THE OLD WORLD
“We’ll never allow a woman on the executive floor.”
“When they played the video back, you saw that the camera guy was more interested in focusing on my legs than my head.”
“Despite being the most profitable unit, when the promotions were announced, we were overlooked in favour of two underperforming men.”
“I’m regularly the most senior member of my team but men still often still assume I’m there to pour the coffee.”
“When I came back from maternity leave, I had to take a job that was a lower grade than the one I had when I left.”
When we set out to write this book, we wanted to celebrate the huge contribution women have made to marketing, but we knew we would encounter some hair-raising tales of prejudice. We certainly did. Some made Giles’ jaw drop, while Katy was less surprised. as she had experienced similar things herself.
THE TIMES ARE CHANGING
The world where quiet women were ignored and loud women may have been heard but were often ignored or at worst were called shrill and pushy, is changing.
In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, a seminal book for women in the workplace, encouraging women to sit at the table, make your partner a real partner, and don’t leave before you leave. At the time of its publication, there were many positives to be taken from it regarding women’s empowerment; it highlighted the biases and double standards around ambition, success and likeability, and advocated a shared earning/shared parenting style for mothers. However, it also came under a lot of criticism, not least from Michelle Obama, for encouraging women to adhere to a way of working set up by men rather than fighting for major changes in the way companies work.
Lean In opened up the conversation, but it was the 2017 #MeToo movement that gave all women the voice to speak out, for their voices to be heard, taken seriously and for action to be taken – not just against harassment, but all gender prejudices.
We’re now at an exciting tipping point where the number of women in the workplace and in leadership positions is growing, women are working their way into more prominent positions, and women’s networks are blossoming and creating greater impact. The collective voice of women is now emerging stronger and clearer, and it’s being amplified by many enlightened men.
There is greater understanding that the problem is prejudice and unconscious bias, that the problem lies with organizations that overlook women and prevent them from contributing their skills and qualities in the workplace.
When we set this in the context of marketing, the world of branding is changing too, and this presents a clear opportunity for women and female characteristics to play a major role.
We are facing a number of challenges including the impact of Covid-19, economic recession, climate change, and increasing political tensions, resulting in more social activism (e.g., #metoo, Black Lives Matter, LGBQT) and consumers are wanting and expecting more from brand owners. It’s brands with a strong purpose and principles that are succeeding in difficult times.
Consequently, brand thinking has been moving away from the old-world principles. Marketers no longer spend their days reducing their brand positioning to a single sentence or focusing solely on shareholder returns. Brands are finding their purpose. It’s no longer just about money and success.
There’s an acknowledgement that brands are more complex and need to consider their role in society, their impact on the environment and their contribution to diversity and inclusion.
Purpose is defined in an EY (Ernst & Young) report for the Harvard Business Review as “An aspirational reason for being that inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society.” More pithily in On Purpose: Delivering a Branded Customer Experience People Love by Smith and Milligan, the mantra for purpose is described as “Stand up, stand out and stand firm,” which translates to:
- Stand up for something: define your reason to be, an authentic and credible sense of purpose, a reason ‘why’ you exist beyond the desire to make profit.
- Stand out from the crowd: be distinctive, be different from what others do.
- Stand firm to your beliefs: stay true to who you are.
A result of this is that there needs to be a more holistic take on the brand that balances masculine and feminine perspectives, enabling teams to build more sustainable and successful brands for the 21st century.
It means that some of the feminine characteristics we heard about so often in our interviews should now get the prominence and respect that they are due. Many female characteristics were in the past undervalued or synonymous with weakness but in the future, but they are now recognized as core to marketing and leadership success. The traditional male principles of control and conquest will be tempered by kindness and collaboration.
These powerful ‘feminine’ characteristics focused on:
• Empathy – the ability to listen attentively and ask questions, understand and think about issues from someone’s else’s perspective, be present and focused on the person or conversation, to see people as people and not just ‘consumers.’ Successful marketers also apply this to their relationships with their teams, colleagues, clients and customers. Not only does it foster a kinder and more caring culture resulting in a healthier, happier and more engaged, creative marketing teams, but it also engenders a deeper understanding and respect for customers and their needs.
