Diversifying a white man’s world

How does a lack of diversity in the senior ranks impact strategy, creativity and the bottom line? “It’s a brain drain.”

According to Statistics Canada, women make up 58.3% of the workforce, and as of 2006 (the latest statistics available), 61% of post-secondary graduating students. Visible minorities (excluding Aboriginals) make up 16.3% of the workforce, and 16.2% of the total Canadian population. This number is expected to rise to 28% by 2031.

Despite having proportional representation at the lower ranks, women and visible minorities make up only a fraction of senior management positions (29% and 5.2% respectively, according to a joint study by Deloitte and Carleton University, and another by the Conference Board of Canada). These numbers drop even further at the CEO and board member levels (as low as zero in some sectors, such as manufacturing).

While companies appear to have made great strides in creating a diverse workforce, at the top end, it’s still a white man’s world.

That lack of decision-making diversity does not pay off. Studies vary, but companies with a diverse leadership often out-perform by as much as 47% in terms of revenue compared to similar companies with white, male-led boards and management. So why then, despite the economic argument for diversity at the top, are companies struggling to fill senior positions with women and minority groups?

Within the marketing world, creative agencies still largely look like they did in the ’60s, dominated by men in president, CEO, CCO positions while the names topping the creative credits that cross strategy’s desk tend to be male-dominated. In fact, of the 300 creative directors on last month’s Creative Report Card, only 44 are women – that’s 14%. That doesn’t even reflect the national average for women in middle manager positions.

On the brand side, women and visible minorities appear to have better representation. Companies like Campbell and Loblaw have long had programs and networks designed for marginalized groups. However, even TD – hailed by the Corporate Knights Diversity Leadership Index as the most diverse Canadian company – maintains a board that is only 38% female. Better, but still not proportional. Further, out of 492 Canadian Fortune 500 companies, only 27 have a female head or CEO.

But efforts are pointing to a change. In 2009, Unilever’s global CEO, Paul Polman, announced his desire to increase women in leadership positions, stating the qualities they bring to the table (such as authenticity in leadership and long-term planning abilities) are a good business argument, and its Women Interactive Network is rolling out some ambitious plans to help get there.

Strategy set out to examine the issue of diversity (or lack thereof) and its impact on creative, strategy and the bottom line. So to kick things off, we invited folks from the industry to discuss the issue.

Check back in April and May, when we look at the business case for diversity at senior levels and search for real-world solutions.


Aldo Cundari, chairman and CEO, Cundari

Susan Lloyd, senior director, talent, Loblaw

Alison Leung, marketing director, brand building and co-chair of WIN, Unilever

Matthew Logue, VP strategy and partner, S&E Sponsorship Group

Mary Maddever, editor in chief, strategy magazine (moderator)

Nancy Vonk, founder, Swim


Maddever: Research has shown companies that have a very diverse and balanced group [at the senior management level] do better. In the areas of advertising and marketing, where people are charged with coming up with insights, there are really good business reasons to make sure that the teams have all of the knowledge and deep cultural understanding that they need to talk to the many ethnic communities in Canada. On the brand side, there is great diversity with programs that are welcoming. On the agency side, there are some that are good, some that are not. In areas such as creative, it seems to still be very male-dominated. It is important for everyone to see senior roles as something they can shoot for. I think when we’re looking at diversity at agencies, it’s an issue when all the senior creative directors are white guys.

Logue: In my direct experience it has not been an issue. I work at a small agency, we have representation from multiple ethnicities and there’s a female partner, male partner, different sexualities. When I look at the brands I work with, certainly there’s not an issue at those companies. I work with an organization on their hockey program, and all the senior leads are female.

Cundari: When I hire, my biggest criteria is I don’t hire stupid people. I’m not going to force a mandate. Eighty percent of my office is now women. Even in our creative group, we’ve found a pretty even balance. I would say the senior guys are still male, but ethnically we’re completely diverse. And all the bright stars we have now – all the juniors – are women. But there’s a point in their career where they’re doing so well and boom! They’re gone.

Vonk: I had a late realization in life that gender is a problem. Just because I haven’t had a problem with it doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on. The problem is certainly not evident in schools – there are probably more women graduating than men going into our field and tons of women in the industry – but there is undeniably a mass exodus at the point where [women] should be stepping into the more senior roles. It bears a lot of consideration because it’s a brain drain.

When I was CCO, I know how hard it was to find any black people. I think it’s dangerous to make sweeping generalizations, of course. I know it’s such a crisis in the U.S. that ad organizations are trying to get to the high schools and create conditions of success for people who are a bit more marginalized. We are a creative industry. We should be able to figure out a creative solution to stem the tide.

Logue: But why is it an issue? I think a group full of men could market to women and a group of women could market to men. I don’t think it has to do with sex. As a marketer, it’s your job to market to your demo.

Maddever: On a practical level there are things you’re going to miss. If you don’t have the same inherent knowledge, you’re not going to get to the same place as quickly.

Leung: But to support Matt’s point, the creative team that worked on OB tampons are men. I don’t think we can generalize to say that men can’t market tampons, or women can’t market cars, [but] it’s easier if you get your period.

Vonk: Dove’s famous spot was done by two men, but they were well served by being part of a diverse team. It’s never about one creative person being the hero. If you don’t say, “I want to see a bit of rainbow action going on here,” you get into the problem of telling yourself, “No, we all think differently. We all happen to be the same colour and gender, but we think differently.” I don’t think that’s a healthy model.

Logue: I don’t think the opposite is healthy either.

Vonk: I never hired for colour or gender. But I do think there’s room for us to step back and say, “Can we all come out ahead if we look at root problems and create more opportunities for a bigger group to come to the party?” I think it comes down to the will of the leader.

