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March, 2024

‘Performative IWD celebrations won’t move needle; action and outcomes will’ – female leaders from Innocean, EssenceMediacom, Amaysim, Rackspace on what WGEA’s gender pay data really tells us

What you need to know:

  • On the eve of International Women’s Day (IWD), the WGEA pay gap data has highlighted the challenges that the marketing, agency, tech and media industries have yet to overcome on the journey towards gender equality.
  • Female industry leaders are not surprised about the results but hope they will force businesses to take tangible action to do better.
  • The data feeds into the growing skepticism towards the role of IWD as a lever for change, but some still feel the day provides an important opportunity to reflect on progress.
  • Creative agencies face a particularly difficult challenge to improve the representation of women, who fall through the cracks of merit-based recruitment.
  • Across the industry, the headline gender pay gap figure is less important to many than the subtler, underlying narratives of the report. A big one is that it’s reflective of a lack of women in more highly paid senior leadership roles.
  • While there are opportunities for women to advance their careers, the narrative women must choose between career or family still prevails.
  • Mentorship and creating a space without judgment where women can seek information and be better guided in ways to progress their careers is a consistent theme from women wanting to see practical actions come out to avoid IWD and other gender initiatives become echo chambers.

Long-held suspicions that many industries might not be delivering on its diversity, equality and inclusion (DE&I) promises were vindicated last week with the inaugural publication of the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) gender pay gap data. The WGEA data, which represents the gap in the median renumeration of men and women employed at private sector business with more than 100 staff, does not suggest women are not receiving equal pay for equal work – this has been a legal requirement in Australia since 1969.  Rather, the overall pay gap within a given business might encompass a multitude of factors that skew results – such as women not progressing into senior leadership positions.

While the gap was notable in the media and agency space, leaders from all corners of corporate Australia were scrambling to explain away pay gaps that fell outside of the recommended +/- 5 per cent range. For 50 per cent of the nearly 5,000 Australian private sector employers forced to contribute to the data, the pay gap sat above 9.1 per cent.

Landing little more than a week before International Women’s Day (IWD), the timely reality check casts a shadow over the global celebration that marks the “social, economic, cultural and political” achievements of women on 8 March every year. Does the disparity underlined by the WGEA data drop have businesses rethinking the self-congratulatory tone that often underlines their annual IWD festivities?

Mi3 spoke with female leaders from agencies, technology and marketing for their take on what WGEA’s figures tell us about gender equality in the workforce as well as how they’re rethinking the programs and ways to avoid women’s initiatives like IWD becoming echo chambers.

The whole merit conversation in creative is completely misguided. So [Innocean has] been making a conscious effort to hire women based on their potential. Obviously that's a risk, but it’s been paying off for us. But that's not how the entire creative worldview works, because it's based on whether you've received an award… that's still the currency.

Jasmin Bedir, CEO, Innocean

Time to walk the talk: Jasmin Bedir, CEO, Innocean

Innocean’s Jasmin Bedir says companies that have been “talking the talk” without “walking the walk” will have nowhere to hide this International Women’s Day. The founder of Fck the Cupcakes, a gender equality initiative that is searing in its critique of the feel-good fluff surrounding IWD, is direct about the need for industry to do the work before jumping on the “performative” IWD bandwagon.

“If you haven’t actively put policies in place or invested in your business over the 364 days before International Women’s Day, don’t do anything festive,” she warns. “You may just want to use the day to just be honest to your staff and actually work with them on how you’re going to make things better.”

Much of that work will be falling onto the plates of agencies, many of whom as Mi3 reported, fell notably behind their media and martech counterparts in their progress on closing the gender pay gap.

Creative the culprit?

Bedir sees the “huge variation in the WGEA numbers” even within the agency sector pointing to creative firms as the bigger culprit, noting the media conglomerate, while uneven, is better off after years of heavy lifting from the Media Federation Australia (MFA) to progress gender equality across its members. At the micro level, she says it’s the creative department itself that has the biggest issue with gender: “The imbalance is huge.”

Even at Innocean, Bedir says the gender pay gap within the creative department was double that of average gender pay gap across the agency. While Innocean’s size excludes it from the WGEA program, she discloses the agency’s overall pay gap sits at 10 per cent.

“Even though I have a majority female team, and we do have two female creative directors now – which I’m really proud of – we can’t get there,” she says.

According to Bedir, it comes down to a lack of senior female creatives in the talent pool, which itself is a symptom of the industry’s failure to creative supportive work environments for women. “That’s just not where we’re at with creative departments. It’s still very much you do really hard work and you do what you’ve got to – an environment with very masculine traits.”

Flawed meritocracy fails female talent

For Bedir, the crux of the issue is Australia’s creative directors don’t know how to hire women into senior roles.

“When you hire women, you cannot hire them based on case studies and results. You need to hire them for the opportunity if you think they can do the job,” she says. “They haven’t been getting the opportunities and sometimes they may have gone onto maternity leave and then therefore didn’t have that amazing shoot or result that they can show you, but they’re well capable of it.

“The whole merit conversation in creative is completely misguided. So [Innocean has] been making a conscious effort to hire women based on their potential. Obviously that’s a risk, but it’s been paying off for us. But that’s not how the entire creative worldview works, because it’s based on whether you’ve received an award… that’s still the currency. And you only get those accolades when you’ve been getting certain briefs. Yet you may have not been receiving them because you were a woman, or because you had to take a step back in your career.”

In Bedir’s view, the need to get gender balance right in the creative department is part of a broader responsibility the advertising industry has to use its influence to create messaging and content that “makes the world a better place”.

“If we want to do that, we’ve got to make sure that we have the right narratives in place and in order to do that we need to create a diverse cast in our creative departments, because they are the ones that are coming up with the messaging,” she says. “The whole hiring bit is therefore the recipe for how we get there, but to really look at what are we actually creating is probably where the conversation needs to start.”

I really do think having knowledge where we're at with the [gender pay] gap just means that there is capability for progression.

Poorani Adewole, chief data, tech and analytics officer, EssenceMediacom

Recalibrating executive imbalance: Poorani Adewole, chief data, tech and analytics officer, EssenceMediacom

Some media agencies might be ahead of their creative peers, but there are still barriers preventing many women from climbing into top tiers of leadership, and enjoying the pay packet that comes with it – accounting for a sizeable chunk of the pay gaps that came to light last week.

Within capabilities that intersect with digital and tech, the gender disparity at the executive level tends to be even more visible. 

Starting her career in media agencies after studying tech, EssenceMediacom’s chief data, tech and analytics officer, Poorani Adewole, first found the sector very “female-centric”. But as she rose “further up the chain”, there were less women. Within the media agency sector, recalibrating that imbalance needs to be the focus – and she suggests the WGEA data will only help to accelerate that change.

“I really do think having knowledge where we’re at with the [gender pay] gap just means that there is capability for progression,” she says.

Adewole is more optimistic than Bedir about the role of IWD in further this progress, describing the day as a moment to “recalibrate where we need to put our attention towards and how we help women through that journey”. She says the imbalance is not for a lack of opportunities for women, but rather symptomatic of the false narrative that women must choose between career and family.

“As your career grows, so does your life stage, and so you find that there’s a lot more drop off [amongst women],” Adewole says. But reflecting on her own experience, she is adamant women can “have it all” and should be encouraged to do so.

“I came back at six months after my first baby was born, but I was still able to work from home nearly [every day of the] week, so I got that balance whilst still being able to do the job that I wanted to do,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was losing out on both ends because people around me knew what I was doing. There was a lot of transparency and communication. People above me really encouraged it and then people below me really supported me.”

