Gillian Wilmot: Diversity is not just an exercise in box ticking

Marketing is not immune from unconscious bias and the industry is still acting too slowly to stamp it out, says Gillian Wilmot.

Dixons CarphoneMarketing has always had a higher representation of women, though unfortunately there is still the ongoing issue of those people not necessarily becoming CEOs and marketing not having a seat at the board table.

It is still the case that a lot of client companies and agencies are run by men. You would expect more women to be running them by now than there are. It has taken a lot longer than anybody had thought. Going back to when I started work, I thought a lot more would have changed by now than has.

Unconscious bias goes on at every level, in each function, and marketing isn’t immune to that. You have to make very big efforts to make sure it doesn’t happen in an organisation because it is difficult to spot unconscious dynamics. There are a mix of reasons: I think it’s people not being comfortable outside their comfort zone. Quite a lot of people want to work only with people they know and trust.

Unfortunately, by the time we realise there’s a problem, it’s too late. I’m concerned that some women don’t think there is a problem, because what happens is they don’t experience it – and neither did I – until they get to a certain point, which is quite near the top.

You go and speak to groups of younger women – and that also applies to ethnically diverse groups – and they have heard the corporate line and accepted it, so they think it is all sorted. Down the line, you realise really subtle things have been going on, but you have been too busy working and getting on to notice.

Unconscious bias goes on at every level, in each function, and marketing isn’t immune to that.

For all the people who lead successful cultures, we have still got far too many old-school leaders, particularly at chairman level. I am of the view that until you change the chairman, you won’t get a different type of CEO. It takes a female non-executive director 10 years to become chairman and the guys do it in one or two years.

Some people see diversity as a tick-box word, which is a shame, because they’re missing out on what it truly does bring, which is better decisions and better governance. It’s not about social engineering, it’s about improving workplaces, quality of output and people’s lives. Diversity matters, because we want healthy companies that create good jobs – quality jobs – to grow their customers and grow UK PLC.

The more people can have coaches, sponsors and mentors to build their confidence and capabilities, the better. That will help them overcome some of the obstacles. There are techniques you can use, but you have got to have somebody to help you know how to use them.

As told to Michael Barnett

Gillian Wilmot was managing director at Royal Mail and marketing director at Littlewoods, Avon and Next. She is now chairman at UK Coaching and The Senet Group.