‘We have to bring equality back on the agenda’

Nishma Robb, Vice-President of WACL and Senior Director of Marketing, Brand and Reputation EMEA at Google and Rania Robinson, President at WACL and CEO at Quiet Storm on how the 50% CEO Playbook can level the playing field.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


‘Measure with meaning’. This ethos, which sits at the heart of Women in Advertising and Communication London’s (WACL) 50% CEO Playbook for change, is equal parts practical and passionate. This year is the organisation’s 100th year; a moment which is being marked with the publication of the Playbook. A virtual book which aims to provide companies with practical steps to accelerate gender equality. 

Crucially, in an ecosystem in which women in marketing would be forgiven for believing that talking about change has become a substitute for making meaningful change, the playbook provides tangible actions. A roadmap to drive change and help stop the steady stream of female talent from exiting the creative industries. 

At the heart of the campaign is an ambitious goal: to double the current rate of change to ensure that 50% of CEOs are women by 2045. In the advertising and communications businesses currently only 30% of CEO roles are held by women. In the wider industry, this figure drops even lower to just 17%. 

With case studies from companies including Channel 4, Conker, Dark Horses, Diageo, Grey London, Pablo, PepsiCo, Publicis Media, Quiet Storm, Sky, Tesco and Vodafone, the Playbook takes a pragmatic approach to change. It highlights five key levers of change: changing the language of leadership, promoting for potential, being a women’s health hero, being flexible first and 'work like the world is watching'. 

For Nishma Robb, Vice-President of WACL and Senior Director of Marketing, Brand and Reputation EMEA at Google, the 50% goal simply ‘has to be achievable’. She explains: “There are institutional, systemic issues but this is about driving focus. We have to bring equality back on the agenda, it has become tiring and exhausting and we need to refocus.”

This drive to increase the number of female CEOs is firmly rooted in a broader goal; a desire to level the playing field for all women across the industry. As the Playbook explains: “The 50% target is both a definitive and symbolic ambition. Achieving equality in the top job is important, but more important is levelling the playing field for every woman, at every stage of her career.”

Rania Robinson, President at WACL and CEO at Quiet Storm, believes that not only is achieving this goal attainable, but it is also vital to business success. “When you look at the similarities with how the business world is driving the sustainability agenda, the truth is that unless you can show progress in equality as a business there will be a price to pay,” she explains. 

There are institutional, systemic issues but this is about focus. We have to bring equality back on the agenda, it has become tiring and exhausting and we need to refocus.

Nishma Robb, Vice-President of WACL and Senior Director of Marketing, Brand and Reputation EMEA at Google

Tackling the messy middle of women’s careers

The uncomfortable truth, for women in the ‘messy middle’ of their careers, is in many cases it is they who have been forced to pay a price for wanting to work differently. A desire which can even cost them their careers. Whether overlooked for promotion, underpaid when compared with male colleagues, or penalised for flexible or part-time working, industry data underlines that the playing field is far from level. These everyday inequalities and microaggressions are further exacerbated for Minority Ethnic women. 

McKinsey's 2022 Women in the Workplace report highlights that while only 1 in 4 C-suite roles in the US are held by a woman, only 1 in 20 are held by women of colour. Four in ten Black women believed they were not given the advancement opportunities of white female colleagues, and over half (52%) intend to leave the workforce (compared to 34% of all respondents in the same survey). 

According to data from the IPA’s 2022 Census, while 70% of the industry’s junior manager cohort are women, by the time you get to the C-Suite, only 34% of roles are taken by women. A lack of advancement which is underlined by LinkedIn’s Gender Equity in the Workplace report, which revealed that men are 21% more likely to be promoted than women.

So what more can be done to support women in the ‘messy middle’ of their careers and help them get to leadership positions? For Robinson changing the narrative surrounding leadership is key to change. She explains: “People being honest about their own journeys can be really powerful. It is not always a linear journey and there can be a lot of pressure.”

Puncturing the perfection myth

In an era where careers are far from linear, embracing the 'Squiggly Career' and being honest and open about the bumps along the road can be transformative. Yet just as the advertising industry’s awards culture perpetuates the myth of the frictionless creative process, the narrow lens of leadership success stories, leads many to feel they are falling short. The untold stories of terrible pitches, botched job interviews and difficult decisions can contribute to a sense of isolation and pressure for female leaders. 

In an ecosystem in which women leaders are the minority, even today, after a century of feminism, role models aren’t always there. Women leaders in the creative industry also face the double burden of being both a leader and a proof point. Whether you call it the glass ceiling or glass cliff; the universal experience is one of sharp edges. Yet these edges can be softened and better navigated through the reassurance and community of shared experience. 

“The honesty of career journeys can be really important,” explains Robb. “We don’t have as many examples of role models who have had more twists and turns on their journeys. The linear paths on the past may not be the future of what leadership relies on.”

Robb is honest in declaring that female leaders also face additional challenges surrounding how they are perceived. “Often women have the core attributes and traits required for a role, rather than the years of service. It is time to redefine modern leadership. We know that it is nonsense to assume that every aspect of a career can be perfectly planned.”

To close the industry’s gender leadership gap not only do companies need to be prepared to hire on potential but they need to recognise that the future leaders they need so desperately might not be applying for the roles in the first place. Notably, for women with caring responsibilities, it is all too easy to feel that leadership is beyond the realms of possibility.