But Adewole acknowledges for women to truly embrace the flexibility typically offered on paper in this industry, there must be structural and cultural change. This extends to both parents. “It is about the culture and community that you build in the workforce that allows to bring a lot of these HR policies to life,” she adds.

What I see is a lot of programs become lacklustre. They don’t get enough support from where they need it from – upper management, externally or even internally.

Vanessa Cremona, Head of Communications and Brand Asia-Pacific/Japan, Rackspace

Real flexible work, realigning to outcomes: Vanessa Cremona, Head of Communications and Brand Asia-Pacific/Japan, Rackspace

As a woman in tech, Cremona is all too familiar with the longstanding and well documented gender issue the STEM sector has. It’s notable from school, becomes a yawning gap between attracting and retaining women post-study, then gets even worse as you climb the ranks. As a mother, Cremona has also directly experienced times in her career where that gap has materialised in a lower salary and less senior role and points to the discrepancy between women in managerial roles versus those who are not as a big tell. It’s why she sees last week’s Gender Pay Report as an eye-opener not for its headline number, but because of the light it sheds on more than the pay packet people take home.

Like Bedir, Cremona sees the need to switch from just hoping women will make it through to senior positions, to recalibrating the way we foster and recognise talent. In the tech industry, that starts well before the first job and from a really early age. As an example, Cremona points to an initiative where Rackspace sat and rewrote every single job ad to make sure the language was really open, yet still failed to lift the pool of women candidates applying.

“Even in school-aged children you start to see this divide in technology. We were working with an agency that helps bring more women as well as more diverse groups into tech. What they were finding was even though numbers of women studying tech was low, when it came to going into the workforce, the number was extremely low. People were getting degrees but not making it into the workforce and using those skills to do other things,” Cremona comments. 

“We seem to think we just get women into roles and then see how they do. But we need to be reinforcing from a young age that women are as capable of doing these roles as men. There shouldn’t be a gender gap as big as it is. We have some women in this company who are exceptional gifted and helpful and having that mix makes for a better team.”

The release of WGEA’s Gender Pay Gap report also has Cremona “100 per cent rethinking the programs out there to support women”. She should know – she’s worked with a number of groups including Women in Tech, Rackspace’s hyperscaler partners in projects, and is part of the vendor’s POWER group (professional organisation of women empowerment).

“What I see is a lot of programs become lacklustre. They don’t get enough support from where they need it from – upper management, externally or even internally. During Covid, I saw a lot of these groups in organisations pretty much fall apart at a time when we should be doing more,” Cremona says.

When it comes to IWD, she worries it’s losing oomph because it’s not orienting around outcomes and progression. “I feel sometimes it’s just a token offering against what it should be. A lot of these initiatives should be doing more; companies across the board should be doing more,” she says.

That said, Cremona is willing to take some blame off companies, arguing they simply don’t know enough about what to do and what is making a difference, and suggests this is also illustrated in the Gender Pay Gap report.

“That is where that comparison in industry is so important. One group is 2 per cent whereas a competitor is 15 per cent: What is that latter company doing differently? I’d love to see a case study on that. Because a once-a-year post isn’t cutting it. Yet that’s what a lot of these companies do,” she says.

A lack of internal education around the offerings companies say they already have – and what they actually deliver versus promise – is another problem area for Cremona. Like Bedir, she singles out the suggestion companies are offering flexible work as an area worthy of criticism.

“The statistics say 97 per cent of businesses in this report offer flexible working hours. I don’t know about your company, but I can tell you being a working mum, that 97 per cent cannot be true,” she says. “I see the mums every morning running to drop kids off then having someone else pick them up, or after school care, or mums getting other mums to Zoom in awards ceremony. That flexibility they’re saying is out there doesn’t seem to be something that’s actually being offered.

“Perhaps some of these policies which seem like PR spin should reorient to educating people around what they have access to as part of their roles and businesses.”

As for IWD, Cremona wants the focus to shift to demonstrative change, not just celebration. “If we don’t have any movement as we go from year to year, and people are tokenistic about the whole thing, then we have an echo chamber that’s happening and we’re shouting to the same people without seeing any change happen,” she says.

