Ask the marketers: Is International Women's Day still important?

It’s International Women’s Day on Sunday and to celebrate women, CMO decided to ask several successful women marketing and company leaders their thoughts around gender parity and keys to their respective successes.


Naomi Simson

Co-founder and director, Big Red group

The sooner we get gender out of the conversation the better. Once we have created gender/cultural inclusion as the standard or normal way we do business then it no longer needs to be a topic of conversation – perhaps this is where we have got to as marketers.

As another International Women’s Day rolls around we are a long way from this equilibrium. There are certain professions that attract people with different skills, beliefs and aspirations often because they see role models or other people like themselves in that field. Simply put those industries that have more women, or are more diverse culturally are likely to ‘attract’ more people just like themselves.

Naomi SimsonCredit: Big Red Gp
Naomi Simson


Firstly, women need to become a role model for other women. We need lots of them in different industries, everywhere – this will take people leaders looking, being curious and enquiring into what they have already, and supporting people with education and other support elements.

Secondly is for women to ask, and to speak up, without apology. Sit up, stand up, speak up. Move into the conversation, don’t every leave a meeting or gathering without saying what you went there to say, or allowing people to not let you complete your idea (that cut off thing – argh) – people cannot see you as a leader if they cannot hear you. Have an opinion and back yourself.

My success came from leaving corporate life, rather than fighting it. But I would not necessarily believe the choices I made are right, or ideal for others. Being an entrepreneur or business owner does not guarantee financial success, nor more time with family. The challenges organisations have is the melding of the work week and weekend and giving people space to not connect to work. Respecting people’s non-work time without having this diminish promotional opportunities.

The first thing businesses can do is stop holding social events outside of business hours. Microbias is as damaging as blatant stereotyping. Who in your office organises the birthday cake? Or for that matter cleans up after it?

Fiona Johnston 

CEO UM Australia

I experienced more ‘men’s club’ behaviours in this market than I had in any other when I arrived in Australia, and that is from global-based experience. It was a shock and shame – and frankly quite boring. 

I think it has improved vastly in recent years, as women are speaking up more, and I think men are listening. There are many sisters, wives and daughters that men respect - and the wider gender equality conversation over the last few years has started to resonate more, with these personal relationships as the reference point. 

But no, I don’t think the work is done.

Fiona JohnstonCredit: Fiona Johnston - UM Australia
Fiona Johnston


Ensuring we build and nurture a community of humans who are open and respectful of all people, all walks of life, race, gender and style is crucial. Unfortunately it only takes a small group of people to revert to negative, legacy based ideas, if driven by fear – and all prejudice is ultimately founded in fear. Staying open, educating and listening are key to avoiding this. 

I don’t see people in different streams based on gender, I see talent and humans, and so tend not to operate in a tokenistic state on this. 

I think generalising women is as bad as generalising men, and with this in mind, my aim is to identify leadership talent, motivation and intent, and then work to that.  If it’s a specific female that needs support, my fostering sits in three camps.  

1. Drive Purpose – women have a great sense of what is said, and unsaid, and they can connect to a higher purpose with a genuine level of care and authenticity around this nuance. So I urge my team to find this, develop it and dig deep into it - they can lift and lead like no other when purpose is clear, which in turn lifts others.

2. Create Presence – one thing I have observed is that more women wait for space to speak, whereas men might just roll in. As such I try to hold the space of their presence and bring it out if it is not apparent. It doesn’t have to be chest beating, or wallflower-esque – it might just mean needing space to be heard, and air time to allow themselves ‘permission’.

3. Hone the Practice – just start leading.  In the way that feels authentic and right for the individual. Hone your practice not only of craft, but in leadership too – this means adapting to others, not to the detriment of values, but in the sense of message management. Like anyone, we have to be adaptable and show a level of EQ in what we do. No one is unique in not needing to do this and, importantly, it is the fundamental difference between management and leadership. Managing things vs leading humans – both big jobs, the latter constantly moving, evolving. (And no, women don’t have better EQ than men; they just choose not to excuse themselves for managing it). 

Don’t allow yourself to be a gender quota or martyr, speak to the ‘third’ thing wherever you can – the high purpose that is better than the ‘you’, or ‘them’. Jump in, look for support, and ask for it if you don’t get it. People are there. 

There will always be energy vampires and toxic people along the way – from all genders and demographics - but there are many, many awesome humans too. Keep perspective, look after yourself. 

One generalisation I will make is that women are very good at looking after everyone else, so you must make sure you look after yourself too. The oxygen mask analogy. Energy out, equals energy in, save some for you. Only you can.

Esme Borgelt

Managing director A/NZ, Kellogg's 

From the statistics, it appears women now make up approximately 50 per cent of the leadership positions in marketing in Australia. However, it is also true female participation in marketing jobs is much higher than that.

According to the Association of National Advertisers, 67 per cent of the marketing work force in the US is made up of women, and I suspect Australia would be similar. Therefore, if you crunch the numbers, we should be seeing that higher percentage of women in the marketing workforce translate to a higher percentage of women leadership positions in marketing. But we don’t. That is why I think this is still a live conversation for us. 

We’ve got to challenge ourselves and our businesses on what we can do better to ensure that we are creating the right environment to support women in navigating the path to more senior positions, and then going further from marketing leadership roles into c-suite roles.

Esme BorgeltCredit: Esme - Kellog's
Esme Borgelt


There are still not enough marketers getting into these roles, yet they have many valuable skills and capabilities that can help businesses grow. Marketers have comparably well-developed competencies in team leadership, influencing, organisational development, and change management, they are skilled in demand generation which is a key catalyst for growth, and they are laser focused on what the consumer wants. All skills of great business leaders, if we can harness and nurture the talent we have. 

The conversion of women into CEO roles seems to be going backwards overall. According to the most recent CEW survey, only two out of 25 CEO appointments went to women in 2019. And if you crunch the numbers again, at this rate gender equality among Australia's top chief executive ranks could be 80 years away! 

There is a still a long way to go until we see the extremely talented pool of women in the workforce being given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. 

Firstly, we need to stamp out the myth women need to be 'fixed' to be more confident, to take more risks and to emulate their male counterparts more. What we do need to fix are the conditions in the workplace (and the unconscious bias), which undermine the development and the sustained success of women. We should deeply understand how women experience the workplace, and then create the conditions required for women to develop and grow. 

Part of that is creating programs and policies that recognise women are the most likely to require extended periods off to have children and flexibility when they come back to work. We need to lean forward on flexible work arrangements to help women return to the workforce, so women don’t feel as though they need to choose between a career and a family. It still saddens me to hear women still early in their careers ask if it is possible to have a career and a family. Of course it is! 

At Kellogg’s, we are very proud of our marketers and value their contribution to our growth agenda. We now have about 40 per cent of our marketers on flexible work arrangements to accommodate their life priorities, whilst retaining their talent, and nurturing their potential for more senior roles. This is working very well for our business. 

We also need focused development plans for women to help increase their impact, and build long lasting networks. Mentoring is still largely under-valued and under-utilised in development of women in the workplace.

Why is it important? It’s simple diversity, gender or otherwise – drives business results. It drives creativity, debate and challenges the status quo. It is representative of the consumer we serve – all of this can only lead to a thriving economy, and thriving businesses. And more than anything, it is the right thing to do. 

When I was appointed to my first director role, I told my boss at the time that I wasn’t ready. I believed that I didn’t have the experience or the leadership capability to step up into an executive role. He told me that if I was going to wait to be ready to take on bigger challenges that I would never be ready. That was such a powerful lesson for me. I took the job.

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