Pale, male stale: How to break the cycle

Too many businesses are run by people who look and sound like me, says Econsultancy's managing partner Richard Robinson. It's time we break with the past.

by Richard Robinson
Last Updated: 08 Mar 2018

Long ago I dreamt of being a primary school teacher. This is a profession where a mere 15% of staff are men, but my younger-self believed I could make a difference. Plus, I was fascinated by how people learn as they grow. I remember being told by my female tutor: 'Understand how people learn, and you understand how to influence behaviour, and you’ll have the key to everything.' 

I headed off to Oxford Polytechnic, better known today as Oxford Brookes University, and when the time came, I was sent to a primary school in Temple Cowley to start my first teaching practise. The school was bustling with energy, and my first assembly was packed with over-excited children who hushed while the head-mistress made a short speech to welcome me onto the staff. I remember a ripple of noise from the children, many eyes focused on me, nudges, winks and pointing. I thought nothing of it.

Five minutes later, I was met in the corridor by a group of eight year-old boys bursting with questions. Loudest of all was a voice shouting: 'What are you doing here?' 

'I’m your new teacher,' I proudly answered. 'My name is Mr Robinson.'

And he said five words to me that I’ve carried for the rest of my career. 'Nah mate, misters don’t teach.'

He was honest, he said what he saw – he saw a man doing a job that had no frame of reference for him and he called it out as only a child could. With those five words it felt like my dream had been crushed. I cannot teach because I am a Mister.

Come to our Inspiring Women in Business conference. Edinburgh. 15th May: Get tips and advice from Britain's most powerful businesswomen. Hear from Skyscanner, Clydesdale Bank, CBI Scotland, Atkins and more. Guest speaker: Dame Cilla Snowball.

Come to our Young Women in Business conference. London. 27th June: Super-charge your career with practical masterclasses on everything from presentation skills to tackling budgets. Guest speaker: Dame Helena Morrissey.

Fast forward a further 20 years and life has taken me down another path and straight into the heart of influencing behaviour, namely the communications industry. I have been recognised as an Agent of Change by Management Today and, along with my female business partner Ruth Mortimer, I lead an award-winning business that enables the c-suite to deliver digital excellence in modern marketing.

The collective space Ruth and I work in is often held up as a real success story for the UK economy with businesses investing £19bn+ a year into it, delivering a proven ROI of 6:1 and supporting the employment of a million people. Put simply, the output of the insights, ideas and executions creates over a £100bn of investment in the UK economy – an economy where women are directly and indirectly responsible for 70-80% of all purchase decisions.

But the facts of this success story contain a glaring anomaly, namely that despite the end customer being overwhelmingly female, brands and agencies continue to be led by one type of person, and that person more often than not looks and sounds like me: white and male. The Mad Men days may have toned down but core elements remain. My take is that if brands want to truly use their communications to connect with the modern woman, then isn’t it about time we break with the past and enable more women to move into senior positions and improve the work that’s already being done by their male counterparts? Do this and we may all look back in 2028 and collectively laugh at just how low the current ROI of 6:1 sits at.

Three immediate ways I encourage men and women to break the cycle and champion women in business:

  • Mentor: You’re never too young to  be a m entor. Do it with a twist to only ever mentor people who look and sound different to you.
  • Manels: Don’t wait to be asked. Proactively offer up outstanding female speakers to replace every all-male line-up, and refuse to indulge them with your presence until they do.  
  • Metrics: Think bigger, make sure your company isn’t the one that needs a spreadsheet to prove the value of talent beyond a white, male incumbency – because these companies are the ones who won’t be around for much longer.     

So, some Misters still can’t teach. But they can influence behaviour if they try hard enough.  

Richard Robinson is managing partner of Econsultancy. Last year he was named an 'Agent of Change' by Management Today and the Women's Business Council and is a judge for this year's campaign. He is vice-chair of The Ideas Foundation, and a board member of Creative Equals, BAME2020 and Token Man.

Tackling gender inequality in the workplace starts with calling out smaller, discriminatory and often unintentional behaviours. Check out this video from the CMI...




Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

SMEs going for growth with £633m investment plans

SMEs are expecting to spend an average of £111k on growth strategies in the next...

“Experiencing maternity discrimination twice ignited the activist in me”

5 minutes with… Gemma McCall, CEO of discrimination reporting software Culture Shift

Will the UK ever clamp down on corruption?

The UK's leniency towards corruption is damaging its global reputation, argues academic Oliver Bullough in...

Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi: “You’ve no business being a nasty CEO”

MT talks to Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, about her new book, her...

Frustrated with your company...why not buy it?

Management buyouts are much more common than you might think and, if done properly, can...

WATCH: The "tough" leader who cried during an all-staff meeting

Showing emotions can be your greatest strength in times of crisis