“If we could look to make a push towards change, combined with the accountability of this needing to change as well [through the Gender Pay Gap Report], we’ll see something come out of it, as opposed to companies changing the colour of their logo, and everyone pushing to post online.

“We need to be able to say there needs to be a change not just in the workplace, but a change to the way we approach things and what we look at. Otherwise nothing does change – there is no big movement, which is what this was set up for in the first place.”

Mentorship and creating a space without judgment where women can find out information – safely – and be guided to progress their careers is a consistent theme from women wanting to see more progression and practical actions come out to of IWD and WGEA’s report. Acknowledging a privileged position as a senior leader, Cremona sees many lacking an ability to questions or seek out information on opportunities within the business that can help their careers safely.

“A group that can help you when you’re in a difficult situation is critical, especially without judgment. And it needs to be a 365-day thing,” she adds.  

The Gender Pay Gap report did a great job of highlighting ongoing inequalities and getting the discussion going. That’s the importance of International Women’s Day as well – making sure we have these discussions and to raise issues.

Rachel James, Senior Manager, Brand and Communications, Amaysim

Empathy, leadership, advocacy and keeping an eye on the issue: Rachel James, Senior Manager, Brand and Communications, Amaysim 

Another woman who questions the reality of flexible work policies highlighted in WGEA’s report is Amaysim’s Rachel James. Yes, they really do help women – but they also help the men too.

“I call out flexibility and shared parental leave policies as making the big difference. My partner had access to parental leave and that made a huge difference. I shudder how many people are hampered by that lack of flexibility,” she says.

It’s leadership and culture that makes this flexible work possible for James. “A lot of companies can have policies, but they have to live and demonstrate those, encourage people to take advantage. Most having some kind of ‘flexible’ offering is very different for people who don’t feel comfortable asking for that,” she says.

At Amaysim, one of its four founding values, empathy, is critical to making this real. “Many companies have and talk about their values, but people will talk in this language at our meetings and actions are coming from a place of empathy. Leadership aligns to those values and this is the most value-driven place I’ve ever worked at,” James says.  

While being in the telco space is very different from a media or creative agency, James again stresses the importance of companies having tailored mentor programs for women to develop these skills “if they are saying there’s an absence of more women in senior positions”.

“Let’s have programs for women to achieve and develop – it’s not a good enough reason to just say they aren’t in senior roles,” James says.  “We also need more advocacy. There needs to be industry-wide efforts, for example, through honouring women’s achievements. The Gender Pay Gap report did a great job of highlighting ongoing inequalities and getting the discussion going. That’s the importance of International Women’s Day as well – making sure we have these discussions and to raise issues.”

James’ fear is one readers may have come across in discussions about race and gender equality progress in the US after Barack Obama became its first black president. Having achieved such a groundbreaking step, the fear is you think the mountain has been climbed and there’s no longer a need to fight for equality. Then you get Donald Trump.

“We are living in an equal society, it’s put into law we can’t pay men and women less for the same job. My fear is this means people this this isn’t an issue anymore,” James says. “The WGEA report surfaces those ongoing inequalities. We have to keep thinking about it, the issues, promote mentorship programs and have things tailored for women to get into higher paid roles.”

James is of the belief IWD can do that job if we take the cues from the Gender Pay Gap Report and start executing practically against them.

“What we need to be wary of is not just getting together ‘the ladies’. [We need] to use this as a moment to drive discussion, surface pay gap reports and other issues,” she says. “I definitely believe the day still has its place, as a vehicle to raise the issues and keep continuing discussion.

“To get there, we need all people to take part as well – it goes beyond women and into big issues. Men and women can participate in that discussion together. That’s more effective at driving change. It can’t just be a pat on the back, it must have a real purpose which is about attaining equality,” says James.

“We’re not there yet.”