Trend report: how to further your career in media as a female

In the first of our new series of Trend Report features, Suzy Bashford looks at how females in the media industry can further their careers.

Trend Report: Women in Media
Trend Report: Women in Media

It’s been over 50 years since the women’s lib movement in the Swinging Sixties, and more than 25 since the phrase "glass ceiling" was originally coined to denote the invisible barrier to female promotion in corporations. Surely, by 2011, this glass ceiling has been well and truly smashed to smithereens?

Well, er, no. Actually, as a recent media forum hosted by women’s network Bloom lamented, the situation is getting worse. The stats are stark, particularly this one: only 11 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, four less than in 2010.

So, as Bloom speaker and PSI Advertising managing director Liz Jones says: "Scarily, not only are we not getting anywhere, but as a gender, we’re actually going backwards. More women are graduating these days than men and more women are entering the workforce, but at each stage, men are twice as likely to move forward."

Why women aren’t landing media promotions

The forum set out to debate why women are not being promoted as readily as men in media and to quiz three female panellists on their tips for scaling the greasy pole. So what did Jones, Karmarama partner Nicola Mendelsohn, and Metro managing director Linda Grant conclude?

Liz Jones, Nicola Mandelsohn and Linda Grant

One of the main reasons suggested – before the inevitable words "babies" and "work/life balance" were even uttered – was the female psyche. All three speakers agreed that women tend to hold back, while men are always on the front foot. Jones puts it bluntly: "If a woman gets credit for doing something fantastic, she will say it’s a team effort. A man will say ‘that was all me’".

In her experience, whenever a job vacancy appears, men quickly put their names forward, whereas she has to coax and encourage the women to apply. "I have approached women in my organisation and actually said to them ‘can you please apply for that job?’, and they inevitably say ‘what, me? You think I can do that job?’" she says.

Grant agrees and has had a similar experience. She cites, as another contributory factor to the lack of women on top, the contrasting way in which the genders view business generally. To men, it can be seen as a game. The fact that many more men than women are interested in competitive sport, she says, fuels their "game mentality" which can be so useful in corporate life.

"One of the things I didn’t do but think would have helped me, is take part in competitive sport. I think it can give you that understanding of rules, that sense of wanting to win and that extra edge that all helps in business where we are all fighting to win market share," she says.

Networking is all part of the game too, particularly in media, which is such a people-led business. Again, Grant feels that men generally network more skilfully. Whereas women often think hours behind a screen translates into recognition, men are often savvier political players and understand how building key relationships can be much more fruitful than sweating it out behind a computer.

"The female psyche often thinks that if she works hard, she will get her just rewards as someone will pat her on the back and say ‘that’s great, here’s a promotion’. But sometimes the reverse can be true of those that seem to land the promotions. Working much too hard can actually spill over into sending out some negative signals. If you always have your head down, focused on being ‘efficient’, then you haven’t got time to look at the bigger picture and you’re not engaging with the organisation," she says.

Mendelsohn agrees, advising the Bloom members to "think about what success means" at their company. She continues: "Look at the people that are successful at your companies, think about what they have done and what you can learn from them. Like anything in life, the more you put in, the more you get out, so do get involved in agency life. Not only will it enhance your time in the office, it will also potentially aid your career."

Naturally, the fact that females are the gender that has the babies adds extra challenges to their career paths. Not least the financial implications, which means some women do the sums and conclude they are better off not working, with others continuing to work at a loss to keep their foot on the ladder.

As Jones points out, there are "entrenched beliefs" about women of a certain age and one of the unavoidable (if unutterable) questions that arises when considering female candidates for promotion is "what happens if she gets pregnant?" Then when women return, if they decide to do this part time, the general feeling is that they are sidelined and dismissed as no longer taking their career seriously.

Tackling the leaky female talent pipeline

 So what can be done to stem the leaky female talent pipeline? Jones has been working with her boss, CEO at Posterscope Annie Rickard, to tackle the situation at agency Aegis. Senior management is currently dominated by men, which is never more apparent than at the annual conference.

