In this blog post we share the steps we are taking as leaders of Whitespace in 2021 as part of our #ChooseToChallenge response for International Women’s Day. We recognise we have a lot of work to do, but we hope some of our thinking might be relevant to your business situation and help you.

Why our salaries ended up all over the place

Founded at the end of 1996, the agency grew from 3, to 15, to 45, 70 and then to 90 folks. It was an amazing journey as an independent agency with highs, lows, and all the clichés – whatever anyone says, running a creative agency is brilliant. One of the downsides, however, is that you can very rarely look more than 3 months into the future and have any certainty about how much work you might have. Each board meeting and major decision is a test of your faith in your team, the economy and your clients.

When building a team, there's a balance to strike between talent and salary. Paying talented people what they deserve, whilst maintaining a sustainable cost base. The result was that our salary structure wasn't fair – people were getting paid differently for doing the same work to the same standard. The reasons are mixed: past salary, urgency, availability, tenure, and many more. We want to fix this.

Calculating our gender pay gap

In 2018, we joined Dentsu - one of the largest marketing and communications networks in the world. It’s been great. We get to keep running the agency whilst benefiting from new HR, IT, legal and financial support, plus crucially, a load of brilliant creative opportunities. One of the first things our new HR colleagues helped us with, was a review of our gender pay gap. It didn’t make for pretty reading. We already knew we were top heavy with male leaders and this gap brought that painfully home.

Whitespace Women

And so, with our own leadership imbalance and industry-wide lack of senior females in creative roles, we launched Whitespace Women. Aimed at giving talented women the support and encouragement they need to embark on a career in the creative industry, we built a network to help inspire the next generation of creatives.

We sold over 400 tickets to our Whitespace Women events in the first year, and demand has grown year on year. The feedback we’ve gleaned at each event has proven the need to provide this kind of support within our industry.

And, more importantly, we are starting to see the effect of the initiative in the agency. We’ve seen a rise in the number of women who have applied to our intern programme, The Oven from 54% in 2018 to 76% in 2019, with 100% of the candidates making it through to final interview stage in 2019 being women vs 73% in 2018. We’ve also managed to add to our Whitespace Women tribe with five women who attended our events now working full time in our account management and creative teams.

We’re also mentoring and coaching our female talent to ensure they are inspired, encouraged and supported, to become at least 50% of our future leadership team, up from 16% (1 in 6) on our board and 33% (3 in 9) on our senior management team.

The impact on our gender pay gap

At the start of 2020, we received an updated gender pay gap calculation. Now is the point in the story that we’d love to share how our actions had made a difference. Sadly, it had hardly moved. Not only that, but we saw that it wasn’t just that we had more men at senior levels, we had an imbalance in salaries at other levels of seniority. Bold action was needed, and we started to plan how we could close our gender pay gap. Our team were at the same time asking us to be more transparent about salaries.

So, in early 2020, we spent a couple of months discussing different approaches. Then came 13th March, we started working from home and had to focus all our attention on surviving through the challenges of the pandemic.  

From surviving to thriving

But, as we came out of what we hope were the hardest months of managing our response to the economic impact of COVID-19, we picked up where we left off with our planning. We decided that our team were right. We should be transparent about the variance in pay for Whitespacers with the same level of responsibility (as already mentioned, for a variety of reasons, not just gender). But that this could only be done, alongside a plan to close the gap.

And so, on 18 February, in an all-agency meeting, we shared the variance in pay across six different seniority levels. At board level, we actually don’t have any variance; we’re all paid the same. But at other levels our pay ranges from 20% less than our agency average for that seniority level, to 28% above. A range that is too large to just represent differences in experience. If we aren’t going to reduce any salaries, then to close these gaps, we need extra income from clients to fill the gaps. Using growth as we move from surviving to thriving to level up. So we modelled what extra revenue we needed.  

Our first step in this model, is to bring those who earn less than the average for their job level and experience up to our average for that job level and experience. This would immediately almost half our pay gaps. We would then follow this same approach a second time, before finally implementing a 5% rise to the average for each job level and experience. The model is a little complicated, but when we see the result at the end of these three steps we have significantly reduced our pay gaps. In four of the six seniority levels we have no gap and in two the largest gap below average is only 2%. To make this a reality, the whole agency knows what volume of work we need to deliver each month, it is a stretch, but it’s achievable. We will take our first step on 1 April, and if we can continue to thrive through the year, we’ll move to the second and third steps in July and October.

We haven’t yet calculated the impact of the above plan on our gender pay gap, but we know that by paying everyone at the same level of seniority and experience the same, we will remove any bias or imbalance, be that gender or any other factor.

#ChooseToChallenge  

Why have we shared this for #ChooseToChallenge? Because even though all of the Whitespace team are brilliant and have been working especially hard throughout the pandemic, not all Whitespacers get a pay increase in our plan. That means we might disappoint key members of our team. Yes, they are earning more than their colleagues, but right now they don’t know that. We will be having 1:1s with every Whitespacer in the coming weeks and we’re hoping everyone will support our choice to challenge. And it will be difficult if we have to delay the second and third steps, but we promise an update for next International Women’s Day.

Challenging your gap  

For some reading this, we’re aware our situation won’t be relevant. If you work in a large organisation with fixed salary bands then you’ll wonder how we got ourselves into this situation, which is fair! If you are in a new business, do learn from our mistakes and aim for fixed salary banding as soon as possible. If you are in the same situation as us, then hopefully the above might help you plan your own path to closing your gap. And if you have some insight that could help us or any questions, do please get in touch with either of us.

Frances Irvine and Phillip Lockwood-Holmes  

March 2021