimedia’s male CEO Ian Perrin who says the ‘boy’s club’ still exists. “There are a multitude of reasons (for the lack of women) ranging from the fact that many networks still operate as old boys’ clubs to some women not wanting roles running media agencies,” says Perrin, who recently penned an opinion piece for Mumbrella denouncing the lack of female CEOs at Australia’s top media agencies. “The bottom line is that it’s making our industry worse off in the long run and it’s important that we address it urgently,” he says.
This viewpoint is rejected by Annie Parsons, former CEO of media agency MediaCom. “No, I don’t believe (the glass ceiling) exists. I didn’t when I was in the (MediaCom) role as well,” says Parsons, who is now the European CEO of media data analysis firm Standard Media Index. “There is ability and then there is the inevitable issue of being around at the right time. That’s it.”
Parsons has a simpler explanation for the lack of women at the top of the media, marketing, and entertainment world. “These are incredibly demanding roles, both personally and professionally,” she says. “Often it may well be that for women it isn’t something that they believe they can manage well as well as do all the other things they want to do with their lives.” She also argues that the challenge of managing work and family is not a problem unique to women. “It is incredibly demanding in both time and space and that doesn’t always align for the patterns of an individual. That is absolutely true for the blokes as well,” she says.
Screen Australia’s Harley says statistics such as only 23 per cent of directors in film and TV being women is less about a ‘glass ceiling’ or sexism and more a reflection of a ‘structural bias’. “People offer many different reasons for it and the main one they offer is straight up sexism. I don’t know that it is sexism so much as a structural bias,” she says. “It’s very hard to be a film director and it is not a job that is necessarily compatible with family life.”
Harley says one possible solution is for businesses to build more pathways for women. She points to the example of a senior commissioning editor in the UK who had to proactively seek out women for senior roles. “She told me she had to sit down and create an individual pathway for each of them,” says Harley.
“From her point of view it was very labour intensive. She wasn’t bemoaning this, she was just saying the only way she could get women through her door was by working with each individual women to find her pathway and you can’t do that with very many people.”
Founder and CEO of media agency Match, John Preston, agrees and says developing these pathways needs to be made a priority.
“We need to encourage (women) to stay in the industry, get those senior jobs in the management tier and as they increase their ratios in the big agencies – then you would see an increase in the number of CEOs,” says Preston. “I would hate for women to think that their career potential as a CEO is curtailed by having children. That’s just not right – as an industry we have to make sure that (having children) isn’t a bar for women to develop.”
Industry body The Communications Council also has the topic on its radar this week launching three work streams aimed at tackling issues women in the industry currently face including what it calls “CEO awareness”.
Rigg-Smith acknowledges that her employer has groomed her for the role but says success won’t come down to her gender. “I’m excited about the role and have decided I’m going to give this a spin and have a real go at it,” says Rigg-Smith. “If anything doesn’t work it won’t be my gender, it will be because I wasn’t right for the job.”
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.