This International Women’s Day, 8 March 2023, we’re talking all things DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality. And what better way to do this than honour Arke’s talented founder and Managing Director, Steph? Luckily for us, Steph had some free time in her busy calendar to sit down with us to discuss setting up, running and advocating an award-winning business as a woman and the many barriers women face in the marketing and advertising industry today. Importantly, Steph shares some ideas as to how these barriers can be broken down and what we can do as a society, business owners and individuals to make a difference.
So let’s get straight to it.
Tell us about the founding of Arke and why you decided to start your own agency
I was never looking to run an agency. However, there came a time in my life where I wanted to be in control of my future and career following certain experiences I’d gone through. I wanted the prospect of a better work/life balance, and desired to have the best opportunities for myself. With this in mind, I left my senior position at a marketing and advertising agency with the plan of starting a freelance career.
However, with a network I had built up over my career, the demand quickly grew for my services, and it became apparent that I needed to hire a team for what I was providing. This sparked my passion for wanting to make a difference, and make sure women in the workplace felt respected and had their voice heard, as from my own experiences, this is not something that was championed, for me and my female colleagues. With this new vision and ambition, Arke was born, and I wanted every female employee to feel valued and invested in.
Without speaking for all women, I think it’s fair to say so many women have been in a situation where she doesn’t feel valued, especially for myself being 5ft 1; you can have your strategic thinking overlooked or often your male counterparts re-voice your narrative in a meeting, gaining credit for the research, strategy and plan you’ve been working on! One of my main focuses directing Arke is creating an environment where everyone feels they are recognised and supported, but importantly they are given the space to explore ideas and can pitch them in an open-minded, safe and encouraging environment. Just this year, we launched ‘Open Door Fridays’, which gives the team the opportunity every fortnight to float innovations, strategic investments and voice issues or concerns. I’m proud that we don’t just say we’re a female-friendly employer but we actively act upon this internally.
What are the main barriers to women becoming business owners or leaders in the marketing/advertising industry?
Before I jump into answering the question directly, I want to address a narrative that I remember from my year 4 parent’s evening. My mum was told I was “opinionated” and that I asked too many questions. I immediately felt a sense of dread and shame, but my mum politely pushed back on this with my teacher. She was proud to have raised a young girl with the confidence to speak up. She always nurtured this part of my personality and embraced what I thought for myself. I was eager to learn and apply myself in every way possible, even when it may lead to endless questions at bedtime! This approach to teaching is something I really hope has changed; so that when young women are entering the world of work, they feel confident to use their voices.
Advertising and marketing roles are quite often viewed as ‘admin’ or junior positions, which have stereotypically been associated with women in the past. However, to work in this industry in any role and at any level, a high level of strategic thinking, an analytical understanding and a critical thinking mindset are vital. These are skills that are often overlooked and under-nurtured in women. It’s time to change this view and nurture these skills.
The lack of women in STEM education also creates a barrier; where if young girls were to learn about these skills and the opportunities available to them from a young age, it could help with more women coming into the industry and becoming strategic leaders in their field. There is also an aspect of needing more STEM courses to encourage girls towards a subject of their choice. There is still a lack of targeting specifically for females for new innovative courses, and that needs to change. It’s also been reported time and time again that women are less confident to apply for jobs if they feel they don’t meet the skill requirements. 80% of men have the confidence to apply for a job even if they don’t have the listed skills, whereas only 50% of women will. We need to build this confidence in girls at a young age so they feel they can leap into something new.
At Arke, we strive to reach out to women when recruiting. I am really passionate about getting more women into senior leadership and technical roles, as well as providing the funding and support to train and educate our team, whether it’s to help build more confidence in their next meeting with myself or pitching to potential clients. It sounds cheesy, but it all comes back to when women had to fight for what we wanted, so as time goes on, I really want to see more senior women and issues like the gender pay gap disappearing. We’ve been actively monitoring this internally, and I’m proud to say that the gender pay gap at Arke does not exist. We do also need to educate our male team members about the history of women in the workplace to stop history from repeating itself. We have also recently become an Endometriosis Friendly Employer, which will hopefully allow my female colleagues to feel comfortable, understood and cared for at work. I really strive to champion women in the workplace, but I can’t do this alone; it requires the whole team to be bought in and share these values. I’m also extremely proud to say that our last Employee Satisfaction survey resulted in 100% of the team stating that Arke is “at its core a truly equal opportunities employer”.
Have you experienced any of these barriers personally?
I set up Arke when I was 27. Being young, and again, being of small stature, commanding a room can be intimidating. I’m also sure I’m one of many, but I have been ripped to shreds by people in meetings who have zero experience in marketing. Within these meetings and others, often my male counterparts were fully addressed regarding my area of expertise, and I felt left totally ignored – even though I’d just presented for half an hour alone. I’m almost certain every woman has experienced this. My male counterpart is not my line manager or my “keeper”; they actually report to me… so why is this so hard for people to get their head around?! (Respectfully) calling this out, as my colleague did, is the only way these situations and perceptions will change.