Leung: Globally, Unilever is trying to get women into senior leadership roles. We sponsored a women-in-networking conference in October, and our global CEO was the keynote speaker. He made it very clear that “I’m not doing this because it’s the right thing to do; I’m doing this because it’s right for business.” He talked about the three attributes women bring to business. They’re usually more authentic leaders, more flexible and collaborative, and think longer term. And all of those things are good for Unilever. So [he said] “I need 60% of leadership to be women, because I want those values in my company.”

We have a committee called Women’s Interactive Network (WIN) and I’m a co-chair. The mandate is to increase the engagement of women and retain key female talent. What I’ve seen is women self-selecting themselves out, either not staying with the company or saying, “I’m not going to go any further, I’m staying right here.” Our opportunity [at Unilever] is how do we keep these talented women between the ages of 30 and 40 (prime family/child care years) fulfilled and staying with the company so they can continue to add value and progress.

Vonk: I think the issues that are working against mom’s favour are equally not helping the guys either. Why shouldn’t a guy be as engaged in their child’s upbringing as their partner? I think an even bigger opportunity is to find new ways of doing business that ends the penalty of being a parent. This is where creativity can come in. It calls for a more creative idea.

Leung: Unilever is [becoming] agile. That means you don’t have to sit in your office nine to five, Monday to Friday. If you want to work from home, you work it out with your manager. What we’ve said is we trust that you’ll get the work done and you decide where, when and how you work. It was a mind shift change. When someone on my team said, “I want to work from home, one day a week,” I had to say, “I know I need to let you do that.” And I realized I completely trust her. The job always gets done.

Lloyd: [For flex time] we have some of the same policies in our corporate office. One group it’s helping is people with young children. It’s okay because you’re at home and you’re able to balance and you don’t feel like you’re contributing less than others in the office.

Cundari: About five years ago, I had this idea that we were a service business so you have to be there five days a week and then [women on] mat leave would come back and ask for a four day a week [schedule] and I’d say no. We’d lose people. I didn’t know any better then. So I said, let’s try it. We had four ladies on four-day weeks, and I realized they were putting five-day weeks in. Technology does not allow them to walk away from their job. The biggest hurdle we have is collaboration. We’re trying to implement new tools to do desktop-to-desktop conferencing. It seems to be working to a point – some people are still visual. I don’t know if it will solve everything.

Vonk: If you have the right employees it can work. But having the open mind to try things and be open to experiment is a great first step for the employer. And to make employees feel that they’re welcome to come forward with what they need to succeed [is of equal importance]. I knew one woman who just had a baby and went to her boss and said, “I’m supposed to be in Vancouver for six weeks. Can I take the baby?” And it was fine. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary.

Lloyd: I think you have to be careful that [only looking at family] prevents businesses from looking at other issues that are underlying [the lack of diversity at senior ranks] as well. It’s certainly a large percentage [leading to the problems.] But there are other systemic things that are no-brainers. When we look at our store leadership, we assumed it was family obligations [pulling women out]. What we found was a drop off on training, sometimes in the “fresh food training.” The women are often in the non-fresh, non-produce, non-meat departments, and store leaders require this knowledge. [Now we have] a “fresh” training program and we try to ensure women are taking advantage of it.

Leung: Rather than focusing on what percentage [of senior leadership] is female, we’re really focused on preventing women from self-selecting themselves out. A few years ago, if you were a female brand manager and said, “I just want to stay at this level,” we would have said, “I don’t know if there’s a future for her.” Now we say, “What can we do to keep her here so that in a couple years she’s still around.”

Logue: Do men participate in WIN?

Leung: Yes! We want to include men. Everyone is welcome. And the great thing we found is that a lot of the things women want, men wanted too. [In WIN] there are four pillars. First, a workforce pillar, which is all about attracting and retaining top female talent – networking is a part of that. It’s also got the mentorship program. So every assistant brand manager or brand manager will have a mentoree. Everybody can use it.
The next pillar is about workplace, and it’s about driving the inclusion of women with policies. So things like agile [hours], flextime programs, child care. We did a crappy job with maternity leaves. No one would call [those women]. No one would talk to them. No one would invite them to anything. And then we realized, why wouldn’t we want them to still feel connected to Unilever? Now they have buddies and sponsors. We want them to feel like they’re being taken care of.

Then we have [a] marketplace [pillar], which attracts female workers, saying, “Hey, Unilever is a great place to work if you’re a women.”

The last pillar is about [building a female-focused CSR push in the] community, because we are focused on our sustainability program.
We don’t have a committee for ethnicity. I know when you look at our global people survey, we’re pretty diverse. People feel included, they don’t feel discriminated against. I know we don’t track sexual orientation, but we do have the pride committee that has a similar objective to WIN.

Lloyd: [At Loblaw] we piloted a “Day in her shoes” [program]. Female and male executives, who are trying to understand the experience of female store managers, shadow for the day. It’s not that her job is different, but it’s a chance to dialogue in a casual way.  We also have a senior director of diversity and inclusion [with a team] tasked with developing strategic initiatives that are business-focused and that provide exposure for both men and women. [We realized] the lens through which you identify talent needs to be fairly broad. If you apply a diverse lens, you will get a diverse group.

Logue: That’s not just a reflection of women in the room. It’s a reflection of men who want women in the room.

Vonk: I never found [the lack of diversity] to be something people sat around and talked about. Especially if you’re successful yourself, you think it’s no problem.

Leung: I find it’s changing though.

Lloyd: I think there is more dialogue – but probably not enough yet – because people are learning how to have the conversation and the business argument is a safe way to lead things. I think it can be an uncomfortable topic. You need to know how to have the conversation.