“Consistency around policies such as flexible working will be key to attracting talent,” says Robb. She believes that there is much to be gained by companies supporting talent through creating that ‘baseline level of care’.

Often women have the core attributes and traits rather than the years of service required for a role. It is time to redefine modern leadership.

Nishma Robb, Vice-President of WACL and Senior Director of Marketing, Brand and Reputation EMEA at Google

Beyond balance

At a time when a growing pool of high-profile women in the industry have chosen to step away from leadership roles, the elephant in the room of burnout cannot be ignored. No one, regardless of gender, wants to do it all. 

For Robb the power of flexibility is key and she points to the growing number of businesses which are embracing the fact that they need to change the rules if they want to level the playing field. In essence, businesses need to move beyond the binary rules of work-life balance. 

“It is important for businesses and leaders not to present it as a trade-off between work and life. We need to recognise the longevity of careers. To take steps to release the sense of pressure that women experience that they should achieve certain career milestones by certain points,” she explains.

It is an important point in an industry in which attracting and retaining talent remains challenging. Flexible working, far from being a burden on employers, can in fact be the solution to the talent drain.

“The thing I hear more from women working flexibility is that they feel it has hindered their progress, that presenteeism is still there. It's really important to create conditions for businesses to embrace flexibility and how that can be beneficial,” adds Robb.

While Robinson warns that it is important not to narrow flexible working down to how many days employees spend in the office and fail to see the bigger opportunity for inclusion and innovation.

There are women on the edge of burnout and those that feel that they don't have an option apart from presenteeism.

Nishma Robb, Vice-President of WACL and Senior Director of Marketing, Brand and Reputation EMEA at Google

Making space for the next generation of talent

There is no question that regardless of gender expectations of the modern workplace are fundamentally shifting. Robb explains: “The next generation women leaders who I mentor do not want to work 5 days a week.” Pointing to the 4-day working week pilot she believes that there are significant opportunities for change and innovation.

Yet equally it is important to recognise that it is disproportionately women who have faced the cost of change. “Women in the workplace have been more impacted by the pandemic and the recent rounds of redundancy. I do worry that a two-tier workforce, of parents and non-parents, is emerging,” explains Robb.

“There are women on the edge of burnout and those that feel that they don't have an option apart from presenteeism and that will create even more burnout,” she adds. 

Addressing women’s health issues

Breaking this toxic cycle demands a fresh approach not just to the workplace, but to women’s health as a whole. The Playbook highlights the opportunity for companies to really make reasonable adjustments for women’s health. From period policies, to support with endometriosis, menopause and fertility treatments there is a huge opportunity for companies to prove they have their female employees' best interests at heart.

“The point with the menopause is that is the exact moment where we see women step up to the CEO position, but without that support in place that is where we see women step away,” explains Robb.

She believes that the examples set by agencies such as Dark Horses, which has a dedicated menopause policy, can raise the bar. “It is important to have consistent policies around the menopause,” she explains. 

With a recent survey by Women’s Health magazine revealing that over half (57%) of women believed that a gynae or other women’s health condition had negatively impacted their career, taking women’s health seriously is not a niche issue.

I know we can make progress.

Nishma Robb, Vice-President of WACL and Senior Director of Marketing, Brand and Reputation EMEA at Google

A leadership revolution

The uncomfortable truth for a business rooted in storytelling is that as an industry those stories are told by and dominated by men. Fresh into the marketing industry you may be forgiven for believing that strategists were given on-the-spot fines if they did not include Mark Ritson, Rory Sutherland and Byron Sharp in every single presentation. 

While their views are valid there is no denying that women who are older, younger, living with a disability, non-white or who are LGBTQ+ are more likely to experience discrimination and the barriers that hinder women’s equality are likely to be exaggerated for them. In short, exclusion not only matters, it is holding women back. 

Changing the language of leadership is a vital part of WACL’s Playbook. UN Women concluded that effective leadership is about combining compassion and competence. For Robb the task is vast. 

She explains: “It’s completely redefining what we mean by great leadership. It's not about changing it to suit women, it's about changing it to suit business. A lot of leadership examples are not suitable for today.”

Robinson adds for this change to take place it will require companies to move away from performative change and embrace genuine progress. She explains: “Policies will only take you so far. The truth is there hasn’t been enough progress.”

For Robb, this progress requires constant iteration and experimentation. A race to be the best collectively, rather than the responsibility of one individual.

“We have to be honest that it is tough for people right now. From the challenge of mental health, to how we live and work. It's on all of us to bring that energy and optimism to the table because that is how we get the job done,” she adds.

When that job is elevating the gender equality agenda for all women, it is clear that Robb embraces the challenge with both generosity and grit. She explains: “To be surrounded by such talented women who are so unapologetic and relentless about the mission, I know we can make progress. There are more women that we can support and it’s that sense of optimism and possibility that drives me.”

It is all too easy to see achieving equality as a job to be done, a one-off panel on International Women’s Day. Yet as Robb embodies so powerfully for the leaders making a genuine difference it is a relentless drive to level the playing field every single day. Change is only meaningful when it impacts all women. 


The playbook is available to download here.

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