The World As It Should Be…

Last weekend I went to a festival. An actual, proper festival, with camping and everything – which if you know me even slightly, is somewhat out of character, seeing as I am the fluffy towel, chocolate on the pillow kind of traveller. I should point out that I glamped – so got there to find the tent already set up, complete with bed, duvet, pillows etc, so it’s probably cheating if you’re a ‘real’ camper.

The reason I was prepared to camp/glamp (although there was the option to stay in a hotel nearby and take a minibus to and from the campsite) was the nature of the festival itself. Oh, didn’t I say? I went to the Primadonna Festival – the very first one, as it happens, created to celebrate brilliant writing, music and ideas. Catherine Mayer, one of the Primadonnas (a handful of fabulous women behind the Festival, including Sabeena Akhtar, Joanna Baker, Jane Dyball, Shona Abhyankar, Jude Kelly, Alexis Kirschbaum, Lisa Milton, Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Sonia Purnell, Catherine Riley, Monisha Rajesh, Athena Stevens, Cathryn Summerhayes, Sandi Toksvig and Sioned Wiliam) described it as “the world as it should be for one weekend”, and it was the most extraordinarily warm, welcoming and inspiring experience.

The Primadonna Festival was designed to give ‘prominence to work by women’ and introduced ‘fresh voices alongside famous names in a fun and welcoming environment’. It totally lived up to and in many ways exceeded my expectations, for a number of reasons. Even from the beginning, it encouraged participants to be generous – at every stage there were opportunities to support others, whether it was the ability to donate a ticket for those who couldn’t stretch to it, donating fees for writers to enter the Primadonna Prize (so proud to be one of those longlisted), or donating against the cost of the minibus.

This generosity of spirit was embedded in everything about the Festival. Speakers were from varied backgrounds, opinions in discussion sessions were listened to, properly responded to whether agreed with or not, and everywhere, all the time, participants said hello to each other, made new friends and celebrated successes, large and small. I saw performance poets, met writers and agents, sang along with Ukelele karaoke, watched films by the campfire and laughed my socks off at Katy Brand, Sandi Toksvig and Ada Campe. But most of all, I came away feeling hopeful and energised for the first time in a long time, given what’s going on culturally and politically in the UK in recent years. It was the most fantastic example of female leadership in action – empowering, inspiring and engaging across the board. And what’s most interesting is that whether you attended or not, there’s been a ripple of extended engagement post the event on Twitter, so the spirit of Primadonna is being extended.

Fingers and toes crossed that this Festival runs again next year, because it’s an oasis of fabulousness in a world that feels increasingly claustrophobic.

Appearances matter

This time last week I was at the Creative Floor Awards, applauding outstanding creativity in the healthcare space. These particular awards are close to my heart, unique as they are in diverting a proportion of their profits – £65k and counting over the five years that the awards have been running – to charities focused on increasing diversity within the industry. Recipients of the Creative Floor Awards Talent Fund have included The School of Communication Arts 2.0, The Ideas Foundation, and the JOLT Academy.

Last year’s Talent Fund donations enabled The Ideas Foundation to help more than 370 kids from across the UK get exposure to the creative industries, including children from The Amos Bursary Trust which helps inspire and develop talented British students of African and Caribbean descent. It’s a rare example of a founder (Shaheed Peera) who has literally put his money where his mouth is, quite apart from the calibre of judges, which include Rankin, Trevor Beattie, Ben Kay from Apple and Tea Uglow from Google, as well as heavy-hitting creatives from healthcare specialist agencies.

Given all of that, the lack of diversity amongst those who took to the stage was striking. Bravo to Concentric Health for their fabulously female winners, and to agencies like McCann Health, Publicis Life Brands and Saatchi Wellness who appeared to take great care to share the limelight across mixed gender teams, but they were sadly few and far between. If you were a casual observer, or new to the industry, it would be easy to walk away thinking that opportunities for anyone other than educated white men are sadly lacking.

