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Paying it forward for our women

Paying it forward for our women
Dare CEO Leigh Thomas identifies how women and men can work together to achieve genuine gender equality in the wake of International Women's Day.

I’m from that generation who have benefitted enormously from the hard work that went before us, and who as a result, have felt able to compete on an equal footing with men.

My mum was one of the first women to work for IBM as a programmer.

And my country of birth shows real progress, despite South Africa being known for prejudice in all its forms. It now ranks eighth in the world for over female representation in Parliament, with women taking 42% of the seats.

And closer to my home here in the UK, I am privileged to be part of the vibrant and vocal WACL community who demonstrate daily that the cause of women is ably represented in our industry in the UK.

But there is clearly a gender issue to deal with. Still.

The recently released statistics from the UN Entity for Gender Equality are damning; for example, it will take 60 more years for women to reach parity in parliaments, in which case we can finally start to influence global decision making.

Women now account for 20.7% of board members in FTSE 100 companies, according to a recent report by Lord Davies, which is progress, but given how much of that number is for non-exec roles, it is still underwhelming.

I also think the reaction to Emma Watson’s #heforshe speech is telling. The outcry was passionate, sometimes disturbing, but ultimately the issues she raised hit the mark.

And as Malala Yousafzai pointed out so provocatively at a recent event – in her country women are openly second class citizens, but in the west we pretend they are not. How very disturbing to read.

And I think the 2014 IPA Census data is still concerning with only 25.6% in senior positions in agencies being women.

So let’s stop flinching at the word ‘feminism’.

Let’s get on with the job that still needs to be done. We should make sure we look to our own doorstep, with honesty, quiet purpose and an ability to witness what might be unjust.

We must remain restless.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa worked because it witnessed the misdemeanours of the past. It was a salve for all sorts of terrible wounds. It did not end racism in South Africa in and of itself, but it was a forum for witnessing injustice.

Would it not be brilliant if we could do the same for gender inequality?

Let’s call out the issues for examination, with candour and courage, and move forward.

For instance, in the context of our business, is it OK to be anything other than clear on maternity and paternity policies, beyond the government statutory requirements?

Is it OK to pull a pregnant woman off of a pitch appropriate, without checking with her first?

Is it OK to assume a woman on maternity leave is in any way less ambitious than her peers, or to promote peers above her in the few months she is out of the business?

Is it OK to interpret long hours physically in the office as proof of commitment?

Is it OK to suggest casting a woman on a business isn’t right, because the clients are ‘bloke-y’?

Is it OK that a woman is paid less than her peers?

Is it OK to think developers think differently (to women)?

Is it OK to agree that women multitask and get stuff done (whilst men are the focussed visionaries)?

Is it OK to believe that you have to be ‘Alpha’ and innately masculine to take your place in the boardroom?

Is it OK?

These are all scenarios I have observed, or indeed experienced myself over the course of my career in advertising. And to my shame, I haven’t always spoken out about them, preferring to not put myself in the ‘bra-burning’ camp of feminism, but also because I genuinely do not feel I am surrounded by sexists. Most of this stuff was done without Machiavellian intent.

But with this said, it is by no means ‘OK’.

Perhaps in accepting what can only be described as unconscious bias, I have been part of the problem. To begin a real process of change, women AND men need to look at their own unconscious bias and move away from these potentially damaging beliefs.

We simply must unlearn our current beliefs and relearn new ones.

With International Women’s Day in the headlines, perhaps my small part on the long journey to genuine gender equality is to call that out.

‘We drink from the wells of freedom we did not dig. We stand on the shoulders of giants. We can’t pay it back. We must pay it forward.’ Cory Booker, Selma memorial speech.

Leigh Thomas is CEO of Dare.

Discover more information about International Women's Day.

Read how IPA Director of Marketing Janet Hull OBE has been inspired.

Journalist Kym Nelson reports on the Women of the World Festival.

Last updated 09/03/2015

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