The advertising industry aren’t all bad, but part of a bigger problem

Startup Business

In recent weeks, light has been shone on the advertising and communications industry on gender diversity with Kevin Roberts, ex-Executive Chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi said in an interview that in regard to gender equality in the ad industry “the f—ing debate is all over” and he doesn’t spend “any time” on the issue at his company.  Swift action was made, he lost his job and Saatchi & Saatchi quickly distanced themselves saying that they do not tolerate anyone speaking for our organisation who does not value the importance of inclusion.  It is no secret that the advertising haven’t been doing well in that space for a while.  Bec Brideson, Founder of her own agency, Global Marketing Women and Influencer within the advertising industry, wrote a great  piece highlighting the statistics that sit behind the industry.  Everyone was shocked and heads shook from side to side, and faint sounds of tsk tsk could be heard.

It was compounded by another event here in Australia by Surungi Emily Hohol whose post went viral around her discriminatory experiences at another agency.  It is clear that discrimination still exists, which is why I am proud to represent FlexCareers on the Recruit Smarter Pilot which is a group of key members of the recruitment industry including the peak recruitment industry body, Recruitment & Consultant Services Association (RCSA) coming together with corporates including Westpac and PWC and Government Agencies to find better ways to recruit smarter and avoid unconscious bias.

There were a number of great articles and opinion pieces written about all of this at the time however since then I have been privileged to have had conversations with members of the advertising and communications industry including their peak body, The Communications Council and agencies including Ogilvy and Saatchi and Saatchi to name a few.  A number of them reached out to me at FlexCareers as they saw that we could assist them in this challenge.  What these conversations showed me is that they are challenged by exactly the same thing as those in banking and finance, mining and construction, professional services, netball….stop, what…yes I wrote netball.  The fact is this conversation of unconscious bias/ gender diversity and diversity in general goes across all industries in a work aspect as well as into the sporting space.

Let me explain.

Recently, I was giving a talk to a group of post-graduate students at University of New South Wales on inclusive leadership and focused on unconscious bias as being one of the reasons why there aren’t more female leaders (disputing the good old chestnut that women just aren’t ambitious).  This is a common experience across the majority of industries.  In the Q&A part of the session, a man put up his hand and began to explain that he sits on the selection committee for girls’ netball teams (and yes I mean girls aged 8 – 18, not women that are referred to as girls, but that is another blog for another time).  He said that their selection criteria for the judges is purely based on physical capability not how someone looks (i.e. speed, number of goals etc), but why is it that the sport continues to be dominated by tall and usually blond girls? He asked, is unconscious bias at play? In short the answer is yes.  Like in leadership, when you see what is the norm, someone who doesn’t fit that mould chooses either break that mould and be a trail-blazer or what normally happens is that people opt out and find something else.  Subsequently the Chinese and Indigenous girls or whomever doesn’t fit the mould don’t get to the top not because of a lack of ability but because they don’t see many (or any) girls like them on Saturday morning sports so over time, they stop trying and opt out.  This is a broad sweeping statement but it is true.  Just take a look at who is playing netball.

This scenario being played out on the netball courts is not far off that of the boardroom.  How?  Because when you ask yourself the question, what does the typical netballer look like, there is a ‘type’ that usually comes to mind.  When you think about a leader in business, there is a ‘type’ that comes to mind.  These types create what is known as a ‘stereotype’.  How is this relevant to the advertising and communications industry, well my observation is that so much of what we are dealing with is not industry specific but a reflection of a much deeper problem of equality and a lack of.  An inequality to particularly women, however this can easily be extended to cultural, LGBTI and more.  One industry is not the devil when it comes to discriminatory practices – yes some can be worse than others.  But countless stories circulate across all industries of the challenges of women trying to return to work after caring for children, people from non-Anglo-Saxon backgrounds being discriminated based on the colour of their skin, or people being judged because of their sexual orientation.

Each and every one of us has the responsibility to become aware of this.  The main antidote of unconscious bias is to shift from unconscious to conscious and become aware of the biases within ourselves and how they impact those less privileged around us.  As Dr Michael Kimmel says in his TED talk, privilege masks inequality, you just don’t see it until you are aware of it.


Natalie Goldman is CEO of FlexCareers, a disruptive online talent-matching platform connecting career women with progressive employers offering flexible work. FlexCareers is redefining careers by challenging convention and leading the future of talent matching and career support. 

 If you are looking for a flexible role or looking for great talent, connect with FlexCareers.

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