COVID-19 Should Hit the Reset on Attitudes to Parenting in Agencies

The lockdown has given non-parents a window into just how challenging juggling parenting and work can be. It may be physically and emotionally draining, yet we parents are managing. That’s what we do.

And importantly, we now have a singular opportunity to confront preconceptions and highlight the particular qualities parents bring to the agency sector – which needs to happen.

At UM we recently partnered with Advertising Week Europe on a research project gauging attitudes to parents across the media sector. The results were disappointing, to say the least.

Parents get a bad rap in adland, and more concerningly, mothers bear the brunt of it. There seems to be an industry-wide perception that women are stripped of the value they offer when they become mums. We discovered only 7% of agency staff view mothers as senior leaders.

Meanwhile, sexism – whether unconscious or not – becomes apparent when looking comparatively at fathers. Nearly half (40%) happily continue to view them as senior leaders.

These double standards are insidious. For instance, 32% view returning mothers as ‘unambitious’, compared to just 4% thinking that way about fathers. A recurring theme in focus groups was that women worry they will be out of touch post-maternity, given that our industry moves so quickly. These figures don’t make them breathe any easier.

These insecurities are also indicative of a bigger problem. Seven out of ten non-parents worry that having kids would be a barrier to career progression, while a quarter couldn’t envisage themselves starting a family whilst at an agency.

The brain drain of talented women will continue unabated across the sector unless we address this (un)conscious bias and outdated stereotypes. As it stands, we’re in a Catch-22 and without sufficient female senior leaders as role models, the situation is unlikely to change any time soon.

To prove to parents, and particularly mums, that the media sector is both welcoming and supportive, we need to go beyond lip service and instigate practical programs. This means investing in re-skilling initiatives and mentoring schemes to help instill or restore confidence – and particularly to encourage progression to senior roles.

One of the key stumbling blocks for parents in adland is a culture of long hours, most of which is spent in the office. However, the lockdown has forced the sector to adopt flexible working, often ahead of the official roadmap. Parents most of all will welcome this, as 73% of the parents we surveyed indicated they’d like to see a better work/life balance in the sector.

The lockdown has proved grown-ups are actually adept at working from home, even when juggling work and family responsibilities. In fact, parents are the masters of multi-tasking and these skills go a long way in a busy agency environment. Flexible hours have been invaluable over the past weeks and maintaining this model will be equally welcome when children are eventually able to return to their schools and nurseries.

In truth, the factors that really stifle flexibility are the fear of change and the culture of presenteeism, as the latter is certainly no indicator of productivity.  It is up to the C-Suite to lead the charge on flexi-working, so these behaviors trickle down throughout agencies.

In a similar way, our study suggested businesses aren’t doing enough to encourage new dads to take advantage of shared parental leave. We found that 80% of fathers in the media industry are unsure of their parental rights.

Education is key, but so too is addressing perceived gender norms that suggest new fathers should be back at work as quickly as possible. We need to change the narrative, and the most effective means to do so is by encouraging fathers in senior positions to lead by example and take the full nine weeks’ provision.

Looking beyond particular organisational initiatives, there are less formal but equally significant ways to effect change. Language is a particular consideration: terms like ‘part-time’ are loaded with negative connotations so in the post-COVID world a shift to calling it ‘flexi-time’ can make a big impact on changing embedded attitudes. The language of ‘losing your edge’ whilst on leave is the opposite of the truth when as an industry we should always value ‘fresh perspectives’, which new parents undoubtedly have given the life-changing experience and time away from the business.

As we approach the ‘new normal’, the industry must work hard to change attitudes to parenthood that hark back to our parents’ generation or even before. Familial structures have changed markedly over the years and continue to evolve. We should take pains to support every parent’s particular circumstances, from same-sex to single parents.

Our industry should thrive on the diversity of thoughts and ideas. We’ve made considerable progress in recent years and we need to make sure that COVID-19 does not reverse these gains. Instead, we should take what we’ve learned from our time in lockdown to make our sector more flexible, more empathetic, and more supportive. There’s a lot we can learn from what parents strive to do every day.