• Intuition – neuroscience has now confirmed there is nothing esoteric or magical about it. Our brain captures facts, impressions and information at lightning speed long before our intellect comes into play. Traditionally, intuition was regarded as fluffy because it was not rooted in facts and data. It was almost as if a woman’s intuition had no place in the business of marketing. In today’s world of data overload, being able to make an intuitive leap, then back it up with data, is a real competitive advantage. Women are constantly curious, they notice stuff, which means they are subconsciously gathering data, which is then often expressed as a ‘feeling’ or something that does or does not make sense. There are countless examples of these ‘feelings’ being proved right and resulting in sound marketing decisions.
• Communication and collaboration – women like to talk; they ask questions; see things from different perspectives; they encourage and promote individual development; sharing information as well as their thoughts and emotions comes more easily to them; the networks they form are open, inclusive and generous. We were struck by the modesty our Wonder Women exhibited and how often they cited their biggest sense of pride being in the teams they had built together with their strength of relationships with clients and customers. Their success in marketing wasn’t about ‘me,’ it was about ‘us,’ about respecting others, unlocking potential, inspiring and empowering teams to create great brands, campaigns and innovations. One other difference many mentioned was ‘volume.’ Women communicate well but the way they do it is often quieter. It isn’t about how loud you can speak, but what you say when you do.
• Staying real and grounded – this is undoubtedly essential to being connected to your consumer/customer, but it also emerged as key to the success of our female leaders in marketing. Today’s successful leaders know they are not perfect but learn from mistakes and strive for continuous improvement. All of the women we talked to were highly self-aware, constantly challenged themselves and were able to pick themselves up when things went wrong. They had learned to stay true to themselves, bring their whole selves to work and create space for others also to be their authentic selves.
Despite our labelling these as ‘feminine’ characteristics, none of our interviewees wanted to make sweeping generalisations about the division. They all acknowledged that there are men who possess many, even all, of these characteristics. Our Wonder Women quoted male and female role models and mentors who had exhibited these very characteristics.
What was emerging was a belief that it will be the collective voices of women and men, with a corresponding mix of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits that will help us effect change, changes that will be good for brands and business.
Many are hoping and expecting this trend to lead to a more holistic purpose-led future. It is a trend that is likely to be accelerated in a post-Covid world.
Encouragingly, there are numerous studies showing the benefits of adopting and delivering a brand purpose. There are also an increasing number of reports showing how a more gender-inclusive company culture leads to both happier employees and a healthier bottom line. The reasons for this include not just diversity of people but diversity of the types of thinking.
Women as powerful consumers
If that isn’t enough to help tip the balance for more equality for women in marketing, the latest research into the women’s spending power will help press home the message. Women are the world’s most powerful consumers, and their impact on the economy is growing every year.
Women drive 70–80% of all consumer purchasing, through a combination of their buying power and influence. As primary caregivers for children and the elderly in virtually every society in the world, women buy on behalf of the people who live in their households, as well as for extended family and friends.
The reality is that in just about every category, women are the dominant customer, maybe it’s time to change the oft-quoted old adage from ‘the customer is king’ to ‘the customer is queen’ or simply retire it and focus on that other gender-neutral saying, “The customer is always right.”
If women make up a significant portion of your customer base, it makes sense that they should be represented on your management team. Research shows that companies with gender-balanced teams have a higher ROI. Though things are changing, marketing like some other industries are still struggling to really shift the dial when it comes to senior management, but it is something that needs to happen.
Marketing has been, and is a very broad church, where women’s skill-set plays strongly. Women have been well represented in PR, qualitative research, planning, brand management but they were in the past often most valued in what were seen as ‘women’s categories’; fmcg, beauty, cosmetics and fashion. Historically they were less well represented in sectors like finance, alcohol, utilities, B2B, and they were underrepresented in the most senior roles.
The parenting trap
When we asked our Wonder Women the questions, “What are the challenges women face in a career in marketing? Are these different from the challenges that men face?,” there was one issue that most of them came back to – parenthood.
We frequently got into a discussion about becoming a mother and its impact on women’s roles and likely future success in marketing.