You may think that it doesn’t matter who goes up to collect an award, that they represent teams which are much more diverse than they appear, but it does, it really does. When you have a woman relegated to taking pictures from the sidelines for the company blog instead of up there on stage with the rest of the team, or the lone BAME team member sticks out like a sore thumb – I wish I’d been counting, it would have been a handful of times I saw a non-white face picking up an award (again bravo Concentric Health), you can’t help but go away with a view of the industry which is less than inclusive.

We have a responsibility as leaders to celebrate difference and to showcase diversity in all its forms. So when you’re thinking about who gets to collect the next award, or show up at an industry event, it’s worth bearing in mind that the best way to attract diverse talent is to demonstrate how open and inclusive your organisation already is or aspires to be. It’s not tokenism, it’s one of the ways you build the future.

Looking the elephant in the eye

There’s an elephant in the room, so what are you going to do about it? Do you address the issue head on, or do you skirt it because you’re afraid of conflict? Do you do your best to stop people from talking about it, or do you find a way to have an open discussion? How can you find a way to agree to disagree when tempers are running high?

Don’t know what I’m talking about? I bet you do. In the space of a few short months, two popular votes that didn’t go the way that they were predicted to have had a seismic effect on relationships between friends, within families and in the workplace. I am of course talking about the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election, both of which polarised opinions, sending shockwaves through our respective nations.

The problem is, regardless of which way you voted (or indeed would have voted had you been given the opportunity), we all have to live with each other after the votes have been counted, but that’s easier said than done when people’s emotions are so actively engaged.  I think it’s fair to say that both the referendum and the election campaigns were hard-fought, highly emotionally charged and many untruths were shared online and offline.

People have developed passionately partisan views, and it has sometimes felt (certainly in the UK) that those who disagree with the outcome of the vote are being pushed to accede without protest or further debate. For me, the truth at the heart of any democracy is the belief in freedom and equality between people, and that must mean the freedom to express one’s opinion whilst being open to constructive challenge.

As it happens, I think that’s at the heart of great teamwork and great businesses too, because people don’t work well in teams unless they feel listened to and that their views matter.  Teams don’t work well if they’re at each others’ throats either, and as leaders we need to help our people find new ways to work together after these difficult months. I don’t think anyone’s under the illusion that all of a sudden we can wave a wand and we’ll be skipping along hand in hand as though nothing’s happened, but we do have a responsibility to our colleagues to address the elephant in the room.

The big question is how? Well, for starters it’s probably not a good idea to stifle debate or close down discussion of the topic, that way it goes underground and can become even more divisive. I’m not suggesting you hold forums to debate which way the vote(s) went and whether people agree with it or not, more that you set the tone for any discussion. Personal abuse is not acceptable in any environment, and if that’s happening then it needs to be addressed regardless of the views being expressed.

Leading by example is also critically important in these difficult times, and that means showing through our own behaviour that outdated attitudes are just that – outdated. We must actively address any instances of sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination, not simply for the sake of the individuals concerned, but also because of the wider impact it has on the world around us, including our workplace.

I realise that for many this is preaching to the converted, but in these troubled times we need to speak up rather than staying silent. Listen to what people say, acknowledge their point of view, but then stand up for what’s right, because if we keep ignoring that elephant it’ll never leave.

The story of our youth…

In the UK, the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain has become a bit of an institution over the 60 years since it was founded by the legendary Michael Croft. For me as a teenager some 30 years ago (gulp) it was somewhat of a lifeline when, at the third time of auditioning, I was accepted onto one of their summer courses.  It opened my eyes to a world beyond London and the suburbs, and brought me into contact with people I would otherwise never have met.

On Sunday I attended the NYT’s 60th Anniversary Diamond Gala at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and “Story of Our Youth” was mesmerising – not because of the many starry alumni present – but because of the sheer energy of the 90-strong young cast.  Many of those young people had not been on a stage before that night, but the level of professionalism was daunting and would put many seasoned performers to shame. As I sat there I recalled the things that I learned during my time at the NYT and how they have served me during a career that did not include treading the boards after all, but focused on the effective communication of information about health and wellbeing  – something that unites all of us at one time or another.

