There’s no denying adland has made significant progress in the last few years when it comes to gender equality in the workplace. There are now a number of exceptional female C-suiters (there could, indeed, be more), along with a pretty decent ratio of male to female leaders across many media and advertising agencies.
Where the industry is arguably falling short, however, is around its “historic” maternity leave policies. There are certainly some agencies charging ahead, offering paid leave above and beyond the Australian mandated paid leave.
Yet the issue doesn’t just lie around the length of the paid leave policy, but rather who it’s targeted to.
OMD CEO Aimee Buchanan is one such industry leader offering a progressive take on paid leave for new parents. Offering up to 16 weeks paid leave (depending on tenure), OMD’s policy isn’t framed as a ‘maternity leave policy’ but rather a ‘primary carer’s leave policy’.
“Around three or four years ago now we changed the language, which was a critical point in the fact we wanted it to be available to both mums and dads.
Known for being vocal about the “industry problem around retaining great talent” that largely forms around primary carers (and typically women), Buchanan says it’s a “call to the industry” to reframe this problem.
“Yes, it may still be for a long time that women are the primary carers, but in pigeonholing it into ‘maternity leave, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re not making it acceptable or encouraging, even by the policy term terminology, for both genders, to take that up.
So what’s keeping agencies from adopting similar parental leave policies like OMD’s?
Buchanan says a lot of it comes down to the makeup of agencies and the structures within that.
“You need to have a good representation of both genders throughout your business from the top down. And I think that’s an important part of the conversation because if you’ve got primarily men making policies without any input from women, it’s sort of flawed from the start.
“You need diversity of people to input into an outcome. And then I think some of it comes down to just not having considered it.
“I don’t think it’s coming from a bad place but I think some of it’s just coming from lack of awareness. Potentially with these things people put their own lens on it.”
What does Buchanan say to agencies that suggest offering equal parental leave is unaffordable? She said comes down to reframing the language and overarching policy.
“If you are giving dads time off as secondary carers but with paid leave, yes, that is an expensive path. But that’s not what we do. We have a primary leaver policy and a secondary leaver policy and importantly, it’s gender neutral, and I think that’s a critical thing the industry needs to look at.
“If you have a maternity leave policy and you’re still calling it that, my ask would be to reconsider your language around it.
“In framing it as a maternity leave policy, you’re framing who it’s for. There’s no affordability barrier in making your policy to be a parental leave policy around primary care.
“It comes down to what you want for your staff and what you want for society. I’m fairly passionate that both parents can play a role.
“The quicker that we start to open up those conversations with people I think the better for the individual, the family and the better for our business for the longer term, and it is a longer term plan, it’s not a short term plan.”
Buchanan does not just talk the talk, she walks it, too. When head of Create Sydney at OMD Thomas Hutley came to Buchanan to ask for leave to care for his newborn son, she had no hesitations in granting his parental leave.
“It’s interesting when Tom came to me with that conversation. I had that experience because my husband did it. Sometimes takes one or two people to have that experience to shift what they want the experience to be for others, positive or negative.”
Hutley recently wrote a LinkedIn article (read it here) detailing his experience of taking parental leave and being the primary caregiver for his son.
While his wife was the primary caregiver for the first six months, when she returned to work, Hutley became the primary carer for the next four months.
Hutley admitted he had some anxiety around submitting his parental leave application to OMD because he wasn’t aware of other people who had yet to do it in the agency.
“There was a bit of apprehension around it,” he said. “It’s quite a big deal! Leaving my team and the implications that might have on career progressions, they were all considerations of mind. But I think my personal situation and the fact that I really wanted to be really active and present dad in those first 12 months, it made sense for me.
He said applying for leave was a straightforward process, even if he was apprehensive about it.
“I was cautious if [OMD] might come back to me and question it. But HR was really positive and encouraging and Aimee called me straight away and said it was a brilliant idea.”
Overall, Hutley’s leave experience was smooth and seamless, which he puts down to the care and support from OMD. On whether other agencies are doing enough to offer the same support, he said more could be done.
“We’ve made huge progress over the last few years, which is really promising. That said, I think there’s always still work to be done. A lot of the agencies now have evolved and developed their policies but I’d still say they’re probably not adequate. There’s still a lot of really talented women that are having babies and finding it difficult to return to work.
“We work in a very fast paced industry that’s really relationship driven and I think a lot of mums feel that it’s too hard to get back into it. I think that’s where it’s the responsibility for employers to make it as seamless as possible and make it easy for them to return.
“If there are other agencies out there that don’t have primary carers leave and still focus on maternity, I strongly encourage them to rethink that. It can make a profound difference to employee engagement, and a broader message to the industry around gender equality.”
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