When the question of women and the ad industry comes up – as it does every year when a new season of Mad Men rolls around – the focus inevitably lands on the plucky Peggy Olsens scrapping their way to a creative career or the lone Joans holding court in the upper echelons of agency management.
However beyond the doors of the agency, there are pockets of adland dominated by smart, ballsy, frankly fabulous women – production.
Unwieldy hierarchies and creative machismo might mean that progress has been slow at the top of agencies, but that isn’t the case in production companies. There’s no shortage of brilliant female managing directors and executive producers. With this in mind, I caught up with Great Guns’ Laura Gregory, Partizan’s Madeleine Sanderson and Believe’s Kate Golding to pick their brains.
So why are there so many successful female EPs and producers compared with other specialisms within the industry? Golding suggests that production may simply be more open to women. “It's true, there are some very successful female EPs and producers in the community now. I think in some ways it's because more and more women have been entering the industry over the past few decades, it has been an accessible position for them to really succeed at,” she says. “Producing covers a lot of ground - you have to be hardworking, determined, creative, it involves managing people, recognizing and promoting talent, negotiating industry/company politics. It's also in many ways a really fun job where you get to meet all sorts of different people and see the fruits of your labour, which is very satisfying.”
For Sanderson, the role requires a tricky combination of diplomacy and creativity, which may account for the plethora of female producers. “Producing involves managing a lot of different personalities and egos without needing to have the loudest voice, and I suppose you could say that's more of a feminine trait. Also, producers put a lot of creative work into a job and are rarely credited for their involvement, which is something that seems to be easier for women to deal with. The role of a producer is also a very nurturing one - from looking after crew and staff to making sure everyone is happy. It's very much 'behind the scenes', quietly getting on with the job without always needing to be heard.”
For Gregory, the world generally is becoming more open to female leadership, and the production industry is proving to be an ideal showcase for what can be achieved when women get the opportunity to take charge. “More and more now you see women in seats of power: presidents, prime ministers, captains of industries. The World Bank. Germany. South Korea has its first ever female president. You get the picture,” she says. “It is a fact… a woman in control is control at its finest.”
However, none of the women feel there has been enough change in the wider industry over the course of their careers. Gregory and Sanderson say that there has been no change, while Golding argues that there has been some movement.
“The industry has definitely changed. When I was first working, there were much fewer women in all elements of the business, let alone in the upper roles, and now it's standard for women occupy excellent positions across the industry,” she says. “But there is still an imbalance in the top leadership and creative roles, both on the agency and production side. For example, there are many more female EPs, but not that many women who actually start up or own the companies, let alone the top-billing ones. Agency-wise it's very similar, with many top female agency producers as women, but a dearth of female agency creatives, managing directors, or owners.”
One of the most striking gender imbalances in production is on the directing rosters. Both Golding and Gregory suggest that this might have something to do with a reluctance among women to big themselves up and take ownership for their achievements.
“It will never change while women still have the uncanny ability to multitask the way they do. For a lot of men the career path of a director is about dick swinging, for some it is power,” laughs Gregory. “Women need neither of these and are well placed to be the glue for the team and their directors. Women who choose the path are often exceptional. Take Katherine Bigelow, director of Hurt Locker, who swung more strap-on to deliver the most gripping and emotional contemporary combat movie in the last decade.”
Golding points out that growing numbers of women are going to film school, but these days it’s such a competitive path that talent alone is not enough. “You really have to have some exceptional work as well as a flair for self-promotion and networking, and I think women in general still have a hard time really pushing themselves and their work. It has been noted that women have a tendency to wait until someone notices them or gives them a hand, and a director really can't do that in this day and age, no matter if you're a man or a woman.”
She suggests that industry mentorship schemes and more cooperation between production companies and film schools may be one possible solution.
Sanderson suspects that the bias might also reflect the make-up of the average creative department. “I think as long as the advertising community - especially the creative side - is dominated by men, the directing talent will be too. Male creatives prefer working with male directors, it's as simple as that. They seem more awkward with women in that role,” she suggests. “Maybe they're just more familiar with women in organisational or 'nurturing' roles. I don't think it's the same in the film world though.”
But whether looking to be a producer or director, all three have some wise words of advice for women at the beginning of their careers.
“Get out there and do it,” says Golding. “Don't hesitate, don't wonder whether you're good enough, don't wait until you have the perfect piece of work, don't falter if you make a mistake. Reach out to people you admire, come up with creative solutions regardless of the job, and give yourself permission to fail. Just keep going and keep your head up, and you will succeed.”
“Work hard, be positive and don't sleep around,” advises Sanderson, while Gregory concludes: “Forget you’re a woman, go to war and get on with it.”