Really? That long? The standout point from the bleak findings within the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2014 is that we won’t achieve gender parity in the global workplace until 2095.

From a somewhat selfish viewpoint, this means I won’t be here to see our companies and institutions led equally. Am I never going to really feel “worth it” as a woman leader? How depressing!

So what can we do? Ernst & Young’s starkly brilliant countdown to gender parity and campaign urging business to “Fast Forward” is well worth a look: 80 years is simply too long for half of the world’s talent to go untapped and uncelebrated.

On the topic of celebration, I am freshly back from the Cannes Lions festival of creativity where I helped to judge the Media Lions category, lauding the bravest and best new work in communications. Cannes Lions is not only the benchmark of excellence in advertising but it also takes the temperature of society and culture more broadly. To win at Cannes, a piece of work has to “win” hearts and minds in the real world. So, the fact that women were higher up the agenda than ever before in 2015 indicates fantastic progress.

Shaper of culture

The festival also welcomed more women judges than ever this year (nearly one-third of the overall panels and five female jury presidents) and launched the Glass Lion – the Lion for Change. The new category celebrates progressive work in gender representation, with Proctor & Gamble’s Touch the Pickle a taboo-smashing inaugural Grand Prix winner. More visibly, beyond Cannes, the prominence of pioneering campaigns such as Always #LikeAGirl, Fiat’s Parenthood ads and L’Oréal’s work with Helen Mirren exposes an industry waking up to its responsibility as interpreter and shaper of culture.

Tired, persistent use of stereotyping within advertising and film isn’t just lazy – it is damaging and holds women and society back. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media provides a bank of research on the impact of gender imbalance in front and behind the camera on real girls and women. Beyond nurturing gender parity within our own agencies, we have an industry-wide responsibility to convey people fairly.

My hope now is that the media and advertising industry builds on the momentum of the first “feminist” Cannes by looking inwards at its own diversity figures – and that businesses in every sector might do the same. It is broadly claimed that the pay gap in media stands at 20%-25%. Globally, women earn 77% of the amount paid to men and, unfortunately, a lingering culture of secrecy around salaries only perpetuates the problem.

Encouraging greater transparency

I decided to take some action myself and started by looking under the bonnet of my own business. To encourage greater transparency, I conducted research into pay at Maxus by gender across our top eight markets. I’m pretty pleased that the average gap is “only” 4% across the offices, varying by region, in favour of men. Not perfect; not true parity, but not bad. So while our number-crunching reveals more work to be done, it is promising that in three markets, including the UK, women are paid more and we at least know where we stand.

A hefty body of research across markets supports the myriad advantages of gender-balanced workplaces, regardless of industry. Businesses with gender-diverse boards enjoy improvements in areas such as staff retention, morale and competitiveness everywhere from finance to mining.

For me, this is as much an issue of women having access to the same benefits, privileges and respect their male colleagues enjoy as equality of pay. Business leaders can help to shift entrenched leadership norms by instilling a succession pipeline of female leaders. And while change won’t happen overnight, senior women can become catalysts by helping others climb the rungs with supportive mentoring and by forging strong networks. But diversity is, of course, much more than women. We need to consider a progressive approach from all points of view; age, economic background and education, as advertising as an industry tends to be young, white and middle class. And the world is not!

A more progressive approach

Creating the conditions that attract and nurture diversity is a particular challenge for media and advertising agencies (and many corporations). They tend to be headquartered in capital cities, where the cost of living is very high. But there are initiatives that can help. At Maxus, we are looking to introduce internships that lead to first jobs for 18- to 21-year-olds who have not attended university to challenge the cycle of economic advantage.

Equally, we need to be more conscious of age bias at the other end of the spectrum. How well are over-50s represented? How are we helping to retrain them in future-proof skills while valuing their experience? Introducing unconscious bias training is a powerful step that organizations, including WPP, are taking to challenge imbalance.

Eighty years is far too long wait for gender parity; we need to take action at grassroots level now. Let’s start by encouraging every business leader to investigate their own diversity figures. Do you know yours?


To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Lindsay Pattison is Worldwide CEO Maxus; Vice-Chair World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Media; President, WACL

Image: An office worker is reflected on the roof of a building. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz