The Women's Day conundrum

Instead of making sure your company "shows up" as a company that supports women, it's much more productive to spend that time and effort working with women within your organization, says Zambezi's CEO.

International Women’s Day (March 8th) is rapidly approaching. Last year, lots of brands and agencies contributed to the event with inspired gestures—making special hashtags, supportive tweets, unique landing pages on their websites and awesome content, or giving staff the day off like we did. All genuine efforts that sent the right message—but how impactful were these overtures?

Not so much. 

Here’s a radical thought. Instead of brands and agencies feeling compelled to make a bold one-off statement, why don’t we all raise the bar and pledge to make Women’s Day everyday? Many agencies are feeling compelled to make a Women’s Day statement. If you don’t, you run the risk of being unsupportive. But if you do, and have laughably low numbers of women in leadership positions, you could look even worse. So let’s start looking really good by getting women in leadership positions everyday.

How? By hiring, of course, but more importantly by nurturing and mentoring women already in our organizations. There may be a shortage of women in leadership positions at agencies, but there is no shortage of women working in advertising. Instead of spending countless hours and resources making sure your company "shows up" as a company that supports women—it’s much more productive to spend that time and effort working with women within your organization. 

Bottom line, change will come if you work inside out instead of outside in. In other words, we can’t just focus on what’s happening outside our agencies in order to build them—we need to focus on what’s inside. This is a key to how we begin to change the narrative.

Another key is keeping our agencies and employees protected, respected and connected. Sort of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In order to fully actualize our organizations and make them really connected to the world, we must first protect our people and give them the respect they deserve.

Protecting and respecting starts with forcing yourself to have some tough conversations about gender and its impact in your organization. Are you a manager that doesn’t really understand the realities of being a woman of color? Are you a junior staffer who hasn’t really shared your opinion because you fear retaliation? Force yourself to face tough questions, and then search for real and meaningful answers to them. 

Yes, the advertising industry thrives on attention and validation, but it also thrives on challenges and taking chances. As #metoo and #timesup keep on building momentum, we need to raise the ante. Never have women held so much power to move narratives forward in our industry. It’s time we start making a difference not just on one single day, but everyday. 

Jean Freeman is Principal + CEO of Zambezi, one the largest women-owned creative agencies in the U.S.