It was interesting that many felt that when a woman becomes a parent, her career was likely to plateau or go backwards, but when a man becomes a parent, his career is likely to soar.
Listening to our interviewees and thinking back on our own experiences, we knew it is wrong to assume that when women become mothers, they become less committed to their work than their male colleagues, or that part-time working reduces their intellectual or professional capabilities.
As Sally Howard put it in her book The Home Stretch, “it’s not only the glass ceiling that holds women back but the sticky floor too.”
Many talented and hard-working women willingly sacrifice career progression to achieve the ‘balance’ they need, but more enlightened organizations are starting to do things differently. They have begun to realize that’s it’s not a female problem, it’s a problem with the way companies expect everyone to work. These organizations are moving away from the traditional male model of leaders working long hours out of home enabled by the support, not just of one woman at home looking after the family but another PA/secretary (likely to be a woman) in the workplace. They are moving to more flexible working policies, offering a range of parental support systems, and career progression that might not be linear and might take longer, but will not enforce a ceiling. And this does not just apply to women; men also need to negotiate more workable arrangements to free them up to help with parenting and household management.
Technology and flexible working hours, as exemplified in the recent Covid crisis, have further shown the potential of these new ways of working. It is something that both female and male Millennials and Gen Z are demanding too, as they see it gives them more freedom and flexibility.
Many of our Wonder Women talked about how parenthood wasn’t taking ‘time out,’ but that it was actually great training for leadership! For them, the benefits that being a parent bring to the workplace should not be underestimated: raised emotional intelligence, better negotiating skills (try negotiating with a toddler), increased perception, seeing things from different perspectives, clear decision making, ability to juggle multiple balls, managing and prioritizing time, delegation, creating efficiencies. This list goes on and on.
Rather like the new thinking on brands, we would argue that there is a need to change our mindset and create working environments that allow everyone, women and men, to pursue a career and raise a family at the same time. As a provocation, we wondered whether rather than coming back at the same level or below, some women deserved to come back with an immediate promotion.
A final note on parenthood. It is also important to remember that not all women (or indeed men) want to come back full time and forward-thinking marketing departments and agencies need to see the opportunities for better part-time, flexible working and freelance roles.
Despite huge advances, gender inequality remains a fact throughout the world affecting social, political and economic life. Women are paid less, underrepresented in government and media, and often still financially dependent on men, but our Wonder Women’s view of the future is a positive one.
What we loved most about our stories and interviews was the very clear message that diversity and inclusion is the way forward. It’s not about advocating an all-female future; it’s not about denigrating or being in competition with men; it’s about blending both male and female characteristics, creating gender-balanced teams, working together and being successful together.
We need to be aware of the differences, appreciate them and use them to our advantage. Often women and men bring different perspectives, which ultimately lead to better understanding, better problem solving, higher creativity and greater opportunities.
We need also to realize that some men are exceptionally blessed with what are still called feminine characteristics and there are some women who have the masculine characteristics in abundance.
In an ideal future where gender isn’t an issue or a barrier, marketing can focus on ensuring the right balance of cognitive diversity. It won’t be about what gender you are, but how you think and what you can bring to the team or leadership role that will be important.
It will be a future where not only is thinking diverse but so too are the routes to the top. Career paths are becoming less linear and more ‘squiggly’ and that should mean that side-ways moves and career breaks, whether for travel, further study or parenthood are accepted and seen as beneficial.
We think the future is bright, the future is diverse, the future is inclusive.
Here’s to the marketing men and women who will make it so.
Our plea to you, based on our beliefs and all we have heard is (suitably “marketing-esque” as 4 Bs)
- Be aware of your unconscious bias; both men and women have been conditioned with deeply engrained stereotypes – watch out for them and mind your language.
- Be generous in your support for women; mentor them, train them, promote them and encourage them to highlight their achievements, but don’t forget men either.
- Be open-minded about career paths that don’t fit the norm; instead, think about the benefits that squiggly careers bring. Be a champion of gender diversity and shout about how you will profit as a result.
- Be brave – be willing to change yourself, be willing to encourage other to change and be willing to drive change in your brand.