Atifa Silk
Mar 22, 2017

Power balance: Kathryn Jacob on equity of opportunity

The Atifa Silk Interview: Pearl & Dean’s chief executive tells Atifa Silk it is time for the industry to break down the invisible barriers to gender parity in the workplace

Kathryn Jacob
Kathryn Jacob

Equal opportunities do not exist for men and women at work. In fact, they never have, and there’s no point tiptoeing around it. So says Kathryn Jacob, chief executive of Pearl & Dean and co-author of The Glass Wall with Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at MediaCom. London-based Jacob, who will be on stage at today Campaign360 in Hong Kong, believes the glass wall divides men and women in the workplace. She argues that men and women can see each other clearly through this divide, but they don’t speak the same language or have the same expectations. Women feel excluded in discussions and unable to participate. And as a result, women and their careers are suffering. In this interview, Jacob discusses some of the issues plaguing businesses and strategies to help break down the glass wall in the workplace.

Atifa Silk: What are the most surprising or startling differences that The Glass Wall outlines between men and women?

Kathryn Jacob: There was nothing that was particularly jaw-dropping in reality. The thing that surprised us the most was the unconscious nature of some elements that create the ‘glass wall’, and subsequent talks about our findings have emphasised this.

We gave a talk at a city firm and we encouraged women to show off more rather than be reticent about their achievements and contribution. At the Q&A, one of the very senior men who had attended was asked what insights the session had given him. “I’ve been at this firm for over 20 years,” he said. “From the first day I knew I had to show off to make sure that I was noticed and promoted. It never occurred to me that women were uncomfortable doing the same—I just thought that they didn’t have anything to show off about.” If the differences were startling, we would all find it easier to address them. They aren’t, so the issue is ongoing.

Atifa Silk: Why is the issue of gender equality at a critical stage now?

Kathryn Jacob: Gender equality is at a critical stage for a number of reasons. There is more competition for talent and consequently we must encourage and develop our colleagues so that they want to work for us and stay with us.

Secondly, there is much more substantial evidence that diverse boards and management teams deliver more profit. When your people thrive, so does your company.

Another element is that we need to be able to think the way that our target markets think. It’s not enough to just push out campaigns and hope that they hit the mark: we need to be diverse in as many ways as we can to ensure that we remain relevant.

Atifa Silk: Has much changed since you joined the industry?

Kathryn Jacob Sadly, not enough has changed since I joined the industry. I still go to meetings where women are in a minority. Sue [Unerman], my co-author, and I genuinely believed that we were at the start of a substantive change. One of the reasons we wrote the book was because we realised that things weren’t changing quickly enough.


Professional CV

  • 2006 CEO, Pearl & Dean
  • 2003 Managing director, SMG Access
  • 1996 Commercial director, Virgin Radio/Ginger Media Group
  • 1992 Agency sales director, IPC Magazines

It’s not just about women, though. Younger men want to play an active role in their family lives and that isn’t possible within some of the structures that exist or within a culture dominated by presenteeism and old macho values.

Atifa Silk: Where are we at with gender equality, specifically within the media and marketing industry? Are there any industries that you would rate as progressive in terms of gender equality?

Kathryn Jacob In terms of gender equality we need to do more. In January 2016, the then-IPA president Tom Knox set the UK advertising, media and communication businesses some very ambitious targets. By 2020 the goals were:

  1. On gender, women will hold 40 percent of senior positions and at each stage of the career ladder.
  2. On ethnic diversity, at least 15 percent of people in leadership positions of the IPA’s biggest agencies will be from a non-white background.

In January, 131 agencies responded to the survey on progress. The long-term data reveals a positive and strong upward trend in the proportion of females in C-suite positions. At levels below that, 40 percent of positions are held by women.

There is evidence of a deeper engagement with this issue but we don’t have any data on clients or media owners. Maybe that is the next step.

The fact that Campaign Asia-Pacific is holding the Campaign360 event is proof that there is more to do. By recognising that we’ve started to engage with the issue of share tactics and approaches that will drive the change we need. There are no industries or sectors that emerge as beacons of excellence, so perhaps our sector can show the way!

Atifa Silk: How does the ‘glass wall’ manifest itself in organisations? Can you give us an example of this?

Kathryn Jacob The ‘glass wall’ has many guises. That’s why it’s tricky to identify it. One example that women have spoken about is a behaviour where men engage in a pattern of speech that revolves around teasing or being a bit aggressive. One respondent cited this behaviour as being excluding and making her feel like an outsider. There was no attempt made to make her part of the dialogue: it was “boys’ talk” and she would never understand.

Atifa Silk: How can companies develop a culture that enables equality?

Kathryn Jacob To develop a culture that enables people to thrive is about more than equality. Equality is about treating everyone the same way but let’s face it, we are all different. We want to be treated as individuals, don’t we?

So we should talk about equity rather than equality. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. It’s a commitment to spend time with colleagues exploring what they want and need to enable them to be the best they can be. However, if that policy is adopted and—even more importantly—implemented in a well-communicated and structured way, you’ll find that it generates a great deal in terms of employee engagement and loyalty.

The whole phalanx of senior management needs to articulate their adherence to the policy and to be seen to be dedicated to it. Teams are very aware of a cosmetic exercise in looking like you’re doing the right thing. They will see through it and know that you’re not living those values and aims, you’re just talking about them. There is a need for people to talk about the situation, that’s why our book has tips and tactics for women and businesses—we need to address what’s holding women back as a joint commitment. That way everyone benefits.

Atifa Silk: What immediate and long-term action would you advise business leaders to take?

Kathryn Jacob Obviously the immediate action for business leaders is to use this event as a learning opportunity and a chance to share experiences too. Then go and buy The Glass Wall — you would expect me to say that wouldn’t you? The key is to discuss where your organisation is on this issue and to develop a plan from there. Are there policies that work for other companies that you could use? Where is your talent pipeline? What will success look like in the short, medium and long term?

It’s very hard to be prescriptive because every organisation has its own issues. Wherever you’re at, though, you need to look at what you’re doing, because if you don’t start getting a plan in place you’ll be losing out.

Campaign Asia

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