Where are the leading women in creative roles?
Gemma Ballinger, March 2016

As we mark International Women’s Day, everyone’s bemoaning the lack of females in creative jobs, and rightly so. It’s 2016, the focus is on parity, and still not enough of us are making it through to senior positions. But, in focusing on the negatives, are we missing the lead our clients are showing us?

I’m proud to know a wealth of smart, confident and creative women in my role as Client Services Director, both through the clients we work with and within the Studio Output business itself. On the client side, I’m meeting more and more women who are leaders in the workplace, and it’s inspiring to see them in these senior roles. Within agencies, however, the worrying statistics are worth a closer look, particularly in creative roles.

Currently, around 40% of designers are female, but only 11% of Creative Directors. What makes those statistics even more alarming however, is that before a career in the creative industries, the gender split in most college and university design courses seems to be completely the other way round, at 70% female, to 30% male.



Where are the role models?

At Studio Output, we’ve always had an even gender split across the agency. But in reflection of those statistics, most of the women sit within the more stereotypically ‘female’ roles – client services, production and finance – while the creative team skews 80:20 male to female. And across the industry, there is a lack of role models in senior creative positions.

 So, what’s causing this drop before getting to the top? Why might creative women be going in to different disciplines before they reach the senior ranks of the agency creative team?

At the moment, there just isn’t enough research to determine whether it’s external influences or individual circumstances that are the cause. I’d like to think that traditionally ‘sexist’ attitudes no longer dominate in an industry that’s all about looking forward.

But to speculate, I’d say a lot can be accredited to a perceived lack of flexibility when returning to work following childbirth. Here, it seems our female peers client-side are leading the way in empowered and flexible ways of working.



Don’t blame the clients

It’s nothing new to highlight the correlation between women having children, and subsequent changes to their career path. Some studies suggest one of the biggest barriers to reaching senior roles is maneuvering through a career break to start a family.

In a service-led industry, the belief is that you’re there five days a week responding to your clients’ needs.

There’s definitely an element of truth in that. The days can be long, and we’re often at the mercy of last-minute client requests – it’s the nature of the relationship. Sometimes it’s expected that you can drop everything to get something delivered, and flexible hours aren’t currently seen as the norm. However, I think things can and will change – and it’s actually our clients who are leading the way.



Follow the leaders

Over the past few years I’ve watched my impressive clients and peers do it all. I’ve seen more and more powerful Marketing Directors and CEOs juggle family life with the demands of leading their companies. They negotiate flexible hours or work shorter weeks, shifting the focus from hours spent in the office to proven results.

And in response, there’s really nothing to stop us following their lead. Our working world is changing, so if a perceived lack of flexibility is stopping women reaching the most senior creative positions, now is the time to reconsider that.

I’m passionate about finding these role models, both for my team and myself. Organisations should encourage their workforce to learn from successful people, and to actively seek mentors. Networking groups are a great opportunity for industry newcomers to get face time with those who’ve been there and done it. And of course, there are countless online resources and inspiring TED talks to provide insight and ignite ambition.

Ultimately responsibility needs to come back to the individual to find their ideal role models, but also feel empowered to push their agencies if they don’t have the chance for development.

So, are women missing out on senior creative jobs? I don’t think so. Are they not going for them in the first place? Quite possibly, and it’s this that needs to change. There are more opportunities than ever at all levels, and there’s certainly no shortage of female talent.

I’d like to see a more even split at senior levels. With a flexible approach that’s based on impact, support from within the workplace, and by following the lead of our counterparts client-side, I hope we’ll see more women rising to the top.