How to keep working moms from leaving advertising and marketing

The pandemic has set back progress for gender equality at work. BBDO's Rebecca Flaman explains how culture, leadership and insights can fight 'the pandemic of the pandemic.'
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By Rebecca Flaman

I came across a statistic the other day that has been keeping me up at night: over the course of the past year, levels of labour participation for women in North America have reverted to where they were in 1988. In other words, a generation of progress for women has been lost in just one year.

In November, data from RBC showed that while the three million job losses since the outset of the pandemic are split fairly evenly along gender lines, women accounted for roughly 64% of the increase in people who are no longer in the labour force – that is, while the vast majority of men who lost their jobs have either regained employment or are actively searching, women are simply choosing not to seek employment.

One of the reasons for this? Women are picking up the slack when it came to family care responsibilities that had become more onerous during the pandemic.

As both a woman and a mother, these statistics are more than sobering – they’re horrifying. We’ve seen how the pandemic has accelerated business trends like the adoption of ecommerce, but it’s also accelerating negative societal trends like income and wealth inequality, and reversing positive trends, such as a closing of the gender gap, although that’s been happening at a much slower pace than any of us should be comfortable with.

At this rate, the number of women leaving the workforce over the course of the past year – particularly working mothers –  is quickly becoming the pandemic of the pandemic. A recent New York Times article coined mothers as the “shock absorbers of our society” – working longer hours, homeschooling, taking on more childcare and household responsibilities with millions having to retreat from the workforce and their careers completely.

What does this mean for our industry? Although there is more work to be done, we have made notable progress over the past few decades in terms of closing the gender gap – there are more female leaders, more female creatives, more female strategists and more female clients. I am personally grateful for the trailblazers who fought to smooth the path for women like me. But hard-won battles are never guaranteed to last.

It was only a month into the pandemic that I began to realize how detrimental it was going to be for working mothers – myself included. Conversations were beginning to happen, articles written, statistics on the impact COVID was having on working mothers were beginning to emerge. It was looking bleak. But the silver-lining was there – the issues of inequality are being brought to the forefront. We have a chance to help reaccelerate and support the progress for women in advertising (and beyond) on the heels of this pandemic.

Employers have a huge role to play here – and it begins with leadership. During my very first Zoom onboarding with my new CEO, I had two young children crawling all over me, shooting cap guns and holding up drawings of cats. It was a circus. I was struggling to remain composed. But it just took a few empathetic words to put me at ease:

“This is hard.”

“Do what you need to do.”

“We can pick this up later.”

“Not to worry.”

Our industry is our people. Their well-being is absolutely critical. A strong agency culture realizes that and rises to the call of their people in tough times.

In this pandemic, our agency quickly rallied around their parent co-workers. We put a focus on creating the proper support network together, with an emphasis on creating a flexibility around each unique situation, finding a balance that’s right for our teammates, team support and providing access to resources from anything like UberEats to Disney+ subscriptions. We are a creative business and we knew that we needed to creatively put our minds to one of the biggest challenges affecting our talent. Even a simple acknowledgement that it’s not easy to juggle spelling tests with conference calls goes a long way, as it did with me.

We also have the benefit of a network that has access to incredible amounts of data and, this time, we are using it to better ourselves, to understand the gaps and develop solutions to support and retain working mothers.

Through OmniWomen & Allies, a global Omnicom collective that supports, empowers and advocates for women across our network, we are able to gather insights, analyze data, scrutinize policies and lead discussions in order to reinforce the link between women and the prosperity of our industry. This will allow us to bring forward workplace recommendations, benefits and policies to better support working women and mothers during this pandemic and beyond. With the support and reach of a global network, we can implement measurable change.

At this moment, women around the globe find themselves struggling in unison in almost identical ways. Through this we have found true camaraderie along with a fierce drive to build back a better, stronger culture which embraces more sustainable models from which true equality can be born. We need to make sure our valuable women workforce is not another casualty of this pandemic.  We are an  industry of very talented problem solvers so maybe we are exactly the industry that can help lead the way. Until then, I have some cap guns to contend with.

Rebecca Flaman is SVP, business director at BBDO Toronto.