Paul Roseby, the current Director of the NYT summed it up very succinctly when he declared that the performances we’d just seen and indeed the work of the National Youth Theatre itself epitomised a currently unfashionable word: ensemble. I don’t think he just meant an ensemble cast though, I think what he really meant is what we achieve when teams work seamlessly together, when by acting together we are more powerful than we might be as individuals, and where each person has an opportunity to shine (and nobody feels threatened by that because we’re all too busy playing to our strengths).

Of course, to do that you have to feel confident about your worth in the first place. Channel 4 News Anchor and NYT alumni Krishnan Guru-Murthy had it right when he said that for those of us who didn’t end up ‘following the dream’ what the National Youth Theatre had given him was self-confidence and self-belief. I think that’s as true now as it was then. For every James Bond (and the NYT has two – Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig, both of whom made a point of thanking the organisation for giving them opportunities they would never otherwise have had) there are many people not in that world whose achievements started when somebody saw something in them and gave them a chance.

Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully, what the NYT gave me was an acceptance and celebration of difference. In a time when the debate about diversity and opportunity (or the lack of it) is raging, the NYT stands as an organisation which has been consistently supportive of people across the spectrum – the only discriminator is talent in their eyes. Their bursaries support young people in financial hardship who can’t afford to attend their excellent courses, and they have championed new writers and backstage talent with as much gusto as those standing in the spotlight.

Like I say, I learned a lot in a few short weeks and imbibed some lessons that have stood me in good stead throughout my career – and that are as important today as they were then. Who doesn’t want to be part of an ensemble, to feel confident in themselves, and to support diversity of opportunity for all? Thanks, NYT.

It’s not about the shoes

Last week the Social Mobility Commission released a report looking at socio-economic diversity in life sciences and investment banking. You might be forgiven for thinking that the story was all about the danger of wearing brown shoes with a blue suit if you’re looking for a job in the City, judging by the media coverage, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Turns out, people in investment banking tend to hire people who are like themselves. Now there’s a surprise (not). Then again, equally startlingly,  people in life sciences organisations end up hiring people who’ve gone to the most well-known or prestigious universities. And, guess what, students from non-privileged backgrounds tend not to go to the elite universities from which employers prefer to select candidates – and even when they do, those students self-select out of the recruitment process if they feel they won’t fit in or that employers aren’t seeking diversity in their organisation.

None of this is particularly new, in fact it’s depressingly familiar.  Regardless of whether you have a degree or not, for many people who don’t display the same speech patterns, accent, behaviour and dress sense as their interviewers, the path to a job offer is that much harder.

That’s not all. According to the Social Mobility Commission’s 2015 research, a degree doesn’t have the same value for all graduates. Even when you account for differences in institution and subject, students from higher income families earn around 10% more. And Black African degree-holders are 14% less likely than their white peers to be in professional work 6 months after graduation. So, even if you’ve made it to university, coming from non-privileged backgrounds means you remain at a disadvantage as you enter the world of work.

How can we change this? Well, there continue to be important and influential drives within the creative and communications industries to increase the diversity of our workforce to ensure equal access to opportunity based on talent alone – there are great organisations like The Ideas Foundation and Creative Access that make a huge difference in encouraging young people from all backgrounds to break into our field.  The innovative Publicis Lab for Bright Sparks scheme is now in its third year (disclaimer: I was involved in its initial development some years ago), with applications closing 9 September 2016 and is a great example of how to attract a different kind of talent into the workplace.

There’s more to be done though, and one of the most important things we can do to drive and support diversity in our industry is to break the code. By that I mean helping interviewers and candidates at all levels to understand some of the unwritten rules that influence the way they assess and are assessed.  We need a level of self-knowledge as interviewers that helps us to challenge our unconscious preconceptions and prejudices so that we are able to see more clearly what someone has to offer rather than perhaps being put off by the fact they speak differently or don’t present themselves in a way that makes you feel comfortable in putting them in front of a client. It’s especially important when it comes to entry level roles to hire for talent, not for polish, because whilst you can help people to bring a bit of shine to the way they operate, it’s nothing without the spark inside.

