Where have all the mothers gone?

Now is the time to close advertising’s empathy gap and create an industry where mothers can thrive writes Hollie Fraser, Creative Director and Founder of We Are Shelance

Hollie Fraser

Creative Director + Founder We Are Shelance


Where have all the mothers gone?

Take a look around your creative agency. Then take a look in the creative department. And if you’re really feeling brave, take a long, hard look at creative leadership.

Chances are you won’t find many. Mothers, that is.

We already know that only 12.6% of Creative Directors are women. Add motherhood into the mix, and the numbers drop even further. While there doesn’t seem to be any data published on the subject a steady stream of mothers are being squeezed out of the industry.

So where are the Creative mums? And why should we care?

Well, some have dropped out of the industry altogether.

But even more have gone freelance.

As an industry, we’ve presented many mothers with a stark choice;  either be a creative leader, or be a mother.

The motherhood penalty

It’s a brutally unfair choice to ask anyone to make. Especially those who love their work, who are talented at what they do, but feel that the expectations placed upon them as both parent, and creative leader, are simply incompatible.

As a creative director and mother of two, I've experienced firsthand the relentless pressures and persistent guilt that accompany balancing a career and motherhood.

As an industry, we’ve presented many mothers with a stark choice; either be a creative leader, or be a mother.

Hollie Fraser, Creative Director and Founder of We Are Shelance

I’ll throw it back 4 years! (yes 4!!) It’s my time to return-to-work after my first child, and yes you guessed it, the height of the pandemic.

This moment in time offered an unprecedented look at the realities faced by working parents. Zoom meetings provided an unfiltered window into our homes, revealing the dual roles that many parents manage daily. The invisible struggles faced by parents were finally given some visibility.

Despite this temporary transparency, we have regressed into concealing our parenting responsibilities, trying to meet work demands without drawing attention to our roles as parents.

It can feel as if admitting to the pressures of parenting is a sign of weakness, a failure to meet professional expectations.

The mother of all challenges

Then there’s the persistent mom guilt. And I say mom guilt, because there are statistics that show women feel higher levels of guilt due to internalised gender stereotypes compared to fathers.

The unspoken fear that we are failing in our careers if we give in to the demands of parenting. Leaving work at 4 or 5pm to pick up our kids feels like we’re not delivering what our job requires.

Yet, spoiler alert, the school day typically ends at 3:30pm, leaving parents in a perpetual state of scrambling and compromising, unable to fully succeed in either arena.

The constant guilt is a heavy burden: are we neglecting our children, or are we shortchanging our careers?

So I did what so many in my position have done.

I too went freelance.

I ‘dropped out’ of advertising in the traditional sense and pursued my own path to work-life balance.

I met so many other incredibly talented women and mothers who have also made the choice to step outside the full time agency structures and embrace freelancing. That is why I started Shelance a community of brilliant, creative female freelancers in one place; where they can be seen, booked and paid. I launched Shelance to give us the best chance at doing the job we love, in a manner that allows us to balance the responsibilities of life.

But the real question is why should we, women and mothers in particular.  have to accept this false and impossible choice?

Why can’t full time agency work and parenting coexist, rather than be in competition?

Because guess what, I believe agencies and the industry as a whole would be significantly better off with mothers in it. Mothers in senior creative roles. Mothers in agency leadership positions. Mothers who can offer a level of perspective, empathy, and understanding that would make the workplaces we operate in, the work we create, and the world we inhabit, better.

And I believe it’s possible. But it requires a significant cultural shift within workplaces. The first step is to prioritise and value parenting alongside professional responsibilities. As a mother and creative director, my priorities are clear: my family comes first. Yet, this mindset doesn't diminish my commitment or capability in my career. Instead, it enriches it with a perspective that only enhances my creative output.

Closing the empathy gap

The advertising industry often lacks empathy, particularly for working mothers. Nicola Kemp's article on advertising’s empathy deficit sheds light on this harsh reality. But, what if we stopped pretending that parents don’t lead multifaceted lives? By allowing others to see behind the curtain, we can start fostering a culture of empathy and understanding.

So, to truly support working parents, we need to galvanise our allies to understand the emotional and physical pressures we face. This requires more than just acknowledging these challenges; it involves creating supportive policies and environments that recognize and accommodate the dual roles of parents.

But also policies that don’t overlook the needs and lives of those who are childfree. The policies should universally make the workplace better for all, not just parents.

The advertising industry often lacks empathy, particularly for working mothers.

Hollie Fraser, Creative Director and Founder of We Are Shelance

So, this year, as awards season approaches and freelancers start to feel the pain of their choice. (Freelancers don’t normally even get a mention on awards credits, let alone attend festivals and awards shows) I decided to do things differently. I wanted to create a conversation around parenting during one of the industry’s biggest moments - Cannes Lions. So I thought, why not rock up to Cannes, with no invite but both of my children in tow.

I’ll be hosting a panel with the World Woman Foundation, on June 19th, on  how we can together create a culture shift where parenting is not seen as a hindrance,  but as a valuable aspect of our identities and our creativity.

Because by being more open about our struggles and successes, we can encourage a more empathetic, less judgmental workplace. One which values the well-being of its employees as whole people. Only then can we alleviate the persistent mom guilt, the internalisation of pressure and create a balanced, supportive environment not just for working parents. But for everyone.

Hollie is hosting a panel at Cannes with the World Woman Foundation on June 19th. You can register here.

Guest Author

Hollie Fraser

Creative Director + Founder We Are Shelance


Hollie Fraser is a Creative Director, Mother and Founder of We Are Shelance. She has over 16 years experience in the creative industries across different disciplines and categories, in both London and New York. In 2023, Hollie launched We Are Shelance, a global community empowering freelance female creative talent. She has a 4 year old son, Otto, and a 2 year old daughter, Libby.

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