Mark Read, CEO of digital agency Wunderman, gives us his thoughts on how to achieve gender balance in a large global organisation

A male CEO, conspicuous as the only man in a room of senior, ambitious women, cut a brave figure with a compelling message.  About to launch a huge female talent and development programme with a speech to the company’s most high-potential women, Mark Read, global head of digital agency Wunderman, knew very clearly why he was there. “I went to a pitch in Germany and I turned up with our team of 6 men. There were 8 clients in the room, 7 of whom were women.   I couldn’t believe what we’d done.  It was the moment I decided it’s our job to change things.”

We interviewed him afterwards to get a CEO’s view on gender equality, its challenges and how to make it work.   His honesty was delightful and we liked him all the more for it.

What’s your view on gender equality generally?

If you look at the FTSE 100 there are more men called David than there are female CEOs. I don’t think the media industry is worse than any other, but if our industry lags behind we look increasingly anachronistic.  I wouldn’t want to work in a male dominated environment.  With everything that means, it’s simply not a working world I want to be a part of. We need to have a society and an economy where both sexes can succeed by doing what they do best, but I’m really positive about it and what I see happening.  I think time will take care of a lot of this as a younger generation reaches senior positions, but not quickly enough, and we have a responsibility to make it easier for women than it has been

Does Wunderman have a problem?

Gender balance across the business at a junior to mid level is roughly 50/50 and often more female than male. Of our 12 strong EXCO 4 are women and it definitely feels like they have a strong voice.  But, of our office heads around the world, about 90% of them are male and that’s a stat that doesn’t work for me.  There are a lot of senior women in our industry but if you look at the numbers there aren’t as many as there should be. We’re spending a significant amount of money on this programme.  It’s a big investment for us and is very important to us.  In 3 years time I’d like us to have noticeably improved the balance at the most senior levels

From a CEO’s point of view, is it an ethical issue or a commercial one?

Both.  By the time people hit 40 it seems it’s the men who survive the system and that simply means we’ve lost talent and that puts a business at a disadvantage.  In our business, where we need to connect with consumers, how can it work without that balance?   But it’s a societal challenge too.  I see that and I don’t feel easy about it.

How do we make it work?

People focus on how many female leaders you have and role models ARE important, so the easiest thing for me to do would be to go and raid my competitors to get lots of talented women at the top of Wunderman.  But then I’ll have done absolutely nothing to fix the real problem which is not ‘how many senior women do I have” but “how easy is it for women to progress through my organisation?”  We need to make sure women are putting themselves forward and we are considering them properly.

Our focus, with Shine, has been on empowering the women within Wunderman, so they feel totally clear about what they want and how they’re going to get it.  We’re helping them take control, not just of their career, but of how their whole lives are working.  On top of that we’re providing them with the right role models, looking at our policies around parental leave and working from home and then, like most things in business, common sense.  When you see a shortlist of candidates for a job, is there a woman on the list?  When you take a group of people to a pitch, is the group balanced?

And what are your biggest challenges or frustrations?

I’m not frustrated yet as I feel like we’re dealing with it and we’ll get there.  It might not be as quick as I’d like but persistence is key.

The biggest challenge is that it’s hard to find hard levers that will directly and quickly impact the problem.  The attraction to the shine program is that you can do something concrete about it.  But actually really making progress is the result of many and different decisions across a large organisation.  The thing I struggle with most is policy changes and how you need to combine them with common sense for it to work perfectly.  I have my personal debate with the benefits of working from home for example.  I can see why it’s helpful to have it as an option, but I love what happens when you bring your people together in one place; the ideas, the energy, the mutual support, the fostering of a definite culture.  So, I don’t think a blanket policy works in that scenario.  I prefer a mix of policy and people and common sense and that can feel nebulous and difficult to get right 100% of the time.

Targets or no targets?

Targets help but they can lead people to focus on the wrong thing. Take the NHS.  The analysis said that where waiting lists were short patient care is better.  The target became hospital waiting lists and patient care got worse because doctors cared about the waiting lists more than the patients.  So, my problem with targets is that they can drive the wrong behaviour, which is you try to fulfil the target rather than address the systemic problem.  If you’re CEO of a FTSE 100 company and you need 3 women on your exec committee, you can hire them from outside but it doesn’t address the problem in your organisation that women aren’t being promoted fast enough.  So, targets won’t fix things, but like anything we must have metrics to measure progress, so they have their use but as a way of measuring progress

What advice would you give to CEOs who are worried about how to communicate a program like Shine to the men in their organisation?

This is such a massive opportunity to a) do the right thing by society and b) deliver even more brilliant work that resonates with consumers, that most men in our business will be excited by that.  Obviously we’re a big global company and we have some cultures that take it more seriously than others, so we just have to deal with that when it comes up.  But a certain amount of shake up isn’t a bad thing in any organisation, and if you can communicate a very definite purpose you’ll get all the support you want from all the people you need.