Choose to challenge for more than one day

Veritas' Krista Webster talks with fellow agency leaders about why COVID-19 has stressed that the push for equality is a year-round effort.

By Krista Webster

The organizers of International Women’s Day picked “#ChooseToChallenge” as this year’s theme, zeroing in on the need to call out gender inequality when we see and challenge the forces that keep it in place.

As I reflect on what “#ChooseToChallenge” means to me as a female leader in a historically male-dominated marketing communications industry, it made me proud to think about the company I currently keep.

In addition to leading PR and influencer marketing agencies Veritas and Meat & Produce, just prior to COVID, I was made vice-chair of a network of Canadian “sister” advertising, media and shopper agencies that are either lead or co-partnered by incredible women.

This reality already challenges the norm. For example, while public relations does attract more women in general, men still tend to own and lead the biggest holding companies, along with what is considered the “serious” side of communications – corporate.

But then COVID entered, and its regressive effects on women and gender equality came to a service industry that already defies normal business hours and rules of engagement. Women were further affected disproportionately and have come up against even greater challenges – namely their lack of choice to “challenge” the norms when they are fearful of losing their jobs, or of making the decision to leave altogether; worrying about the added burden of caring for parents; managing the craziness of homeschooling in between client service driven deadlines that are endless; and even being forced to put off having a baby, for fear of losing career momentum.

Adrianne Gaffney Wotherspoon, managing partner and chief strategist at 6Degrees, points out that the Prosperity Project’s research showed one third of Canadian women have considered quitting their jobs because of the situation they find themselves in, compared to one in five men. She goes on to suggest that it is sometimes hard to contemplate an equal future when we see that the present is just so stifling.

But at the same time, Wotherspoon also feels the heavy and urgent weight of responsibility to be a mentor and to challenge the status quo that has plagued our workforce and industry for so long – and frankly, which seasoned women like her learned to navigate and tolerate (normalize) over the years.

“When I first started out, it was hard – maybe even impossible – to find a senior-level female executive that I could relate to. While not as much as I would like, I see this changing, and I am an example of that. My hope is that younger women are increasingly able to find female mentors and role models they deserve, so they can stand on her shoulders and affect change more urgently.”

Catherine Marcolin, the newly appointed president of Union, has worked in advertising for over 20 years, and she sees some of effects of COVID as positive. It has forced her, as a leader, to be more flexible and empathetic and to adapt to new ways of doing business, which is a necessity for parents, especially those with young kids. We are, after all, in an industry that turns human insights into ideas, and COVID and kids are part of life, which brings new creative fodder to the table (or the Teams call).

Marcolin goes on to suggest that COVID has challenged the archaic nature of advertising and has given women leaders permission to change the rules.

“To a certain extent, it has given us a blank slate to reinvent how agencies work, how we recruit, and how to provide more flexible work environments for women who didn’t consider advertising as a career. And this change was long overdue, because we are in the business of creating ideas that emotionally connect to all people. If only half of that population is represented at the table, we are missing out on valuable perspectives from untapped talent.”

Adds Wotherspoon: “We’re not debating a change in our hiring practices, we’re doing it. We’re actively looking at places where we need to do better, and social pressures during COVID have made these conversations possible. It’s exciting,”

In spite of the negative forces – and some silver linings – for women in the workplace over the last year, the lack of diverse female representation at a leadership level weighs heavily on white leaders like me, Wotherspoon and Marcolin, and only punctuates the urgent need to #ChooseToChallenge the biases, norms, and double standards more than ever.

It’s also another reason why confronting female inequities needs to be a daily mantra. Really, the goal – for men and women – should be to advance female equality to a place in the workplace when we won’t need to celebrate ‘International Women’ one day a year.

“As one of our BIPOC employees said when I mentioned that I had been looking forward to one of our agency’s Diversity and Inclusion sessions all week, she said ‘I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,’” Wotherspoon says. 

Krista Webster is the president and CEO of Veritas Communications and Meat & Produce, as well as the vice chair of the MDC Partners Doner Network.