"When Annie got the numbers from HR concerning who attends this conference the gender divide was huge – the numbers were scary and going in the wrong direction. We started looking at what we could do," says Jones.

One initiative Aegis has brought in is positive discrimination. There is now an agreement, arranged in tandem with Aegis’s HR department, that when recruiting for a senior role, there should be at least one female name on the shortlist.

Another initiative is "The Blue Room". This started off as an informal forum for women working at Aegis, where they could share their experiences and tips with other women. It has also now grown to include an exclusively female mentoring scheme, although it has met with some criticism from some male colleagues who have defiantly pledged to start their own exclusive "Pink Room".

"It’s time for a bit of positive discrimination. We’ve managed to get senior level participation from companies such as Glue, Isobar, Carat and Vizeum. We’ve limited the scheme to Aegis, as obviously we want our female talent to stay here. However, if other companies would like to adopt our approach, then I’d quite happily share our mentor/mentee templates," says Jones.

The Blue Room has also developed a comprehensive reintegration programme for women coming back to work after maternity leave, which Jones is also willing to share with other companies outside Aegis, if they contact her for more information.

Grant believes that in order to get the female talent pipeline flowing better, women have to focus on their communication skills and learn to be more direct, something that men tend to do more naturally. As she says: "Although women are fabulous communicators, we do tend to use many more words than men. Over the years, my communication has become more succinct and direct, like men, who generally don’t tend to the big preamble or the big explanation."

What do men in the media industry think?

There’s no doubt that this issue is a political minefield for men to comment on as it’s so easy to slip into stereotypes, so hats off to Alex Altman, CEO of Initiative Media UK, and Steve Hatch, CEO of MEC, who have.

As Altman tentatively says: "I suspect the point about the female psyche might be true. At Cannes, there was a talk on this subject where a speaker suggested that to be successful in media, you needed a ‘swagger’, which is quite a male word. Having said that, I don’t think women should try to be like men in the workplace or vice versa. The critical thing is that people understand they are different and individuals," he says.

He also bravely wonders whether it could be a case of the status quo perpetuating itself: "The fact that it’s mostly men in senior positions making the decisions on who to promote, could it be that there’s an unconscious element of being receptive to people most like themselves?

"Nevertheless, I’m not in favour of positive discrimination in any area of life. It’s better to work towards an open-minded culture like we do at Initiative, where everyone feels comfortable applying for positions. The main question on my mind is how can I help both men and women integrate their lives better?"

Steve Hatch

As for Hatch, he doesn’t buy the point about men being more naturally competitive than women: "It’s too clichéd. I see competitive spirit in both genders."

Similarly, it’s a cliché to describe women as more "hormonal" as, in fact, Hatch points out that it’s been suggested that male hormones, triggering over-confidence and inability to assess risk, were actually responsible for the disastrous stock market crash.

He says: "Adrenalin or testosterone-fuelled behaviour is only helpful if matched with competency and, actually, media has moved away from the boozing-blokey culture into a general level of professionalism where competency and meritocracy are increasingly the norm. I would also challenge the premise that women aren’t getting to the top in media – you just have to look at the fact that many of the top agencies are run by women."

Final word from the first female president of the IPA, Nicola Mendelsohn

"In the UK today, nearly three-quarters of female managers feel the pressure of a glass ceiling, versus only 38% of men. This extraordinarily high and completely depressing figure is despite the fact that women make up 49% of the workforce. A number of factors are cited, which all contribute, including childbirth, lack of confidence and lack of ambition. As IPA president, I have spoken about the importance and need for diversity in our industry. I want women who feel they are not good enough to believe that they can take on more senior roles. They should stop worrying about their weaknesses and start to focus more on their strengths. Taking on a mentor is an excellent way of obtaining a more objective view of yourself and I would encourage everyone, not just women, to explore having someone who can play this role for you."

* In order to become a member of women’s media network Bloom, members have to agree to be a mentor on online forum Horsesmouth.co.uk, launched by Rainey Kelly founder MT Rainey.

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