Women’s History Month/Equality: Leading with Humanity

From Meredith Kinee and Rachel Cuyler, Group Creative Directors, VMLY&R New York  

Throughout our ten-year partnership in advertising, we have found ourselves talking a lot about leadership. And, for as much as the conversations have changed, they, in a way, have also stayed the same. What’s stayed the same is what we look for in a leader—what’s changed is our understanding of why those qualities resonate with us.

It’s been the leaders – male or female – we’ve looked up to and remembered the most who were able to connect with us as people. The leaders who prioritize the lives of their teams, in our experience, have been the ones we’ve respected more, opened up to more, and been more successful under. Quality of life versus quantity of working hours has long been controversial, but today, as more research surfaces on shorter work weeks equating to more efficient and effective working hours, there’s hope that this kind of people prioritization will shape more leaders and, in turn, establish more environments where both trust and dependability reign.

As women who joined the industry during the initiation of the 3% Conference, the era of “Lean In” and “Me Too”, we have often wrestled with the idea of being typecast as women in our careers before being considered first as creatives. We’ve watched as our industry began incorporating groups or events into company “culture” in an effort to be a part of these conversations and in hopes of making real changes toward inclusion.

But the wall to overcome was, and always has been, how we make shifts toward equality that are derived from actions of authenticity rather than enforcing policies, and how we genuinely create space for new voices to be heard without tokenizing them. We can only speak to this from our experience as women, but this idea of superficial equality is true, of course, for people and groups beyond women who are underrepresented in this industry or any other. We were fortunate enough as we grew in our careers to have been given opportunities on brands not because we were women, but because we were seen as peers to the leaders around us—the chance to work on motor oil, whiskey, and cars before being handed brands considered to be more “female” is what shaped our perspective on leaders today. When we worked on those brands as young women in advertising, the people who trusted us with those projects didn’t do so for representation in a room or to garner a female perspective. They did it because they knew us as people and we shared a mutual respect for each other’s ideas. This is what more human-focused leadership can look like. It’s not ignoring that we are women in a room and it’s not being blind to the reality that different voices are needed in different spaces, but it’s the fact that we were in those rooms at all when too often, that’s not the case. That’s what we built our books on and that’s what gave us experience—our chance on the same projects as our male colleagues, even at a time when it was not “mandated” to be this “considerate”.

However, this people-focused mindset can sometimes feel like wishful thinking without actionable programs and infrastructure that support both women and all employees. Policy alone won’t create a balanced work culture, but there are some that significantly level the playing field. A more flexible approach to work hours and remote days, promoting mental health days as much as sick days, and standardizing both maternity and family leave time, are a few. And while these aren’t necessarily just “female-focused” policies, although burnout statistically affects women more than men, there are ways to evolve policies to be more meaningful and beneficial. Shifting traditional maternity leave, for example, to a universal leave policy is unsurprisingly more supportive. It removes the burden of otherness while still acknowledging what this experience is like for women. As women around the country continue to fight for the basic health care that is maternity leave— family leave actually offers support to partners of employees, in turn, supporting women beyond the company itself. It’s a recognition that home life is not just solely a female issue. This is an example of how turning toward the human experience begins to bridge the divide and build more equity in the workplace. This idea of shared responsibilities extends beyond raising a family. It’s what the hope is for our changing landscape, after all—cultivating work places where both women and men share the responsibility of creating equal opportunities.

Now, as Group Creative Directors, with a female Global CCO, and fortunate enough to be surrounded by a growing number of inspiring and smart women in the industry, we don’t find ourselves feeling like the work is done. Rather, it has become ever-more apparent that it’s not enough to simply hire women into your doors—we also need more women doing the hiring. Because we don’t just need more of these voices, we need more of them shaping the work that shapes the world.