When approached by media news site B&T about being part of a debate on quotas at their annual Changing the Ratio event, my response was emphatic: “I’d love to… But only if I’m on the pro-quotas side. It’s the only position I can argue convincingly.”
Call me narrow minded, but I couldn’t fathom standing there and encouraging the audience otherwise; especially when we were talking about them in the context of the media and advertising industry, which, by all accounts, is particularly Jurassic.
For me, the crux of it is this: Diversity isn’t just a gimmick– it’s not just about ethics (although of course that’s a part of it), but there’s a very real business case that goes with it. We know unequivocally that businesses do better when equal representation exists. Study after study shows us that where women flourish in decision making roles, in leadership capacities, organisations see better outcomes.
But the truth? Diversity and equality doesn’t just happen. Quotas make it happen.
The media hasn’t caught on to this reality yet. In fact, new research out a few weeks ago painted a dire picture. From 15 of the biggest news sites in the country, including The Australian, The Guardian, ABC, Yahoo7, 9News, BuzzFeed, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, women were still missing where it matters. In opinion pieces and columns, and especially those in politics and business, the situation was particularly bleak.
But what do we lose when women aren’t there? Well, for starters, women consume news in different way to men a lot of the time. We care about different issues to men a lot of the time. This is by virtue of the fact that things affect us differently.
For instance, news pertaining to cost of living pressures is likely to impact women—who typically make the majority of household spending decisions—differently to men. Or take an issue like paid parental leave, where women are more likely to take time out of the workforce to raise children. Even something as broad as climate change, will have a markedly different impact on women to men. It will impact women’s health differently, our homes differently, it will impact our decision to start and raise a family, it will impact our capacity to grow and harvest produce around the world.
How can we expect that the news we consume daily is laying out the facts in a way that is meaningful to us, when women’s voices are missing from the chorus? We desperately need diversity of thought.
The same is true for the advertising industry. Right now, women make up just one quarter of creatives in agencies. What does that lead to? Men getting four times as much screen time as women and referenced seven times more than women in advertising. This is a statistic that hasn’t changed in more than a decade.
The term sausage fest has never held as much truth as it does in media and advertising.
And no number of loose targets or supposed cultural overhauls are going to change this reality.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a damn shame we’re in a situation where we even need to be talking about quotas. If we hadn’t been constrained by sexist stereotypes for hundreds of years, perhaps we’d be further ahead by now. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Without quotas we’re never going to see that gap close. The old adage that women can’t be what they can’t see will continue to hold relevance and weight.
Right now in media, as a direct consequence of gender inequality, women are regularly plateauing at a certain level in their careers. They’re rarely rising to senior roles and when they do, they face a new level of judgement and scrutiny from the public and their peers. They’re assessed on their appearance rather than their content. If we maintain the status quo, we’ll continue to miss out on hearing women speak their truth and we’ll discourage future generations of women from entering the fray.
So, quotas are needed, and they’re needed desperately. It’s not enough to initiate soft solutions. We know they don’t work. If you need proof, just take a look at the present government. No quotas? No women.
Those opposing this reform will try to convince you that there’s some kind of legitimate argument around meritocracy. People should only be hired or promoted based on their merit and unique worth. But let’s be clear: meritocracy cannot exist where men are the only ones deciding who is meritorious– who sits at that table.
Do we really think that if meritocracy worked as wonderfully as they’d have you believe, that we’d have to squint to see the women in a gaggle of old, white guys?
There will be a time, years from now when we reflect on this very topic and question our rationale for refusing to act on this. Our kids will ask us about it and our grandkids will look at us like misguided (and potentially malignant) aliens.
Let’s try and lessen the embarrassment.
** Full disclosure, my team including SCA’s Arthur Georgiou and IBM’s Mari Kauppinen (both of whom were incredible) lost the debate to a very persuasive team which comprised the Diversity Council’s Lisa Annese, AFL’s Sarah Wyse and Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder founder Ant Melder.
There were no backstage bust-ups. But I’m prepared to go another round.