NB: This is an article which was originally published on LBBOnline.
According to Geena Davis: “if she can see it, she can be it”.
Appropriate then that I find myself in a room filled to the brim with badass female creatives. I am the lucky recipient of a ticket to the Creative Equals ‘Future Leaders’ event and – as I stand chatting – I realise I’ve never seen so many lady-creatives in the same place at the same time. This is exciting. This is empowering. We’re like a flamboyance of flamingos congregating in a glorious annual spectacular of group behaviour. The breakfast bacon butties aren’t half bad either.
But – free grub aside – why are we all here? Well, when the stats around females in creative positions stand at 30%, despite the split being 50/50 at graduation, it sounds alarm bells. When those stats fall even further for women in creative director positions to 12%, and a mere 5% at the highest level, it’s obvious the gender issue within creative departments is a problem that cannot be ignored.
Is this a case where ‘she ain’t bein’ it because she ain’t seein’ it?’ Can the complexities of the creative industry’s gender imbalance be reduced to a simple lack of same-sex role models? Some would argue that gender plays no part in our capacity to be inspired, learn and develop. Certainly, there is nothing within the act of inspiration that is explicitly gendered. What’s more, the science on the benefits of so-called ‘gender-matched mentorship’ remains stoically undecided.
But look closely and today’s studies and commentary suggest otherwise – and really, who could deny that the influence of female role models is needed with the industry stats as they currently are?
Nishma Robb, Google’s head of marketing, described the transformation she saw in her young daughter after she bought her the Kickstarter-funded book ‘Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls’. The book contains 100 true tales of extraordinary women from history. Suddenly, Nishma’s daughter’s love for all things pink and princess-related was quashed. Inspired by heroic heroines such as Amelia Earhart, Amna Al Haddad and Elizabeth I, she had new women to look up to and model herself on. Bye-bye Barbie, hello martial arts.
Unsurprisingly, the media has a similar impact. Nishma also referenced the ‘CSI effect’, where putting women in leading, powerful roles in TV crime drama resulted in the number of undergraduates studying forensic science more than doubling to the current average of 78% female students. This want and need to see people like ourselves doing what we do also helps explain the success of the #iLookLikeAnEngineer social movement, which aimed to challenge the sexist assumptions of appearance and went viral overnight.
As with engineering, business is unsurprisingly male-heavy at the highest ranks. Sandi Toksvig shared with us the fact that currently, just seven FTSE 100 companies are run by women. Meanwhile, 17 are run by men called John. Back in the world of advertising, another speaker shared a client anecdote: “we need a man leading this thing,” he had said. “We need a real big hitter”. In his mind, the only proven successful creatives who could be trusted enough to deliver were men.
Thankfully, Laura Jordan-Bambach is doing something to change this. She’s rented out an entire cinema at Cannes this year, just to showcase talented women’s work. She knows there are plenty of female ‘big hitters’ out there, we just need to give them the stadium in which to shine.
As the day progressed I felt an overwhelming gratitude for all of the trailblazing women speaking and running workshops around me. Whether it was Claire Beale’s rallying cry for more women to write for and comment in industry press, Tracy De Groose challenging us all to be 5% braver, or Nicky Bullard’s openness about crying in the workplace, every woman made a lasting impression on me.
It’s not that I don’t think opposite-sex role models can have value. Far from it. Most of my formative working relationships have been with men. But I think it’s absolutely critical that we see people we can fundamentally relate to to reach the highest highs that our careers can offer. That is precisely the reason I continue to be so gutted about Hillary losing the election. Thanks to Obama, there’s now an entire generation of African-Americans who will grow up believing ‘I can do that. I can be that.’ We need that for little girls. A successful woman is a banner waving in the faces of impressionable youth that says: “Here! Look. If I can do it, so can you.”
And that was precisely the value of the Creative Equals event. I ended the day with fresh connections made and new heroines found. Path-crossing with people who we feel a close connection to matters, because like flamboyances of flamingos, there’s safety in numbers and we truly are stronger together. In the words of Jessica Bennett: “the only thing more powerful than a self-confident woman is an army of them.” Well, consider me ready for battle.