As senior leaders and practitioners, the advice above probably reads a bit “grandmother: eggs” but let’s not forget that for many new graduates and entry level candidates, their first interview almost certainly won’t be with you – it’ll probably be with a mid-manager, someone unlikely to have the same level of training and interview experience that you have built up over the years. As we develop new managers and coach them through the best ways to identify talent, let’s not forget to teach them how to identify and eliminate their own unconscious biases, so that those uniquely diverse individuals we’re looking for don’t get weeded out during the first round before you even get to meet them.

Time to build some bridges

It’s hard to ignore really, when the majority of newspapers and broadcasts highlight today’s Institute of Fiscal Studies report showing that on average, women earn 18% less than men. Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party was on twitter this morning pleading with journalists keen to show ‘balance’ in their reporting not to field interviews with experts arguing that women choose to “put motherhood ahead of career” and that therefore it’s our own fault that we are paid less.  She’s right. Should we all stop having children altogether? Is that the only answer to addressing this issue?

As it happens, fewer women are having children. The birthrate in Europe is continuing to fall, with the only region bucking that trend being Scandinavia where – you’ve guessed it – there’s generous parental leave, subsidised childcare and a real focus on gender equality.  And, as our population continues to age, there’s a demographic timebomb just around the corner – the proportion of people aged 85+ in the UK is expected to rise sharply over the next 50 years.

But I digress. When it comes to narrowing the gender gap in the workplace, we know what the problem is. The pay gap widens once women return to work after having children (by the time your child is 12 years old, your hourly pay could lag behind that of men by as much as 33%), and it’s not just about parity of salary, it’s about parity of opportunity. Mark Crail, content director at XpertHR was quoted in the Guardian as saying “the gender pay gap is not primarily about men and women being paid differently for doing the same job. It’s much more about men being present in greater numbers than women the higher up the organisation you go. Our research shows that this gap begins to open up at relatively junior levels and widens – primarily because men are more likely to be promoted”.

Let’s be honest, the gap sometimes happens because of experience-lag. A man and a woman start work at the same company on the same day. Two years later she takes maternity leave and he doesn’t. When she returns he’s got three years’ experience and she’s got two – simple maths. But is it beyond us to create upskilling programmes that will help women returning from maternity leave to catch up?  If men are more confident when it comes to asking for a payrise or a promotion (which many studies have shown they are), it’s then a double-whammy for a woman returning to work. A bit less experience, someone who’s less skilled at asking for what they feel they deserve and bingo, the gap starts to widen.

It’s not all about having children and taking time out anyway, it’s about finding ways to change the way that we work so that we can accommodate greater flexibility for everyone. In the agency world, it’s not uncommon for clients to insist that they only want one point of contact. And it’s usually clients holding the biggest budgets (and therefore the largest agency teams) asking for the single point of contact.

I do get it, the fact that having lots of people asking you for information and to make decisions can be incredibly distracting when you’re busy enough as it is, but what happens within the agency is that staffing decisions get made sometimes on the basis of whether or not someone can be that 5-day a week client contact.   So, I have a fantastic client handler who’s ideal for the role, just the right experience and likely to be a good match from a chemistry point of view, but she’s working three days a week – what do I do?

Well, sometimes you can push back but often you can’t, not if you want to keep the business and keep the client happy.  And so another gap starts to open up for a woman who is bright, talented, hardworking and someone with a real future in the industry, even though a bit of flexibility from the client would mean I could pair her with someone and together they would be an even better answer for the client’s requirements.

As leaders we need to be constantly alert to these issues and modify our approach to address them. Equality isn’t something that just happens because of legislation, it’s something that happens when we think creatively about how to coach, enable, push and empower talented individuals to reach their full potential. We can’t always close the gap completely, however much we want to, but we must work harder to find ways to bridge it.

