Dear Liz, what can we do to improve ethnic diversity within the industry?

Dear Liz, what can we do to improve ethnic diversity within the industry?

“The voice is loud – but is anyone listening?”, this article was first published in the IPA Blog.

Liz Nottingham, Agency HR Director, FIPA and co-founder of the Back2businessship Programme, discusses the key areas to focus on to help the industry move faster towards equality and a diverse workforce.

As I look through the latest diversity report, I find myself thinking that “inching” is a good word. I am very pleased to read that the diversity and ethnicity figures appear to be heading in the right direction and I probably need to be patient at the rate of change that we can hope to achieve in a short space of time.

Many agencies are clearly creating some very valuable in-house initiatives which all help to move the dial for the greater good. But the figures that remain a problem, not only for our industry, are the number of women to be found in the board room and in senior leadership positions. The lower level split look great, but this picture changes as we move up the career ladder. What is the barrier to success at this level; the pram in the hallway, the flexible working, lack of leadership skills or the fact that women simply leave the industry after a few years? No one knows for certain.

So it seems there are lots more things we can do to maintain momentum although I find myself being curious around the notion of resistance. We all know about the gender and ethnicity challenges. We have all heard the panel debates and some of us have even sat on them. We all seem to be saying the same things. We now have more data than you can shake a stick at, since Tom Knox had all IPA agencies declare their salary data two years ago. The financials have strong evidence to show that successful boards are the more diverse boards. It seems to me that whilst our left brain can process the cost benefit analysis, it remains hard to commit to the fundamental shifts required. But what is the real question here?

I am not a psychologist, but if we go to the source of being human we may find some clues. Amy Cuddy, Harvard professor, in her highly viewed Ted Talk shows that our unconscious bias starts at the age of four. So by the time the 47 year old executive rocks up in the board room, we are dealing with 43 layered years of life to unravel. Little wonder it feels like a big job. As human beings, at a psychological level, we all like routine. We like our view of the world. We have our daily coping strategies and by and large these work for us. We like a sense of our normal.So when we are recruiting, typically we do not recruit to disrupt. We invite new people to join our teams because they are “just that little bit like us.” Studies show that we recruit in our own image, so work needs to be done with the talent gate keepers to ensure diversity from the off.

Businesses talk of tribes, community channels, audiences. All of these have things in common so that they can be socially grouped in this way. To be in the tribe you need to look, feel and act like a worthy member of the tribe. So we gravitate to those people who reflect us at some level and therefore keep us safe in our sense of order in the world. We hear people talk of “fit” and “chemistry” when meeting new people. How often have we all heard “they have great skills but I don’t know, I am just not sure that they quite fit”.

Many of us are working hard in this space; HR have a role in influencing the board, there are myths and glass ceilings to be smashed, schools and communities to partner with and yet we still debate it.

On top of the IPA’s 10 Practical Steps for agencies to implement, I’ve come up with some key areas to focus on if we want to disrupt this situation and inch faster towards equality and a diverse workforce. They are very easy, so there is no excuse.


The diversity and gender debate starts and ends with recruitment. What places and spaces are we mining for our talent? How much are we exploring and creating different talent pools, to truly find a blend of talent? Who can we positively partner with to help us go beyond the usual spaces? Have we also made best use of the IPA Creative Pioneers and the Apprenticeship levy? Our line managers need valuable training in interviewing and selection skills and they all need the Unconscious Bias badge. If we are not aware of our bias, how can we possibly break the mould of the familiar? We can also put job adverts and descriptions through a neutral copy app, such as Textio, to ensure clean language in our communications. We can circulate clean CVs and blind portfolios to wrinkle out any opportunity for bias in the selection process. Easy to do and at no cost. I am always surprised that hiring managers are free to make significant investments in people, with little training and guidance.

Mat Leave

Whilst our mums are on maternity leave, what skills are they incubating whilst they are away? How are we engaging with them, what career support is in place, how do we prepare, coach and support them on their return? How can we keep them more front of mind and how open are we to the success of flexible working? I have worked with several women in executive roles who were not working a standard 5 day week and nothing fell over.

Targets and Measurement

Diversity recruitment targets need to be in place and monitored on a quarterly basis. Our clients have such targets and so should we. As they say, what gets measured, gets done, so if you are not sure how you are shaping up on this agenda you can speak with Creative Equals who will conduct an audit for you.

Board ready females

How can we best support our future female leadership, below the executive team, and have them “board ready”? I suggest we advocate specific female leadership development programmes. KPMG, in their recent Women’s Leadership Study confirm that women have particular development requirements that need to be nurtured. These skills include networking, negotiation and setting boundaries. The frequent push back is that men also have development needs. Indeed they do and these can be addressed with different course content.

Getting penalised

How’s this for an approach: Agencies penalised by their clients for not having a 50:50 gender split. Perhaps there are relationships and partnerships to be explored with our clients as they too face the same issues. In addition we can all commit to getting behind the Diversity & Inclusion initiatives in our own businesses by contributing to the agenda and attending the in house sessions.

Creative Equals

We can actively champion the wider industry calls to action with Creative Equals and their campaign for a 50:50 gender split on the creative floors in London and consider contributing nominal sums for a bursary to support a woman’s creative career start.


The pioneering Back2BusinessShip is working to get returning mums back into work and are a ready talent keen to make a contribution to your business. f1 Recruitment have been working in the diversity space for many years and one of their expertise areas is in filling flexible working hours roles. They have a portfolio of talented, experienced and ambitious people waiting to join organisations that are disrupting the 9-5, 5 days a week corporate model. f1 attracts over 20% of their candidates from BAME backgrounds and co-founded the BAME2020 programme in 2016. BAME2020 was a Campaign Magazine Trailblazer Top 10 in 2017.

If you are still not convinced, start with an audit, get some data and move from there. “Inching” is probably to be expected as change at a human level takes time. And as I love to say, remember that the “only person who likes change is a baby with a wet nappy.” So what are you really afraid of and what can you commit to in 2018?


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