Are We All Equal?

The title of the Advertising Week panel discussion, hosted by my business partner Kate Waters, was ‘We Are All Equal’. Realistic? Optimistic? Deluded?

Well… 100 years on from women first getting the vote in the UK, we have made pitiful progress. Only 32% of women are MPs, the average gender pay gap is 18.4%, two thirds of women experience sexual harassment and the most powerful man in the world has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault. In our own industry, men occupy close to 70% of C Suite roles, there are pay gaps of up to 45% in some creative agencies, and last week we read about the now notorious top 5 email (it’s just ‘a bit of fun’ my arse).

On the panel was a brilliant group of equality and diversity champions – BT’s Zaid Al-Qassab, Campaign’s Nicola Kemp, Thinkbox’s Tess Alps, Independent Film’s Liz Unna, and the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, Sophie Walker. And whilst it wasn’t (thankfully) an echo chamber of agreement, some key themes emerged:

Agencies need to get their own houses in order

Nicky kicked off the debate as we hoped it would continue. By swearing. “Agencies running campaigns encouraging us to ‘F*ck the pay gap’ when they’ve got a f*cking massive pay gap is obviously a problem.” Well, quite. I’ve had debates in the past about recognition on merit, but when merit is in the eye of the merit-giver, and when the merit-giver is more often than not a man, then we need to find a way to get beyond the more basic human instinct to hire (and more importantly, promote) in your own image.

Men HAVE to be part of the solution

Tess talked about equal parental responsibilities as “a fundamental building block”. This is a huge cultural issue that we need to confront, because it’s currently an exception for men to be offered (and to feel comfortable taking) paid parental leave. Why is it the mum who has to ‘find a way’ to be at the school gates at 3pm, or arrive late in the morning because of a school play? So many blokes actually want to be there to experience these things too. So, let’s change the narrative. Men care and can do the care as well.

It’s the industry’s responsibility to tell new stories

It is certainly true that advertising creates stereotypes. The car brands that only show a man driving it, the watch adverts portraying men handing down their watches to future generations of male offspring. Whilst the woman is doing the washing and washing up. These aren’t universal, but they are persistent. The Geena Davis institute reported last year that women only accounted for about a third of all characters in commercials, and even when women were in ads, they were on screen for only 20% of the time. Despite being responsible for somewhere between 70-80% of purchase decisions. So, how about this? Next time you see a script that starts with ‘we see a man…’, how about changing it to a woman?

Follow the money

According to a study carried out by Slated last year and reinforced with some recent BBC crunching of IMDb data, films with female writers, producers and stars showed fantastic commercial returns, consistently outperforming male-driven projects in the same categories. We no longer must worry about apologetic hand-wringing pleas to get more women in all aspects of production, because there’s the lure of cold hard cash to melt even the most defiantly misogynistic of men.

Language, or perhaps ‘framing’ is one of the biggest challenges

It’s amazing when something so blindingly obvious is put in front of you, and you can’t quite believe that you’d never noticed it before. Take how the government talks about spend for example: childcare and social care are considered ‘costs’, whereas infrastructure is an ‘investment’. The language is binary. Yet if you treat social care and childcare as an ‘investment’ you will unlock productivity and create many more jobs. This is one example of thousands where we are schooled in how to judge something. But that judgement is just downright wrong.

If you don’t know what sexual harassment is, you’re an idiot

I’m going to finish with probably my favourite quote of the day from Sophie: “It’s very clear that men know what sexual harassment is, because they never sexually harass someone who can fire them.” So, for those out there worrying about it – if you wouldn’t do it to your boss, and if you wouldn’t like someone doing it to your daughter, it’s simple: JUST DON’T DO IT.

Melissa Robertson

Melissa Robertson

CEO at Now
Melissa started her career in advertising at Grey, where she worked on a range of brands including Pedigree Chum and ITV. In 1999 she moved to the new start up Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, where she stayed for the next 12 years, rising through the ranks to become MD and overseeing award-winning work for Travelocity, the Department of Health and Waitrose. In 2011, she left to join another start up, this time as one of the founders of Now with John Townshend and Kate Waters.
Melissa Robertson

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