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Women Need to Get Into Corporate Boardrooms to Close the Gender Pay Gap

A call to action: Go disrupt

In 2014, women earned 82.5 cents on the dollar to men. Illustration: Miguel Montaner

One of the things I'm most proud of is the recent success our industry has had in increasing creative career opportunities for women and in changing persistent gender stereotypes; the progress of The 3% Conference and the announcement of the Cannes Glass Lion are great steps. Moreover, the well-deserved attention for conversation-changing work like P&G's "Like a Girl" and Under Armour's "I Will What I Want" campaigns is testament to the fact that powerful creative and progressive change doesn't have to be mutually exclusive.

But there's a dirty little secret that needs to get higher on our agenda, one that persists in our industry. ICYMI, Patricia Arquette gave it a shout-out at this year's Oscars—the gender pay gap. The reality is that in 2014, women earned 82.5 cents on the dollar to men. It's even worse for women of color. Black women earned 68.1 cents, while Hispanic women earned 61.2 cents.

And lest you assume this doesn't affect your career path, think again. It happens all the way up the economic food chain, in our industry and every other. A Federal Reserve Bank of New York study explored gender differences in executive compensation and found that female execs get consistently less incentive pay than their male counterparts, even after differences in performance, title, tenure and age were taken into account.

Then there's this: If the pace of change in the annual earnings ratio were to continue at the same rate as it has since 1960, it would be 2058 before we reached earnings equality. I don't know about you, but I'm not waiting around for that.

The obvious way to ensure pay equity is to have more women running companies, but as we all know, women currently hold just 5.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO roles. That means 94.8 percent are held by men.

We know that disrupters and innovators come from the outside. Writer Clay Shirky contends that institutions have a vested interest in perpetuating problems to which they are the solution. Think about that. He's saying that it's instinctive for institutions to preserve the problem, and when the status quo is threatened, their goal actually shifts to self-preservation. So it makes sense that the 94.8 percent are not going to initiate the change because the 5.2 percent politely asked them to.

There is another way, and that's by having more women serve on corporate boards, influencing from the top not the bottom. Let's approach the situation like any business challenge begging to be solved by a smart, modern agency. Why should we change the status quo, and how?

Why is it important for more women to be directors? Modern board composition has to include people who naturally connect with main street, not just Wall Street. That means people who are empathetic to and representative of the population that supports the company. That often means women, people of color and people with backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences a little broader than the traditional profile of a corporate director. Modern directors have to understand what people are thinking and feeling today. And since women constitute the majority of consumers and a growing percentage of the labor pool and leadership, it makes sense we would add value in the boardroom. The value of this shift in perspective is priceless, and CEOs should ignore it at their own peril.

So how do we change things? Here's my call to action: Instead of waiting for more male Fortune 500 CEOs to get around to modernizing their corporate boards and considering women directors, let's pivot. Let's get more women to actively pursue those board seats. Let's go out and get ourselves on boards.

Where do you start? First, volunteer for the boards of non-profits, community organizations or schools. There's no shortage of worthy causes that could benefit greatly from your skill set and experience. So figure out what you are passionate about and go serve. Second, stay networked. Third, position yourself. Figure out what you uniquely bring to the party and how that aligns with the needs of a modern board. Finally, think about what you've already done and can continue to do in your career that will best prepare you and position you to serve as a director.

And good news for those of you in this industry. Turns out that the skill set of a good advertising person parallels that of a good independent director almost perfectly. We are trained to parachute into an unfamiliar industry, get up to speed quickly on the key business issues and draw key learnings from analogous categories. We are curious, open and collaborative. We are trained to understand the consumer, and we bring an outside perspective that enables us to separate the important from the urgent. In short, what we do for our clients every day is exactly what a good independent board director does for a public company. 

Karen Kaplan (@karenkaplanHH) is chairman and CEO of Hill Holliday. She started out at the agency as a receptionist in 1982.

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