'Equity is power,' says Burns Group's Whitley Edwards

"Over the past few years we've had so many amazing conversations around gender equality, but from a numbers standpoint not much has changed."

Are we there yet?
Whitley Edwards
Associate creative director and writer
Burns Group

Tell us about one thing that's happened recently that leads you to believe there's still a problem.

I woke up today in the year 2019. A time when cars can drive themselves and you can get a pizza delivered by tweeting an emoji, but yet, females are still paid 20 percent less (even more for minority groups) than their male counterparts and gender equality is still somehow a staggering 208 years away from being achieved. (I repeat, 208 years.)

Recently, while working on a project for International Women’s Day I learned more about what’s at the heart of the hold up: unconscious gender bias. Catalyst’s (our clients) research shows when a woman displays the same leadership traits that we praise men for in the workplace, she isn’t seen as likeable. Instead of being a boss, she’s bossy. Instead of being persuasive, she’s pushy. Instead of being passionate, she’s emotional. But if a woman takes the opposite approach by displaying a leadership style that’s seen as "feminine", she isn’t seen as competent. These biases function as a huge invisible barrier for women because they’re so ingrained in society that even the most progressive among us can be guilty of perpetuating them. In order to eliminate this barrier, we have to learn how to spot our biases and work against them.

How about something that proves we're making progress?

I decided to go into advertising the day I found out only 3 percent of women make it to the Executive Creative Director level. Currently, that number is estimated to be up to 11 percent. So, that’s progress! Just the painfully slow kind.

Throughout my career I’ve experienced so many male-dominated industry clichés. Walked by countless leadership meetings composed of all white men. I’ve gained a deeper understanding of how hard this industry makes it for women to stay in it. So, working at Burns Group, an all-female led agency feels like progress to me, even if agencies like this one are still the extreme minority. When I walk by our leadership meetings, more than half the people at the table are women and that feels big to me.

*However, it would be a mistake for me not to acknowledge that although it’s led by women, Burns Group was founded by (two great) men. In fact, only 0.1 percent of ad agencies are female owned, which is insane when you think about the fact that women hold 70 percent of the buying power.

What else needs to be done to get there?

Over the past few years we’ve had so many amazing conversations around gender equality, but from a numbers standpoint not much has changed. Secret did an amazing campaign called "I’d rather get paid" which perfectly embodies the pivotal point we’re at. Empowerment doesn’t equal equity. And for better or worse, equity is power.

It’s time for companies to step up in big ways—run pay audits and close the gender pay gap today instead of tomorrow. As marketers, we need to be challenging any client that wants to join the conversations to push beyond awareness and invest in ideas that could actually help drive change. States should follow California’s lead—make it mandatory for any publicly traded company to have at least one woman on the board of advisors. As individuals, we need to learn how to spot our own biases—whether through training programs or with the help of tools like the #BiasCorrect Plug-In. We need more men to step up as our allies—push for diversity in boardrooms.

We should refuse to accept that it’s going to take another 208 years to achieve equality and get to work. 

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