Time to practice what we preach

I’ve worked in healthcare communications for more than 20 years and in all that time I don’t believe I’ve ever interviewed, let alone hired anyone with a disability.  Every office I’ve worked in has been fully equipped with facilities for people with disabilities including lifts, ramps and disabled toilets, but I can’t recall seeing a single person who needed to use those facilities.  I’m also pretty sure I haven’t worked with anyone living with visual impairment or indeed with anyone who has hearing difficulties, for example.  Attending the first Cannes Lions Health Festival I was blown away by a speech from Francesca Martinez, a stand-up comedian who has cerebral palsy (but who prefers to describe herself as ‘wobbly’), but I’ve never come across anybody working in our industry who is ‘wobbly’ or otherwise coping with disability.

When you consider the debate across the communication industries about the need to reflect the society in which we live, and the fact that in the UK there are more than 6.9 million disabled people of working age (approximately 19% of the working population, according to the Disabled Living Foundation), my experience is startling, and I am sad to say that I am not alone.  Just this week Sara Hawthorn, owner of PR agency InFusion Comms, wrote in PR Week that “after almost 10 years in the PR industry I have never knowingly met another PR professional who has any kind of disability and that needs to change.” She’s right when she says that there’s a stark lack of conversation around inclusivity and how to create a positive culture around disabled PR professionals.

I’m a big proponent of women’s equality in the workplace, and as I wrote earlier this week, there are important campaigns running in many agencies and holding companies to support gender diversity, as indeed there are about LGBT rights and providing equal opportunities to BAME communities, but where are the equal access campaigns for people with disabilities? I don’t mean physical access, I mean access to careers and opportunities – although let’s not forget just getting to the office can be a mountain to climb for wheelchair users or anyone with a physical disability who needs assistance getting on and off trains. Imagine if you had to book assistance 24 hours in advance, for every train, every day – twice a day – and if you’re unfortunate enough to have to use Southern Rail for your commute you’re totally stuffed before you start – but I digress. The widespread introduction of flexible working policies across many agencies though means that more and more people are able to work from home as the traditional desk-bound model of working fades away, and surely this is another reason why now, more than ever, we can and should accommodate people with differing physical abilities.

As an industry we’re getting much better at supporting people coping with mental health problems (although we’ve still got a long way to go) and if you’re diagnosed with a serious illness most employers are fantastic at helping you to stay working and employed, but we need to find ways to open doors for people living with disabilities.  As healthcare communicators we often speak for and on behalf of people coping with disability, so why aren’t we employing disabled people who can share their lived experience with us and be part of our teams? When we pitch for business, we’ll often seek out somebody living with, say, psoriasis or diabetes to help us understand the impact this might have on their lives, and we can often find people with those types of experiences working within our agencies – but finding an employee who’s living with disability? Pretty much impossible.

Where to begin? Well, I guess we can make a start by talking about the issue, and thank you again to Sara Hawthorn for raising it in the first place, because I was certainly ashamed by my ignorance and lack of attention to the problem. We can ask recruiters to think about how to help us address the issue, we can be specific in our job ads, going beyond the usual “open to all” statements to be clear about how someone with a disability might be suitable for the role(s). If I were in agency now I’d be talking to my HR team about how we could create an open access entry scheme for people with disabilities – but I’m not, so I hope someone else will take the hint. Above all else we need to make it as OK to talk about disability in the agency workplace as it is to talk about any other topic.  Let’s do it.

How much are you worth?

The thorny question of remuneration is in the news today, as the High Pay Centre analysis of annual reports found that the salaries of chief executives in the FTSE 100 had increased more than 10% last year compared to the previous year. It’d be interesting to know whether their respective company revenues and profits grew similarly, don’t you think?

Are you surprised though, to hear that of the five female chief executives within the FTSE 100, none were within the top ten best paid (and that’s data from 2014 and 2015). Funnily enough, according to The Times today, “ten companies…had no female executive directors and no women on the remuneration committees that draw up plans for pay and bonuses.”  So, not only is it tough for women to get to the top, if you do get there chances are you won’t be paid the same as your male counterparts.  And for most of us, how would you even know that you aren’t being rewarded in the same way, especially when it comes to discretionary elements of remuneration packages such as performance related bonuses?

