Speaking Up: Kat Gordon on the Rise of Female Creative Leadership

“Innovate!” It’s a call to action we Creatives hear on a daily basis. But what can we get from a room full of people in the same situation, validating instead of challenging each other? We can’t expect anything really new. 

Building a team of diverse voices is one way to jumpstart ideas while meeting the actual needs of varied consumer segments. So why do so many supposedly creative companies and agencies still not get it? New and different can’t be expected to perpetually emerge from same old.

While working for 20 years as a Copywriter/Creative Director, Kat Gordon continued to experience this issue firsthand and decided to do something about it. She discovered through her research that (in 2012) women represented just 3% of Creative Directors. This startling fact inspired the conference name – a name that Kat hopes will need to change.

The 3% Conference addresses the imbalance resulting from a lack of diversity in advertising. Over the past two years it has become more than a conference. It’s a movement driven by a highly engaged community of men and women.  

The 3%

You started the 3% Conference in 2012... What meaningful changes have you seen the advertising industry go through in the last 2 years?

We just released some research based upon the original 3% number and female CDs now account for 11% – a 319% increase. So I see female creatives staying in the field and getting more recognition. I was also thrilled when the Art Directors Club launched its 50/50 Initiative, inviting other award shows to pledge to have half their judges be women. Lastly, I was proud to participate in a new program that Cannes put on called “See It. Be It” and serve as a speaker on three panels. This initiative makes sure female creative leaders are more celebrated at this important international creative festival. 

Being a Catalyst

Women are often told to “speak up” when they realize they’re in a biased environment. But when a woman is working in this kind of situation, being heard is very difficult. Changing an environment from the inside can seem almost impossible. What actions do you recommend that women can take other than the difficult path of finding a new job, or even working in another area and trying to fight bias from the outside?

What frustrates me about so many of the recent headlines about gender bias is that the onus always seems to be left on the woman: how to combat it, call it out, or use tactics around it. I think it’s time to change the conversation. As more and more businesses realize the bottom-line benefits of women in leadership, then those in charge – who recruit, hire, promote and manage women – should be given training to help them check these biases, many of which are subconscious. Both men and women are susceptible to gender bias and could benefit from training to dismantle stereotypes.

Just this weekend, the NY Times published a piece that showed that employees assume women who are mothers will be less productive, yet assume the opposite for Dads. There’s no proof that productivity suffers from parenthood, but we still make these assumptions and they unfairly affect women and help men. The more that we can make bias everyone’s problem, and create systems to reveal bias through research + HR results, the more women won’t need to speak up or will feel empowered to do so if there is an issue.

The Confidence Gap

I’ve been reading a lot lately about a confidence gap between men and women. While men tend to overestimate their abilities and performance, women will typically underestimate both. At the same time, studies show that in general more men are promoted based on potential, but women usually have to prove themselves first. This doesn’t say much for companies’ confidence in women. What strategies can be employed by female advertising and design professionals to help break this cycle?

Business coach Tara Mohr just wrote an interesting piece on this for the Harvard Business Review. She conducted her own survey to see if the oft-given reason why women won’t apply for jobs is due to confidence and she uncovered something fascinating. Over a thousand men and women, predominantly American professionals, were asked “If you decided not to apply for a job because you didn’t meet all the qualifications, why didn’t you apply?” According to the self-report of the respondents, the barrier to applying was not lack of confidence. In fact, for both men and women, “I didn’t think I could do the job well” was the least common of all the responses. Only about 10% of women and 12% of men indicated that this was their top reason for not applying. What did hold them back? 46% of men and 40% of women cited they didn’t apply because they didn’t think they’d be hired since they didn’t meet all the qualifications and didn’t want to waste their time and energy. These people thought the required qualifications were exactly that – required – and not optional. This research reminds me of another survey where women were just as likely to negotiate salary as their male counterparts when the job posting listed “salary negotiable.”

So for female advertising and design professionals, I suggest you consider required qualifications as somewhat elastic and throw your hat in the ring for virtually anything of interest. And for those who want to attract and hire female ad talent, write job postings that use less rigid language than you may have used previously.

Gender Blindness vs. Gender Intelligence

As pathfinders like yourself bring long-term problems into focus and make gender bias more visible, there may be signs of companies shifting from gender blindness to gender intelligence. Is there a risk of stereotyping women? How is progress identified?

Gender does not equal women. Gender equals men and women. So gender intelligence needn’t mean that women are seen separately from men, but as a valuable part of the puzzle. The companies with the greatest GIQ (Gender IQ) will win because they will understand how to attract and retain male and female talent, giving them a competitive edge in the talent war.

Leaning In

I’ve heard a number of women say we’ve leaned in far enough. That we need to lean on men to sign on and help make change now. What do you think?

I agree. Too many companies have women’s leadership groups that are all women. When women get together to talk about women, it’s an echo chamber. We need more “manbassadors” – men who understand the business value of tapping all the talent and who champion women publicly.

On Advertising

You regularly review ads – the worst receiving a “wet blanket” rating and the best a “warm blanket.” When it comes to the relatively new female empowerment trend in advertising, are there companies that "get it" emerging? Can you discuss some companies that you feel are doing it right?

I was quoted in several articles recently about this new wave of female empowerment advertising. My take is that it feels a bit akin to the “greenwashing” that companies were doing ten years ago in the face of America’s love affair with all things organic. Today, companies are “pinkwashing” to try to appeal to female consumers. But the real indicator of a brand that supports women won’t be found in an ad campaign. It will be found in how many women sit on their board, if they’ve closed the pay gap, if they offer maternity and paternity leave, and other indicators that are harder to uncover. I like what Vitamin W is doing to help female consumers gauge how companies stand on metrics like this and use it to inform their shopping habits.

As for brands I see walking the talk, the first one that comes to mind is Levi's, and the work they do around women's health in their manufacturing locations. I think it's really genuine, and it's seen real results. Plus, I've publicly credited their attention to female consumers in ways that show respect.

Companies like The Gap and Whole Foods that publish salaries and institute equal pay for men and women are earning goodwill with female consumers. So are companies like Costco and Starbucks that pay a living wage and have health insurance, which helps women and families.

AT&T has impressed me with its dedication to women and STEM. I attended an event where they showcased one of their female engineers who has 156 patents to her name. They're doing a great job supporting the women in their ranks and inspiring young girls with what's possible. 

Where is your greatest hope in work-environment change for women coming from?

From data. I am perhaps the only advertising creative director who started as a market researcher. I love numbers, understand them, and trust them to guide creative choices. I have yet to read a single piece of data that indicates that women achieving parity in the workforce has a downside. It’s all upside. Profits soar, workplaces get more fun, clients are happier, and employee tenure increases. That is about the most hopeful news I can think of.



Related: Watch The 3% Conference's "What makes a great Creative Director?"

In addition to being the Founder of The 3% Conference, Kat Gordon is the Founder/Creative Director at Maternal Instinct

The 3% Conference will take place in San Francisco November 3 and 4 this year. 

Can’t make it but still want to make a difference? Start by downloading 50 Things Your Agency Can Do Right Now to Drive the 3% Number Upward.

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