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Creativity Knows No Gender, but Agency Creative Departments Sure Do

Why Motherhood and Creative Directing Don't Mix

By Published on . 17

Karen Mallia
Karen Mallia
This year's Advertising Age Women to Watch were asked the question: Why are there so few women creative directors? The answers barely scratched the surface of this complex subject -- one I and several other academic researchers have been investigating for several years. I've interviewed dozens of women on the subject, both highly successful creatives and others who dropped out, detoured or reinvented themselves after spending years building creative careers.

There is no doubt an extraordinarily complex relationship between sex and the creative job, or it wouldn't still be an issue 100 years after women entered the field. Creative women have not enjoyed the level of success that women have found in every other advertising-agency department. The number of women in account management has doubled in the past two decades, resulting in equivalent numbers of men and women. More than half of planning and research employees are women. In media, women outnumber men 3-to-2. Yet, in creative, the ratio of men to women is 2.3-to-1.

Research shows that portfolio schools have had a fairly equal gender breakdown in the past few years. Women enter creative departments in numbers equal to men, yet they hold just 18% of creative-director positions -- the logical career progression after seven to 15 years. So what happens?

What's working against women
A convergence of cultural and organizational factors inhibits many women from climbing the creative ladder. First, there's the pervasive masculine culture in agency creative departments. While some women can deal with it, research shows being an "outsider" negatively affects careers -- and creativity. It's an environment particularly hostile to female leadership as well.

Second, while their portfolios may get them their first jobs, a great book alone doesn't get people hired in middle- to upper-level creative jobs. Creative directors show a conscious or unconscious prejudice for hiring people like themselves -- people they want to hang around with. That buddy system often plays a role in giving out plum creative assignments, too. If women get sidelined to tampons and diapers, they're unlikely to build award-show currency that furthers their careers.

Most important, the economic pressures of the past few years have made creative jobs tougher and more competitive for everyone -- with fewer people doing more work, shorter lead times and 24/7 client demands. Combine that with the inherent nature of creative work and the way creative departments function, and work-life balance is almost impossible. Few advertising agencies have embraced policies that foster flex time, job sharing and flexi-place, the very workplace programs proven to enhance women's careers.

Despite all that, women have succeeded in becoming creative directors in advertising agencies. And research has sifted out the traits they share: great creative talent, a competitive nature, resilience and an outgoing personality. They are politically astute, primarily focused on career and/or childless.

Aha, and there we have it: Gender isn't really the issue; motherhood is.

Can't have it all
No matter what your sex, a creative job is highly competitive, an unrelenting mind game that knows no timetable. As the second wave of feminism proved, you can't have it all. So sacrifices are made. For some, that's the agency career. For others, that's children. Years ago, McCann Erickson, New York, Chairman Nina DiSesa directly said, "I wouldn't have this job if I had kids."

Some brilliant women opt out of agencies for freelance and consulting, such as former Wieden & Kennedy Art Director Charlotte Moore and Sally Hogshead, founding creative director/managing director of Crispin Porter & Bogusky's West Coast office, who is self-employed as a consultant. Others, such as Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO-chief creative officer, Kaplan Thaler Group, and Joyce King Thomas, exec VP-chief creative officer at McCann Erickson, New York, are lucky enough to have househusbands, or husbands whose careers give them more flexibility. Research didn't reveal a single major-league executive creative director who has both children and a husband with an equally demanding job.

A rare few get to job-share, like Ogilvy Toronto's co-executive creative directors, Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk. They also work in Canada, where generous maternity benefits and flexibility further underscore the huge impact organizational culture and policies can play in helping women succeed. Still others work in smaller advertising markets, leverage individually negotiated flexibility or part-time deals that aren't widespread, start their own agencies, or freelance.

Sex roles are socialized. For creative women with fairly traditional expectations of motherhood, role conflict becomes untenable. They cannot have two 24/7 jobs. Creative work is just too consuming. Those women exit for alternate careers in real estate, academia and other fields.

The sad fact is that promotion and leadership in the creative department coincides with the ticking biological clock. And the creative job is much more difficult to balance with motherhood than any other agency position. Until huge institutional change occurs, women creative directors will remain an endangered species.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen Mallia is a former copywriter and creative director who teaches creative strategy, copywriting and advertising campaigns at the University of South Carolina. She previously taught advertising at the City College of New York and at Fashion Institute of Technology/State University of New York. Her New York agency career spanned two decades and numerous agencies, among them Ogilvy; Scali, McCabe, Sloves; TBWA/Chiat/Day; and a host of smaller shops. She worked on brands ranging from cars to cosmetics, Fiberglas to fragrance to financial services. She continues to do strategic and creative consulting.
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