The Blog

Thanks for the Debate, Davos But It's Time for Action on Gender Diversity

In-between the parties, private meetings and panel discussions, gender was back on the agenda this year in Davos. It's just unfortunate that the headline story was that of the 2,500 participants at the annual meeting, just 17.8 per cent were women. The issue was, to some extent, a side-note and at it was reported that at least one debate on gender diversity was made up entirely of men.

But now the party has ended, the question needs to be asked how debate will turn into action back down the mountain. How will it change the prospects of the young women working today?

I come to this as the female CEO of a leading creative agency employing 450 staff. I am also a mum. At Grey, we aren't doing too badly. When it comes to the top positions of CEO, Chairman and MD, two are held by women (myself included) and one by a man. The gender split of those heading up departments is relatively equal as well, with just a 4% difference.

But we have to do more, and I know it is my responsibility to drive the change. We need to identify the crunch points at which diversity is lost and make an effort to retain it - whether that is gender diversity, race diversity, diversity of social class or disability.

It won't happen by chance. As a business leader, you have to make a conscious effort to make your company more diverse and to do that you need to understand why it is not.


Despite the fact that women are now leading countries and companies, this has only changed in recent decades and we're still searching for role models. Gender diversity is a social and cultural problem as well as a business one.

I come from a family with an impressive legacy which includes Professors of Medicine, a doctor to the Queen, a Governor of Singapore, and the founder of Jameson Irish whisky. Despite that lineage, I am the first woman in my family to have a career. In one review of my all-female school, we were described as being "good at music and good marriers".

The pathway to leadership isn't always clear. And this is especially true if people aren't encouraging you, or in some cases dissuading you, albeit often unintentionally (my mother always said it was a shame I got the brains and not my brother).

As business leaders we need to seek out diversity both at the entry point into the workplace and then, after that, foster leadership potential in everyone.

A recent KPMG report revealed that the barriers to women reaching leadership positions starts in childhood, and despite 60% of women having an ambition to reach a leadership role the same percentage agree that "as women" they are more cautious in seeking out those positions.

We need to give women not only role models, but advice and guidance. We need to give them the courage of their convictions at a young age to be less cautious in pursuing what they want to be, rather than what they should be.


In a creative business like ours we rely on diversity. We need different perspectives, the friction of ideas and broad experience that comes from that, but when it comes to women, there is an additional challenge which you don't face when making your team more socially or culturally diverse. That challenge is that it is still extremely hard for a mother to have a successful double working career in a top job.

Introducing equal parental leave was a well-intended policy decision, but there are societal norms that prevent men from taking it.

In the workplace, the role of parent is almost exclusively focused towards women. We have to open up the space for equality to flourish, making it more acceptable for men to take parental leave. We have to encourage a better attitude to parents working flexible hours across the board and we need a more inclusive approach to parental support. There are plenty of groups for mothers and women, but few for men.


So we should let the world leaders debate, but I believe it is up to the people running businesses to start making the change today. Those that do want to see a change can't expect it to come without work and some uncomfortable compromises to normal behaviour.

We have to employ targeting, the active pursuit of different people, the support and encouragement of those people that would not naturally come to you, or may not feel the strength to drive themselves ahead.

We must be strict, but fair on pay equality. If someone has a year off, don't let them fall behind when they come back to work. Make sure they're given the opportunities to make up that time and get ahead.

Fundamentally, we have to understand that men and women work in different ways. A Deloitte survey recently highlighted that women focus more on a company's culture. So why not try to build a working environment that favours collaborative, open working practices, as well as targets?

At Grey, we're trying to make meaningful changes. It's hard work, but if I've learned anything in the time since I was classed as being a good 'marrier' to now running an ad agency, its that hard work pays off.