Nancy Vonk was one of the most successful women in advertising and a firm believer that gender bias was a thing of the past. The co-creator of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (with her long time copywriting partner, Janet Kestin), writes in the duo’s memoir Darling You Can’t Do Both, that she worked hard and generated terrific results for her clients, both of which contributed to promotions, awards, industry stature and the overriding sense that sure, women may have experienced discrimination in the past, but that was over now.
And then Vonk and Kestin helped to co-organize a splashy ad event in Toronto featuring Neil French, who was to advertising as Richard Branson is to entrepreneurship: a bona fide star.
During the Q&A portion of the evening, a young woman asked French why there weren’t more women in creative director roles. “Because they’re crap,” he told a stunned audience before asking “why even give them a chance?” as he pretended to hold a baby. “They’ll just go off and suckle something.”
The experience sent shockwaves through the ad world, shone a bright light on entrenched sexism in the world of work, and promptly transformed Vonk’s mindset about the ongoing reality of gender bias. “There was,” she later wrote, “no room left for me to rationalize.”
And yet, every day I encounter people who continue to suggest that gender bias isn’t really a problem. These Pollyanna-esque assertions are typically accompanied by such unhelpful comments as “women can do anything men can do” (of course we can, that’s not the issue), “things are changing” (um, not at the top levels of power), and my personal favourite, “women need to be more confident” (sure we do, but is our confidence really the only challenge here?).
The kind of outright sexism Vonk and Kestin describe in their book, while not as rare as one might think, is not the primary face of gender bias today. Rather, gender bias has morphed into a nuanced phenomenon that is literally much harder to see. That’s because it is more often expressed as the ongoing exclusion of women from senior leadership roles.
Example: at nearly half of the highest earning firms in Silicon Valley, there’s isn’t a single female executive. Women make up close to 50 per cent of all law firm associates but just 17 per cent of equity partners. Just 4.6 per cent of the CEOs of the S&P 500 are women.
While there has been lots of movement at the middle levels of leadership, the numbers of women in power at the top have barely moved in close to 20 years. And that’s what makes today’s typical form of gender bias so much more insidious. People think the problem is solved, because certain indicators seem to suggest it is. Women control 80 per cent of purchasing power. Women are starting businesses faster than the national average. There are more women managers today than ever before.
But while these indicators are wonderful and should be celebrated, they shouldn’t be used to whitewash a more worrying issue: we still lack influence at the very top.
When it comes to changing the conversation about women and power, I’ll often hear from people who want to keep the dialog VERY POSITIVE. Of course we must keep it upbeat! Women are supposed to be nice and polite at all times. I’ll also hear lots of talk about new skills that we need to learn to break through. Naturally, women must be fixed!
And that, dear readers, is how you know gender bias is alive and well. When the so-called solutions to the problem are a part of the problem itself.