Behind the image

INDEPENDENT CAREERS: Advertising appears to welcome women. But when trying to climb the ladder, they confront harsh reality. Meg Carter reports
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Women have never had it better. Mounting evidence suggests that they are leaving school with better qualifications, achieving better degrees and enjoying better job prospects than ever before. Marketing services is one area of business into which more women than men are now moving. Yet many claim that it remains a male-oriented domain, where women still face familiar difficulties.

Getting in is not the problem. Recruiters report that younger female applicants are invariably stronger at interview than their male contemporaries. Some even go as far as suggesting they are preferable - men are more in a hurry, and women pay more attention to detail, one personnel director observes, adding, "Women are also more adept at juggling different jobs at one time, and they're better listeners, too, so are invariably better people-managers."

More than half of graduates now entering UK advertising agencies are female. Yet once women start to move up the ranks within an organisation, their careers start to slow. Problems arise when women want to take career breaks (typically to have children), or when they want to progress beyond middle management into senior executive positions - two issues highlighted in research by the Women's Advertising Club of London (WACL), which holds its annual forum in London next Tuesday.

Different advertising disciplines traditionally enjoy a different profile of employee. So, for example, agency creative departments are predominantly male-dominated - only 9 per cent of advertising agency art directors and 6 per cent of copywriters are female, as shown by figures from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

Women fare better in media departments, where they account for 13 per cent of those involved in media planning, buying and research. However, there is a clear decline in the number of women farther up the agency hierarchy. While women account for almost 22 per cent of agency account handlers - those engaged in the day-to-day management and development of client business - only 4 per cent of those running agencies are female.

The situation is a little better within advertisers' marketing departments. According to AP Information Services, publisher of The Marketing Manager's Yearbook, of the 6,200 marketing managers listed in the 1996 directory, just under 2,000 were women. Of the 5,000 marketing directors included, 627 were female. And farther up the client hierarchy the same old pattern becomes clear. According to one head-hunter, "the ratio of applicants for a chief executive position with marketing expertise is 24 men to every one woman."

One reason is that masculine values continue to be used to define power within Nineties business culture, WACL's research reveals.

"Power is defined in masculine terms, both by organisations and by the women working within those organisations," says Sue Green, a consultant at the Virgo Consultancy, a marketing and communications company.

"Women associate these values with extreme, self-seeking competitiveness, ruthlessness, and an increasing focus on finance, numbers and organisation at the cost of attention to human needs, and a deep-rooted belief in the importance of informal clubs and cliques," she says. This leads women to make a choice between becoming a surrogate man in the work-place, or opting out altogether.

Few talk openly of sexism. "The problems many encounter are more subtle, such as reticence about corporate politics, reluctance to join male colleagues networking at the bar or in the golf club, and employer inflexibility concerning career breaks," one female agency planning director says. There is also continued concern about the so-called "glass ceiling", above which few women pass into senior management jobs. It still exists, though it has shifted upwards, as shown by WACL's findings. While in the past the struggle was to make it to marketing director or senior account director level within an agency, today's challenge is to jump from being a director of a specific discipline into the boardroom, to head the business as a whole.

Good news, however, comes from younger women already working within the industry, according to WACL president Rita Clifton, who is vice-chairman and executive planning director at Saatchi & Saatchi. "It is reassuring to hear that younger women in the industry believe that their path to the top has been made easier by what's gone before," she says.

And the situation is improving as change moves from ground level upwards, with the growing number of women now in middle management closing the traditional pay and status gap between the sexes. Increasingly, women are younger than men at many levels - a female marketing head is, on average, 35 years old compared with the male average of 41, AP Information Services analysis shows. And although there remain differences in pay, this gap is narrowing, too. Female marketing heads can expect an average salary of pounds 47,000; the equivalent for men is now pounds 52,000