Forging a Path For Those Behind You: Catherine Harris, TBWA\New Zealand

by Carol Mason , AdForum (NYC)

TBWA Group New Zealand
Auckland, New Zealand
See Profile

Catherine Harris
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) TBWA Group New Zealand

While the topic of women's equality is more widely discussed and great improvements have been made, it's important to note that we've still got a long way to go. We chatted with Catherine Harris, TBWA\New Zealand's CEO, about the act of 'progresswashing' and better supporting women in senior roles.


What barriers do women still face in our industry and why are they still there?

Your survey findings are unfortunately not a huge surprise. The main barrier today is what we call ‘progresswashing’ - when organizations use incremental progress on gender equality to defer, minimise or ignore the work left to be done - particularly for women of color.

As professional pressures increase, women get less shots at the top roles, are more likely to be fired faster for any setbacks around targets, work, and culture, and often have to deal with far more pressure at home. But with an underlying culture of progresswashing, people stop analyzing if their behaviors and responses are triggered by the fact they’re dealing with a senior woman. 

I’ve recently been on a range of panels discussing this year’s IWD theme of ‘Break the Bias’ and there is still much progress to be made. Key themes discussed have been the lack of a cohort for senior women, the likeability tax for women, the motherhood tax, clarity around pay and the unconscious bias driving all this.

My advice for women is to find a female cohort and protect each other, be conscious when you fall into bias traps (it’s not just a male issue), reach out for coaching and mentoring whenever you can, find the men who support female leaders - and then don’t give up.


How should we tackle an issue such as equal opportunity, not solely for women’s equality but across the entire DE&I spectrum?   

DE&I should be a continual conversation with teams and the wider community. We need to be consistently monitoring for DE&I blind spots and then take measurable steps to address them. It’s an ongoing process that the full business needs to be engaged with at every level, and it needs to be something that everyone cares about.  


How would brands react if their ad strategy was created and produced by a majority male team? 

Clients come to agencies because they’re looking for diversity of thought and creativity. To deliver this effectively we need to ensure we have a diverse team. Most clients now expect this however, there are still a few clients who outwardly support diversity who aren’t willing to put their money where their Linked in posts are.


What experiences did you have joining the industry?

Most senior women have some challenging tales to tell around sexist behavior, but the experiences that have impacted me the most are those related to double standards and the advantages often subtly given to and claimed by men. These can really catch women off-guard, and this is why progresswashing is such an important conversation to have. Often, I was the only woman in the room in a position of leadership, and as you become more senior, your female cohort diminishes in size while men continue to expand theirs.

Like most women of my generation, we were never paid the same as men. I’ve had instances where I’ve discovered what my pay gap was, including one time when my pay slip was found on a printer and a mortified colleague took me aside to point out how terribly I was paid.

As you become more senior, there are people who are comfortable supporting women on their way to middle management, but if you become too powerful your success will be undermined. Women witness this behavior repeatedly over the course of their careers. It can change them and make them play small. The saddest stories I hear are from young women looking to make big next steps who realize the more senior they become, the less likable they can become to some people. That’s when you become aware of the back-handed comments from colleagues as they try to reframe successful women.

Society is still comfortable with women in support roles or busily doing the grunt work but being in the room and making the big calls can still be challenging for some people. When men express boundaries and ask for delivery, it’s considered healthy, but when women do it, it can be seen as unlikable and that has to be reflected on.    


Who inspires you the most and why? 

I have met so many wonderful people over the course of my career, but several I really admire include Michelle Greenhalgh who has always supported and lifted up everyone she meets - actively, loudly and publicly - but also when no one's watching. One of my client partners, Astrud Burgess, has been an incredible support and taught me the power of conviction, of keeping an open mind and consciously giving women opportunities. She has been one of the women here in New Zealand to lift me up when there were no women leading large advertising agencies. And my business partner and our Chief Creative Officer Shane Bradnick. He is an incredible creator, and someone who has given me so much confidence around risk. He is the male champion for women in leadership we all talk about wanting. He consciously supports women having an influential voice in the room.

All of these people taught me that helping to lead the way won’t be easy work, but it’s worth it, and you are forging a path that will make it just that bit easier for the women behind you.