Viewpoint: Why too few women reach the top

As I write this, the global advertising community has been contemplating the resignation of WPP Worldwide creative director Neil French.

He was reported as saying that there are so few female creative directors in the industry because "they're crap". Adding that they inevitably "wimp out and go suckle something".

Not surprisingly, the views of this self-confessed former pornographer and bullfighter created a stir.

"There's a reason dinosaurs are extinct," wrote one blogger reflecting on French's departure. Another called him "The Bernard Manning of advertising".

If his views are so easily dismissed, then why all the fuss? Because he has clearly hit a nerve.

The UK advertising community was quick to concede that there are only two female creative directors in the larger agencies, but does DM fare any better?

Scan the larger DM agencies and you'll find Caitlin Ryan and until recently, Lu Dixon. Some suggest this has something to do with the aggressive atmosphere within many creative departments. Camille Paglia once said: there is no female Beethoven for the same reason that there is no female Jack the Ripper - namely that men exhibit extremes of behaviour more often than women. Discuss.

What about outside the creative departments? There it gets a little easier. My own agency has a very talented woman with her name above the door - Vonnie Alexander.

The same could be said of Lisa Thomas, Heather Westgate, Penny Reid and a few others.

The naming game is easier when you start looking at clients and suppliers. But the numbers nevertheless suggest that men continue to dominate at the higher-end of our industry.

Marketing Direct's Power 100 last year named only three women in its top 20, but this is clearly a problem that is not unique to direct marketing.

Only 3.7 per cent of executive board members of FTSE 100 companies are women. So why are there not more women at the top?

The most obvious reason is that women have to stop work to have children and men don't. Which takes a large chunk of talented women out of the race. Some of them choose not to return at all. Others talk about the myth of "having it all" and the need to focus on home or work, but not both.

But there appears to be more to it than the work/life balance thing. In her book, A Woman's Place Is In The Boardroom, Peninah Thomson argues that men value status and position more. In short, many women don't want to make the sacrifices required to hold down senior posts because they don't value it. I saw this a few years ago when a board offered a top directorship to a woman and sat in bewildered silence as she declined.

Thomson argues that issues of self-belief and organisational culture are also important in explaining the glass ceiling. She posits that men are more explicit about expressing their ambition and promoting their own personal brands - speaking up more in meetings, networking more and ensuring they take the credit for their actions.

Sound familiar? And if it does, to what can we attribute it? Socialisation? Biology? Both?

Louise Wall at Kendall Tarrant, a former DM agency head, was remarkably sanguine when I raised the overall question with her. "Yes", she conceded, "the pay gap persists in DM, but it's closing". And "more boards want women". She talks persuasively about women having a lot to offer, especially in terms of emotional intelligence and people skills. Certainly, on the client side there is evidence to suggest that boards are recognising the perspective of female executives.

No doubt, the increasing acceptability of flexible working terms will help ease the work-life tension. That's something we aspire to offer staff in my own agency - to men as well as women. Is it enough to make a difference on its own? I doubt it.

There is, however, a little bit of sunshine on the horizon. In Marketing magazine's Power 100 last year, client marketers had a "next generation" survey in which almost 50 per cent of the names were women. A recent report also claimed women now outnumber men in the lower ranks of formerly male-dominated professions such as law and medicine.

All of which augurs well for women rising to the top in our own industry. Subject, of course, to certain assumptions, like do women deserve it? I think they do. Will male-dominated boards encourage them? I hope they will. And do women want to rise to the top? That one I can't answer. There are, of course, saner choices than wanting to run a company.

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