Why Aren't There More Middle-Aged Women in the Workplace?
Joanne McKinney, CEO at brand transformation company, Burns Group, discusses the dearth of middle-aged women in the ad business and why it's detrimental to the industry's progression.
"Age is just a number," said the irrepressible, now-85-year-old legendary British actress, Joan Collins. "It's totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine."
A nice sentiment, but is it really true? Probably not, if you speak to any number of women over the age of 40, across any number of industries. A study undertaken by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that "the résumés of older women get fewer callbacks than those of older men and of younger applicants of either sex".
"Bias can exist at every level of an organisation (at times, blindly) and the only way to break it is to address it holistically."
While men also suffer at the hands of seemingly ageist employers, it's women who bear the brunt of this workplace lopsidedness. The absence of middle-aged women from workforces across the world is detrimental to those same businesses, with experience and insight being taken out of circulation.
Below, Joanne McKinney, CEO at brand transformation company, Burns Group, and someone who's been in the industry for more than 30 years, discusses the dearth of middle-aged women in the ad business and why it's detrimental to the industry's progression.
Above: Joanne McKinney, CEO at brand transformation company, Burns Group.
There’s been a lot of coverage around how the larger business world is turning its back on hiring middle-aged women – do you see this in the advertising world as well?
It can be tough to be a middle-aged woman in the workforce, but I think it might be particularly challenging in a business like advertising, where more than 60% of the workforce is aged 25-44.
Our trendy, creative industry puts a premium on youth when it evaluates your potential to develop breakthrough ideas and contribute to ever-changing client needs. The perception exists that the people who create the ads need to look like the people targeted in the ads. In my experience, you don’t need to be the target to create successful strategies and content.
"Women need to get more comfortable with self-promotion and not see it as a negative, but as a way to demonstrate their value."
Where do you think the bias against middle-aged women comes from and do you think it’s institutional within the industry?
I see the perceptual issue as three-fold; the older generation is seen as less agile with new technology and new media, less in touch with the needs of the younger target consumer, trends and culture and also seen as expensive in the context of today’s client compensation models. These are all more of an ageist issue than a gender issue and both middle-aged men and women face these challenges in our industry. As a middle-aged agency representative, you’re seen as both expensive and not “of the moment”.
Do you think that advertising’s youth-focused biases have increased in recent times and if so, why?
This bias has likely grown over time, with constant changes in technology. Art directors who can’t work in new platforms, or account managers who don’t have the skills to lead data analytics are less useful to the current agency model. This is exacerbated by the move from retained to project work, where the margins are slimmer, the timelines are shorter, and your ability to work fast and affordably is key.
Covering the salary of someone with 30 years of experience versus 10 years of experience has a major impact on margins. All of these roll up into issues that seem to punish age and seniority, regardless of gender.
"In our industry, the more diverse your experience, the better you are at your job."
How is this issue of ageism exacerbated by gender?
For middle-aged women in particular, career paths have additional complexity due to the (mis)perception of female leadership qualities broadly, industry norms and the potentially biased view on commitment if they have become mothers along the way. The fact is, women hold more than 60% of agency roles, but far fewer leadership roles. This means, as a middle-aged ad exec, at some point you are either at the top, or you’re out, and the roles at the top for women are historically more limited - so many are out.
Is advertising losing important knowledge- leadership- and creative-input because of its reticence to hire middle-aged women?
The truth is, women have a lot to contribute to the industry, and with age and experience comes wisdom and creativity that can’t be found in younger employees. In our industry, the more diverse your experience, the better you are at your job. Years of exposure to a variety of brands, categories, platforms, audiences, challenges and client types means a better outcome in most processes.
Women are also notoriously good multi-taskers. They juggle well, are additive in the way they take on work, and therefore have great track records in our complex and time-sensitive industry. This also gets better with age.
What can be done to enhance the reputation of middle-aged women in the business?
I think women need to be louder about their success and help raise the profile of middle-aged workers in general. They should take their wisdom and showcase it; publish their expertise and thought leadership; speak at conferences; tweet; blog; talk; show up and demonstrate that experience is a huge benefit to the industry.
Women need to get more comfortable with self-promotion and not see it as a negative, but as a way to demonstrate their value. I think women also need to seek exposure and training from an early age on the skills that are required to actually run a business. Understanding what drives organisational success, negotiating client compensation, contracts, financial forecasting - these are all needed in leadership but rarely taught.
Learning along the way would allow women to have an ongoing impact on the success of their agency, as they advance into senior roles.
"Senior management needs to make sure that everyone gets visibility and rewards, not just people that resemble the current leadership team."
What can companies do now to counter any biases against women and ensure that women aren’t leaving the workforce as they approach middle-age?
To counter the leadership bias against women, formal coaching is needed for both men and women. Bias can exist at every level of an organisation (at times, blindly) and the only way to break it is to address it holistically.
Senior management needs to make sure that everyone gets visibility and rewards, not just people that resemble the current leadership team. HR teams need to make sure the values they are promoting in hiring cross gender and race. Managers at every level need to make growth opportunities available to all. Companies need to overly address the issue to spark change.
This can be institutionalised at every level and in every department, to ensure that future generations of all ages, races and genders are ready to lead instead of exit.