Face the truth: women are still being edited out of the media industry
If we want to stop women from being edited out of the media industry, we must be honest about addressing burnout and fake flexibility, writes Nicola Kemp in her new column for The Media Leader.
“Leaving to spend more time with her family.”
There was a time when this statement was shorthand for fired, managed out or misbehaved. Let’s be honest — so threadbare were women in leadership, it was usually his family being used as a smokescreen. So impossible to believe was the assumption that a senior executive would sacrifice their one true love (their career) for the frivolous distraction of a family life, that this statement could only be explained away as the work of generic PR.
If half of all art is knowing when to stop; when I look around me, I see that it is primarily women calling time on media careers with unrelenting demands on their lives. It is a statement I make with zero judgement and an understanding that such choices can take both grit and grace.
Yet even today, after a century of feminism, working in the media is all too often an all or nothing pursuit. In a world in which media commentators struggle to predict the future, let me share with you a simple, singular truth: women are exhausted.
The radical act of rest
With senior leaders publicly citing the need to ‘recharge’ or ‘reconnect’ with their families, we must address working expectations which lead women to feel they are skating across the surface of their lives. Folding themselves into ever decreasing corners until there is nothing left but creases and a creative crisis of confidence.
Such is the universality of this experience that even the Evening Standard fashion pages hail ‘The Frazzled English Woman’ as their latest trend. Meanwhile, the recent Deloitte Women@Work report revealed that almost half (46%) of working women feel burned out.
Yet, as an industry, we have developed a collective numbness to this crisis.
As we emerge blinking from a pandemic which has placed all aspects of our lives in a fresh light, one thing is crystal clear: women are choosing change. McKinsey has called it “The Great Breakup” and, according to its research with LeanIn.org, women leaders are leaving organisations at the highest rate ever.
Are they leaving companies because they are faced with redundancy (why is it that women in our industry become disproportionately more expensive after 40?), or leaving to spend time with their family? Or start vibrant new businesses, podcasts, and media platforms?
The universal truth remains: women are leaving to have a life on their own terms. It’s a talent drain we cannot afford to ignore.
The myth of bringing your whole self to work
While the past two years have seen us adopt the language of ‘bringing your whole self to work’, in some parts of the industry this simply equates to sacrificing your ‘whole life’ at the altar of work. When you layer in the thousand tiny paper cuts of everyday sexism and the widening gender pay gap in the media industry, it is easy to see why a creative crisis of confidence is afoot.
All In Census Data found that 10 times more women than men believed parental leave negatively impacted their career progression (53% of women versus 5% of men). Meanwhile, women were six times more likely to be personally discriminated against because of their gender. Intersectionality is vital in this debate, as for women of colour discrimination is particularly acute. A third (32%) of all Black respondents to the All In Census reported they are likely to leave the industry due to a lack of inclusion or discrimination experienced.
Part-time working and ‘fake flexibility’, where women are offered part-time pay for full-time outputs, are killing women’s careers. Women are still written off just as they are getting started. Research from Careering into Motherhood reveals that two-thirds of working mums say their level of ambition has either increased or stayed the same since having children. 40% of working mothers reported they had to do more work tasks outside of normal working hours.
Stop women being edited out of the media industry
This year marks 100 years of Women in Advertising (WACL). At the current rate of progress, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 132 years to achieve gender parity. Are we really prepared to wait that long?
Now, I want to be honest with you here. I have a stake in this debate, or more accurately it is my reason for being. I’m still here, writing these words, because of the commitment and compassion of the women who came before me. I’ve had that thorny tall grass of archaic working structures and everyday sexism trodden down for me by editors who paved the way for me with neither fanfare, fuss nor fair reward.
So, I have a simple question when it comes to accelerating gender equality in our industry: What if you had the courage to question that you could be wrong in your assumptions?
What if that role could in fact work fully remote? What if you could copy Publicis Groupe’s exceptional ‘work from anywhere’ policy? Why doesn’t Channel 4’s industry leading Menopause policy work for your company? Why couldn’t you follow the trail blazed by WPP and start the work of bringing those women we have lost back into the industry through Jane Evans’ phenomenal Visible Start programme? Or took a page out of Diageo’s book and invested in Creative Equals Creative Comeback scheme to bring women back into the industry? What if you rewarded and paid Black women fairly?
Ask her to stay
Change isn’t just about simply inhaling these words on your screen and taking no action. Ask yourself honestly: what can you do, not just as an organisation, but as an individual, to stop that brilliant woman on your team from walking away? What if you asked her what you could change in order to get her to stay?
The truth is that building a compassionate culture in the hybrid working world isn’t always easy (spare a thought for the agency CEO that was asked to cover her strategy director’s cat sitting bill for a pitch on a working from home day).
Yet, just because it’s complicated, doesn’t mean we can all simply hold our hands up, declare it’s too difficult, and revert to business as usual. It is time to be ruthlessly ambitious in our pursuit of change.
I won’t pretend that change isn’t messy, but in that mess we can find the magic, the creativity and the clarity to build back better. I don’t claim to have all the answers; but we could all benefit from recognising the power of flexibility as a driver of creativity.
My hope is that if we start asking better questions, we can stop the women we need so desperately from being edited out of our industry.
Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now Editorial Director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.