Is media a chauvinistic sport too?


Watching Michelle Payne win the Melbourne Cup yesterday you may have had the same thought as I did; “Yeah, why aren’t there more female jockeys?” We all know that the weight restrictions of the sport require a body mass between 49-54 Kg so barring the use of small children, wouldn’t women be better suited to the sport? Michelle gave her answer in her post-race interview; “It’s such a chauvinistic sport.”

You could ask a similar question regarding women in senior management in media. According to the MFA women make up 59% of staff overall but just 26% of senior management roles. Why is that?

Funnily enough, it turns out that most of the reasons given as to why there aren’t more female jockeys and the penalties paid by those who do pursue this career bear a strange similarity to the world of media.

Also, the benefits women can bring to these roles have some similarities. Beyond the physical requirements of being a jockey (where women weigh less but lack the same level of upper body strength some argue is required) one of the main traits looked for in a jockey is empathy, a trait women are better known for than men. A jockey needs to know a horse’s personality and make best use of their strengths and weaknesses. Whilst not wanting to compare media staff to livestock… could the same empathetic and inter-personal skills not be beneficial in leaders in our industry?

Credit Suisse found that companies where women made up half of the top roles did 50% better than their competitors. This is not because women are inherently better in these roles than men, it’s that diversity of staff offers a company the best chance for all angles to be considered when struggling to solve a problem. The more view-points and differing types of life experience that can be brought to the board-room table, the less likely a company will simply repeat the same entrenched errors.

Whilst it may seem like discussions around gender representation in media leadership are simply some of us flogging a dead horse (sorry, I couldn’t resist) hopefully looking at other industries can show us there are systemic issues and unconscious bias at play.

If the reasons given for why women don’t make up a greater percentage of these roles in both racing and media are similar, despite the two industries being poles apart, perhaps it’s not about the job after all and it is about gender?

Reason 1 – Women are the ones who take parental leave.

Apparently owners with millions of dollars invested in racehorses are just as wary of this ‘risk’ when giving a woman a key role that will mean hours invested in experience and training as agency management are.

In both the case of media and horse-racing when you consider the existing risks of the two industries respectively, the threat that pregnancy poses to consistency of staff actually starts to appear laughably small.

For jockeys, the fact is it’s a bloody dangerous career. In Australia it is rated the most dangerous profession on land (above boxing, skydiving and logging). So when you take into account the chance that a jockey (male or female) could be thrown from a horse and killed at any point in training, doesn’t pregnancy (with its built-in, biological, nine-month warning system) start to seem like a benign ‘threat’?

Similarly in media, our industry has a 30% annual turn-over rate, compared to a national average that’s recently been as low as 13%. So in it’s own way, media is a ‘lethal’ industry where trying to maintain stability of teams on long-term projects is not threatened primarily by pregnancy but by poaching amongst agencies and a very young workforce who are keen to travel, try different career-paths and generally mix-it-up. Even when you factor in a woman giving notice of pregnancy at three months she will still have around five months to transition out of a role, far longer than the one month for juniors or three months for seniors built into most contracts. Also, nearly all women will return to their role post-maternity leave, this is not true for those who leave to join a competitor organisation.

Imagine if we decided we were no-longer hiring anyone under twenty-five, because they have a tendency to get itchy-feet. Despite being absurd, how much talent would we be over-looking? Whether conscious or unconscious, not appointing women for senior roles in media due because they may, at some point take parental leave, similarly means we miss out on the positive impact they could be having before and especially after their parental leave.

There is no other demographic as frequently targeted by advertisers as Mums and yet the time spent by women living and breathing this experience is viewed as ‘dead time’ away from the industry. A study break or sabbatical is seen as an asset to someone’s resume whereas parental leave is viewed as a ‘gap’ in it. Whilst one doesn’t have to be within a demographic in order to target them, how many hours of research and focus-groups can be alleviated when someone already has a Facebook feed full of parents within your target audience broadcasting their daily behaviours and pain/passion points. Also, when you work within an industry, you’re keenly tuned in to the myriad of ways brands are trying to speak to you. One of the best ways to see how your ‘life stage’ is being read online is to experience it first-hand, being able to bring those examples to your working life has value the same way experience working overseas or in other categories does.

Reason 2 – Women’s families stop them pursuing a career long term in the industry.

Michelle Payne has had many serious injuries (including nine fractured vertebrae from two falls in 2013) and her eldest sister died as a result of a fall in track-work that left her in an induced coma. Despite coming from a family who all worked in the racing industry she was urged to give up the sport after each of her injuries. Her retort? None of the male jockeys in her family were being told to leave the sport due to the physical risks it posed, why should it be different for her?

Whilst not comparable, the health threats of working in media should not be dismissed entirely. We work long hours, sometimes including weekends and the stress of dealing in millions of dollars is placed on the shoulders of an industry made up primarily of twenty-somethings. Throw in our love of alcohol and little time available for exercise or relaxation and we do deal with a cocktail that often leads to mental and physical exhaustion.

Even before they have children, people in media of both genders will often be asked by family and friends “Why do you work such long hours?” Whilst it’s a valid question for anyone, it’s women who make up 71% of those in implementation roles, those who are more likely to stay back late working on a time-sensitive campaign or presentation. And like Michelle Payne pointed out, there is a double-standard inherent in those asking the question. Whilst no-one wants to see a young man work long hours, it’s assumed that men can take this physical strain and will be rewarded with career success long term (as the numbers do actually bear out). For women, the ‘concerns’ of our loved ones are more loaded. Anything from physical appearance to relationship status will be linked to young women working too hard. The pressure to leave a demanding job earlier is greater on women where it’s assumed her job is the source of any problem in her life in a way that isn’t replicated for men.

Then, once people in media have had children, the questions from loved ones around the hours and stresses of the job increase significantly for both mothers and fathers. But again for women, society places a greater expectation on them to put their children above their career, the pressure to ‘give it up’ is greater.

But let’s back up a minute, forgetting gender entirely, shouldn’t both the racing and media industries provide a safe and supportive working environment for its employees? Rather than men bearing the brunt of dangerous occupations and long hours because they’re expected to, shouldn’t both genders be given the opportunity to remain in good-health and available to spend time with their families?

Efforts are being made in media to reduce working hours, encourage more physical and mental well-being and allow more flexible solutions for working parents of both genders. OMD has a health and fitness pillar within the Voice who are frequently encouraging us to get out of our chairs and find healthier ways to spend time together out of the office. But, like the racing industry, we carry the baggage of a financial model that historically benefited from practices that were risky and unhealthy for our staff.

In the short term women will continue to leave these tough industries at a higher rate than men because they’re faced with more guilt if they stay and put themselves or their families at risk. Whilst men bear the actual physical risks of remaining in those roles. This isn’t fair for anyone.

However, what’s worth noting is that in racing a well as media, the financial rewards for men are greater on average than those for women with a gender pay gap existing in both industries. Yet another reason that men will “stick it out” longer than women will.

So, what is the solution? Part of it is simply visibility. The racing industry is different to media in that it’s televised. Michelle Payne won a literal and figurative victory for women in front of millions of people on Tuesday. It’s now irrefutable that she was the right choice for that role despite the doubts that even those on her own team had prior to the race.

Women in media have wins every day in securing new business and successfully leading companies, but the TV cameras aren’t there. We need to continue to flog this (living) horse, publicly and audibly, ensuring that our female leaders are visible inside and outside of our industry. The more we publicise the thrilling victories our female leaders have, the more people will ask themselves “Yeah, why aren’t there more female leaders in media?”

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