Another thing to note is actually setting up the business, and all the paperwork is relatively straightforward; it only takes a few moments to list a company on Companies House, but actual pen to paper and getting your services out there to the world is where the real challenges lie. It can be super stressful, and you doubt yourself, a lot. You go through all the different phases in your mind like – what am I doing? Am I good enough? But you do what you have to and pull yourself out the other side with continuous self-belief, even if it may diminish sometimes. I strongly believe that this is due to my professional career history of being undermined and dismissed in the workplace, even when I was leading a team of 20+ people. A strong support network is also important. Having your nearest and dearest cheering you on and being selective with your team, clients and partnerships you place yourself in are immense to build up your confidence to challenge outside of your bubble.
What are some benefits of having more women in leadership/as business owners in the marketing/advertising industry?
You have to remember that nearly 50% of the population are women. Not having women in leadership positions means you are potentially not understanding half of your target audience, team or society. You’re not learning from their lived experiences which is absolutely bonkers when you think about it. I don’t like speaking for everyone, but definitely, from my own experience, I feel I have brought something quite different to a leadership position throughout my career. Being one of the only women in a senior leadership position in previous roles, I took it as an opportunity to challenge issues and raise my voice. Even from very minimal requirements like having sanitary bins in toilets and bigger issues such as building strategies built on stereotypes, or ‘My wife said this’ ideas. Small changes but so important.
As an agency, I feel we have a huge responsibility to play our part in society and being on the right side of history. I am determined that we build people up, we face challenges head-on, and we learn to be better. In order to create strategies based on real beliefs, emotions and experiences, you have to bring a different perspective to any board room. My experiences have shaped me as a leader for my team and strategic vision for Arke alongside those of our wonderful clients. I believe in compassion and progression and massively value innovation, all of which can only be achieved from a balanced representation in the workforce and industry.
What can the industry do to support more women in the industry or to get into the industry?
This is a great question. I would say as an agency, we want to provide the best working conditions for the team, and with that comes understanding from clients. A lot of women in the workplace have gone through different life experiences, from pregnancy and returning from maternity leave to menstrual conditions. This means that flexible approaches to working enable employees and employers to get the most out of themselves and their team’s last-minute demands, such as childcare requiring flexi hours, and this would be so much more accessible for women if businesses also had this understanding as standard. We are all humans at the end of the day, so compassion from colleagues, clients, and society is crucially important.
From an industry-wide perspective, I’m an independent female agency owner. To be able to access or have the quality assurance stamps against you, whether it be awards or being a part of a body, it all adds up and helps your business get recognised. I believe if the industry wants to support more women, subsidies for female small business owners would really help. Providing discounted courses, workshops, and support networks that aren’t just online or in London would be especially valuable.
What have you done or do you plan on doing at work to break the bias and encourage more women into the industry?
I really want to be able to do more than just the occasional tokenistic actions, like having basic necessities like tampons in our bathrooms. Although, saying that, when my friend visited the office she thought it was brilliant and couldn’t believe an office was doing that – she’s a female electrician! It’s about what every woman goes through every day, and making work a more comfortable, motivational and opportunity-driven place to be. We need to break the taboo around periods and women’s health!
We also decided to have gender-neutral toilets at Arke. We are a team of 16, and all humans at the end of the day, so we should be able to share. As Arke continues to grow, I want to hire more mature and open-minded people into our team. We are all feminists here, and having a bathroom area to accommodate women is a no-brainer to me.
Arke also recently became an Endometriosis Friendly Employer. We’re actually having some team training soon to ensure I’m learning as well as management so we can pass the education piece to the rest of the team and those we come into contact with every day. I really hope this will help everyone here at Arke understand some of the things women go through more deeply, and just how complex they can be. I don’t know all the answers, and I’d rather hear from the team to address issues before they rear their heads where possible. It’s also why giving my employees flexible working is important to me. If anyone, not just women, needs sick time, they will receive full pay, as well as if women have a rather painful period, working from home is available to them if they prefer to work, so they can continue to feel supported and valued to achieve their full potential, no matter what their situation. Even if someone is particularly suffering with their mental health on certain days, I would rather them take a sick day or work in an environment comfortable to them.
From a recruitment standpoint, we understand the barriers women face when applying for jobs. Therefore, we actively encourage applications from women into senior leadership positions and tech roles to bring diversity to our company’s culture and vision. We are part of women’s networking groups and always make sure to list the salary on our job adverts to encourage transparency.
The key to Arke is we listen. We are committed to listening and continually improving our business for all, through regular surveys for our staff and clients.
Wow, what a woman, and definitely one to celebrate this International Women’s Day. Today, and every day, we celebrate women, so let’s continue to #PowerOn. We’d love to hear about your experiences as women in the workplace, so join the conversation over on LinkedIn.
If you are interested in a career at Arke, find out about our available roles here. To find out more about this year’s theme, visit the International Women’s Day website.