Research Says Women Can't Be Top Creative Execs Because They Have Babies

Last Updated Sep 1, 2009 3:57 PM EDT

Women don't become executive creative directors because they take time off to have babies, according to research by a University of South Carolina academic. The research seems to bear out -- superficially at least -- the controversial comments made by former WPP creative consultant Neil French in 2005. French was forced to resign after he said:
"The answer is, They [women] don't work hard enough. It's not a joke job. The future of the entire agency is in your hands as creative director."
He added:
"You can't be a great creative director and have a baby and keep spending time off every time your kids are ill ... Everyone who doesn't commit themselves fully to the job is crap at it."
The South Carolina research was conducted by Karen Mallia, who summarized "dozens" of interviews with female creatives in a column in Ad Age. The nut:
Research didn't reveal a single major-league executive creative director who has both children and a husband with an equally demanding job.
Gender isn't really the issue; motherhood is.
No matter what your sex, a creative job is highly competitive, an unrelenting mind game that knows no timetable. ... you can't have it all. So sacrifices are made. For some, that's the agency career. For others, that's children.
Among female execs who have made it to the top, Mallia said:
Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO-chief creative officer, Kaplan Thaler Group, and Joyce King Thomas, exec VP-chief creative officer at McCann Erickson, New York, are lucky enough to have househusbands, or husbands whose careers give them more flexibility.
Mallia (and French's) position is obviously controversial. There's a nice little debate going in in the comments section under her piece.

Basically, it boils down to this: If you accept that to enter top management you have to work long hours, uninterrupted, for years, then women will winnow themselves out of contention by becoming mothers.

On the other hand, if the one thing it takes to get to the top -- lots of time and no family -- is the one thing that militates against women rising, then that may be prima facie evidence that ad agencies are a sexist institutions.

Here's one sexist thing that will happen in this debate: Even though Mallia and French said exactly the same thing (the only difference is that French was impolite about it), Mallia will not be forced to resign.