The 2016 PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association) looked at (amongst other things) the influence of gender on salary and remuneration in a survey of 1,874 people carried out by YouGov.  Across the board, women earned an average of £9,000 less than men – and where people were given a bonus, the average given to women was approximately £4,000, compared to an average of £6,000 for men.  Some of the differences can be explained by the fact that there are more men than women working at a senior level within PR agencies. As PR Week reported, in agencies women outnumbered men by three to one among the junior ranks, but two-thirds of board directors or partners were men.

A quick look at the WPP 2015 Annual Report reinforces the seniority issue. Women made up 29% of the board and 33% of staff working at director or executive leadership level, set against an overall 54% of employees. Similar numbers abound at other media holding companies. So, women are entering the industry in ever-increasing numbers but not making it to the higher levels of leadership in the same numbers as men.

There’s a belief amongst some Millennials that the gender gap is a generation gap, and that as Millennials increasingly climb the corporate ladder, the number of women in leadership roles will automatically even out, but that’s not going to happen without sustained support.  Most of the big agencies and holding companies have been putting in place programmes designed to engage with women, provide role models and networking opportunities (Publicis has VivaWomen, Omnicom has Omniwomen – you get the picture) so change is definitely coming, but there’s a lot more to be done.

As with so many things, knowledge is power, so if you don’t know whether you’re being rewarded appropriately for what you do, make it your business to find out.  Check in with trusted peers, speak to your HR department if you have one and if all else fails, have a chat with a friendly recruiter to benchmark what you’re worth.  There’s nothing wrong with negotiating, or for deciding to settle a little under market value if other aspects of the job you do outweigh the purely financial, but if you don’t know where you sit vs the rest of the world, you’re not in the best position to make the right decision for you.  Good luck – and remember, you’re worth it.

Anything is possible

Today’s twitter feed has been notable for two stories in particular. Firstly, a letter in the Financial Times from members of the Investor Group of the 30% Club expressing disappointment that progress towards the target of one-third of FTSE 350 board positions by 2020 has slowed, according to the Female FTSE Board Report 2016.

This, from the foreword to the report, sums it up: “If we are to see sustained gender diversity at the top of business we must do more to ensure women progress through the executive pipeline. The reality is that progress in women’s representation remains too slow. Analysis in this report also gives us an insight into women’s representation at Executive Committee level in the FTSE 100, showing that they hold only 19.4% of Executive Committee roles.  In 2016 it is unacceptable that women continue to be an exception when it comes to the most senior leadership positions in business.”

The second story, all over the mainstream media as well as online, is that of Kevin Roberts, currently taking a leave of absence from his role as chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, who claimed in an interview that the debate about gender diversity is over, and that he doesn’t think the lack of women in leadership roles is a problem, commenting, “their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy.” Senior leaders at Publicis Groupe, owners of Saatchi and many of the world’s best known communications companies, have roundly condemned his comments and rightly so, as have many other leaders within the communications industry.

In this sector as in so many others, speaking out in support of women’s career development and finding ways to help people flex around their personal lives is driving real change, but it takes time.  One of the most positive things to come from Kevin Roberts’ comments was the way in which so many leaders responded, re-emphasising the importance of women in the workforce, and it was refreshing to see Publicis’ walking the talk by taking such swift action.

There is still a long way to go, and the Female FTSE Board Report suggests that instead of having an individual focus on women, organisations take a more holistic approach to ensuring that women are able to bring their full potential to work – which means looking differently at the way businesses are designed, the processes and behaviours that can ensure people from diverse backgrounds are best set for success.

In a month when the UK Conservative party appointed its second female prime minister and the US Democratic Party selected its first female presidential nominee, appearances can be deceiving. It’s all very well standing up and saying that their appointments show our daughters that anything is possible, but the fact remains that for many women, achieving their ambition feels a long way out of reach.  As a leader and a manager, ask yourself what you can do to help the women you work with achieve their potential.