I'll take a seat at the top table, but I'm no chair

I'll take a seat at the top table, but I'm no chair

Stevie Spring is on a mission to reclaim the chairman title.

I spent the past two decades of the past century working in advertising agencies – always client-facing and much of it on the new-business front line. I could sing every line of the showreel (GGT in the 80s – had to be done…) and recite agency credentials in my sleep. Including the awards haul. Every Pencil, Arrow, gold and silver gong helped underscore peer approval of our creativity.

But it was the IPA Effectiveness Awards that always mattered most to our clients and potential clients. Presenting a robust case that our ideas and our investment strategy had paid off was onerous, time-consuming and challenging. But I remember the euphoria in Black Cat Towers after Y&R's 1998 Colgate and Ford Galaxy wins. Hugely prestigious. Hugely important. Hugely motivating. The effort was repaid many times over.

So I was honoured to accept the invitation to chair the judging for the 2020 IPA Effectiveness Awards without a second thought. I'm already looking forward to reading and critiquing the best of the best of our industry's case studies.

What I have not agreed to do – and it has ruffled a few feathers – is to be called chair.

In my portfolio career, I make a point of using the title chairman, reclaiming it as the gender-neutral job description that it is. Like creative director, account manager, strategic planner. 

The "man" suffix just means person. Like human. Chairperson is clumsy. Chairwoman still sounds as though gender makes a difference to someone's ability to do the job and needs to be highlighted. Chair has become the politically correct default title in not-for-profit and the public sector – organisations where women have been "allowed" to be in that leadership role for some time.

But read the financial pages, scan annual reports, study updates from serious corporations – it's chairman. And, yes, they are – still – mostly men. With some notable exceptions: Dame Sharon White left Ofcom to chair John Lewis Partnership and insists on being called chairman. But she's still very much the exception.

Transparent reporting means we can easily see the public company gender imbalance. Low-single-digit percentages. There are even fewer female chairmen than there are female chief executives. (And we all know there are fewer female plc chief executives than there are men called John or Dave).

It's even worse in the very private world of private equity-backed companies. Private-equity executives tend to be incredibly creative when it comes to managing financial assets and leveraging a balance sheet. But they tend to be woefully lacking when it comes to thinking laterally about human assets and the potential for a different chairman background to make a similar or greater difference to a company's success. I've been the only female chairman in all of the private-equity companies I've worked with. They usually default to appointing male ex-accountants. (I'm still pretty sure that the only reason I got my first one was because they thought I was a bloke when they first made contact. The advantage of being called Stevie!)

So, as a female chairman, I take the opportunity to highlight that lack of diversity every time I'm called chair and politely request chairman. Sometimes you just have to highlight an issue to start to make people question their assumptions and to accelerate change. It's my way of claiming our seat at the top table without just being something to sit on. 

Stevie Spring is chairman of the British Council, Mind and Kino-Mo, remuneration chairman of Co-op Group and an advisor to private equity

Entries to the IPA Effectiveness Awards close at the end of March and those that pre-register their entry before 29 January can take advantage of a subsidised awards advisory service, which will pair them with an experienced mentor to help them create the best possible case

Picture: Getty Images

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