When Taryn Scher, creative director at Bald, joined a large agency network at age 27, she was comforted by reports of progressive women-oriented policies, including four months of fully paid maternity leave and career programs to support women.
But ten years later, in 2018, when she came to the office seven months pregnant, she discovered her corner office and her teammate were taken away from her in a bid to “plan ahead” for her leave. She was taken off a global rebrand project because the client presentation was two weeks before her due date. After working on the job for four years, she was effectively removed from responsibilities that had kept her tethered to the agency.
At the time, she didn’t argue. She took the changes in stride and left to have her baby. But when she came back five months later, she was changed.
“I’d lost my team, the corner office and the global rebrand,” she told Campaign US in an email interview. “I didn’t want to spend a day socializing with hungover creatives, when I could be at home cuddled up with my baby.”
She felt maybe she had lost her edge.
“I was up at night feeding, not drinking. I tried different iterations of flexibility. [But] my options were less hours, less pay, same workload. Or same hours, same pay, same workload. None of it felt fair,” she said.
That was the beginning of the end for Scher, who decided after the experience that she had new priorities. She left her role as soon as her obligation for paid maternity leave ended.
She then decided to join independent agency Bald, finding comfort in its fully remote work structure, as well as its diversity initiatives and emphasis on rewarding outputs.
Women are searching for flexibility and support
In the wake of economic uncertainty and widespread layoffs, women have increasingly pushed back on companies that have rolled back flexible work policies implemented during the pandemic.
Across the business world, women have shown a preference for companies that offer flexibility around work hours, office requirements and business travel, as well as support groups that empower their careers.
Nearly 20% of female leaders cited flexibility as a reason for switching jobs in the past two years, according to a 2022 McKinsey survey called Women in the Workplace. Nearly half (49%) of female leaders said flexibility is one of the top three things they consider when deciding whether to join or stay with a company, compared to 34% of male leaders. Among women under 30 years of age, many cited flexibility as a top priority, with 76% saying it has become more important to them in the last two years.
As companies make a concerted effort to get people back to the office and on business trips, questions relating to benefits, diversity and leave are coming up a lot more frequently on the negotiation table — and women are standing their ground.
“I've seen more leadership talent questioning parental leave during the interview process than I did before. And almost every candidate has asked what the racial diversity ratio is of the leadership team,” said Debra Sercy, managing partner and founder of advertising executive recruitment firm Grace Blue. “[Candidates] don't want to be the only person at the table of whatever diversity metric that is, whether it is gender or race.”
At the executive level, candidates of all genders have been able to negotiate fewer business trips and on-site days, despite push back from clients, Sercy explained. Women in particular have expressed an explicit desire to spend more time with family and be able to do things such as pick up their kids from school, where in the past they have avoided bringing up such topics.
While clients are willing to bargain with agency leaders who want more flexibility, negotiations come with a price. According to Sercy, some female candidates she’s worked with have taken pay cuts to accept more flexible benefits, contrary to men.
Still, most women believe that work should work for them — and not the other way around.
The trend comes as burnout and general lack of support in the workplace continues to disproportionately affect women across industries, and as companies are pressured to do more with fewer resources.
McKinsey reports that while women leaders do more to support employee well-being and foster DEI, 40% say their work in this area isn’t acknowledged at all in performance reviews. As a result, 43% of female leaders feel stretched thinner than men for spending a disproportionate amount of time on work that gets overlooked.
“If companies are laying off, but they're not backfilling those roles in order to increase margin, then from an economic perspective, it's only natural that you're increasing the workload of the people that are still there,” said James Kinney, global diversity and inclusion officer at Media.Monks. “If a person identifies as a female or a woman, and they also have kids at home, and are also the head of household, and have an increased workload, then that is where it all comes together. And it's a very difficult way to [keep going].”
Women want balance
Three years into the pandemic, women are searching for arrangements that allow them to find an easier balance between their growing responsibilities at work and at home.
In a study released earlier this year by TheLi.st, Berlin Cameron and Benenson Group, 53% of women said they experience loneliness because of their job, with two out of three senior-level women saying juggling work with responsibilities has led to feelings of burnout, stress and overwhelm.
According to the data, due to higher workloads and increased demands, nearly half of women say their relationships with friends and family have suffered. Meanwhile, 40% of senior-level women feel that challenges at work go beyond reasonable expectations, 40% feel that their company does not help them succeed. Sixty-seven percent of working women (as well as 60% of senior-level women) feel they’re being held back on purpose.
This is especially true for women of color, who are disproportionately underrepresented and likely to be affected by layoffs. Twenty-seven percent of women of color do not feel respected at work, and only 19% claim to be truly satisfied with their overall career, according to research.
“When we look at the intersectionality of diversity, equity, inclusion, and mental health, it's important that we're able to create policies and spaces that support women so that they can thrive in the roles that they have,” Kinney said.
But according to McKinsey, 81% of women who are allowed to choose their work arrangements report feeling happier and less likely to leave their jobs. Most also report feeling less burnout and having more opportunities to advance than those who do not have flexible options.
Progressive policies retain women
As companies begin to return to a sense of pre-pandemic “normalcy,” the findings call for increased effort to implement progressive, supportive policies for women — especially as they relate to mental health, childcare and ways of working, (without having to force women to take a pay cut), Media.Monks’ Kinney said.
Media.Monks, for instance, has a mental health and women leadership program, where employees work on solutions to improve the mental health of their colleagues and also sponsor women for executive training and career development.
Claire Telling, global chief people experience officer at Havas, said the agency implemented its Femmes Forward program to support women at the senior manager level in their career advancement by providing skills-based training, leadership assessments, talks with female leaders, group coaching, networking with senior leaders and more. Havas has also strongly encouraged hybrid working at the holding company level, while allowing individual agencies to hash out the details.
After her experience, Scher encourages agencies to value different ideas and not dismiss bias with humor — a responsibility she says male leaders must account for.
She also believes that agencies need to proactively focus on helping women keep their career momentum after maternity leave, rather than using that as a reason to take over their jobs.
Overall, the creative industry can use its power to affect change at a government level when it comes to parental leave policy norms, Kinney noted.
“This is beyond an individual company problem, and it's beyond an industry problem. It's a federal government problem,” he said. “I would love to see the power of advertising and the power of creativity start to have that conversation.”