I got pregnant with my first child at 24. When I nervously approached my boss to share the news, he said, “Figures. I was surprised it took you this long.”
The maternity leave policy at the company hadn’t been formalized and I was told to be back at my desk six weeks after my daughter was born. While the Family and Medical Leave Act technically guaranteed me a job if I took 12 weeks off, the environment gave me every reason to question how I would be treated if I didn’t hustle back. And so, desperate to earn a paycheck and eager to continue developing my career, I was back at my desk within six weeks, bleary-eyed, a physical mess, and questioning whether or not I could even handle this job… or any job.
Fast forward 17 years, and I’m the CEO of a different organization, a leading ad agency. My current organization is diverse, thoughtful, accepting and accommodating—but it lives in an industry that still struggles with diversity.
Over the past week, sexism in the advertising industry once again made headlines when a senior executive—now-former Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts—made comments that diminished the challenges faced by women in this business. This is not a new story. Over the years, I’ve been asked countless times about my perspective on the industry’s gender problem. And I often find myself unsure of how to respond, because I can only speak authentically to my own experiences, a focus group of one. I know that discrimination, conscious and unconscious, against women and minorities is very real and very present in our industry and in society as a whole—after all, I experienced it myself in the past—but it has not been my reality since joining 360i almost 12 years ago.
Sign up: Click here to subscribe to the Broadsheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the world’s most powerful women.
Whenever these types of ad industry stories make the mainstream news, my instinct is to consider my agency and what role we can play to build an environment that is safe and welcoming for everyone. We spent a lot of time this past year being introspective, thinking about ways to sustain our company culture and business success as we continue to grow. One of the things we noticed when benchmarking is that our workforce is very diverse by ad industry standards: more than half female and nearly a third non-white. This extends to our leadership team, half of whom are female and/or multi-cultural.
While we are still on a journey—with many bridges to build before we declare victory—I believe that there are three key foundational beliefs that have helped us develop a high-performing, diverse culture:
A relentless pursuit of a pure meritocracy
Advertising, like many other industries, has historically been a “buddy culture.” Key roles were doled out to the golfing buddies, college buddies, drinking buddies. This was a tough group to break into if you didn’t fit that mold. While our business will always be built on relationships, it’s important that success isn’t rooted in who you know, but in what you do.
To be sure, I do have favorites. Favoritism isn’t a bad thing—if you’re favoring proven high performers. My favorites don’t go to ballgames, plays,or nail salons with me, but they do get the interesting assignments, the promotions, and the speaking slots at industry events, because, well, they’re the best performers.
To keep us honest in this regard, we conduct reviews twice yearly, including soliciting 360-degree feedback from peers, partners, supervisors, and clients. Some agencies struggle to get this done once a year—it is a major time investment—but we place a priority on ensuring our employees and their managers are on the right path with clear benchmarks and a record of their successes.
We also value achievement over activity. In a service-oriented, collaborative business face time will always be important. But you need a culture that values what you accomplish over how many hours you log in the office.
It’s a culture, not a checked box.
The gender discussion in this industry often seems to revolve around the struggle to fill quotas. But ticking the box does not mean you’ve magically created a diverse culture.
Part of the problem for anyone who’s not of the mold from 30 years ago is that not all of us consider advertising as a place for us. As the saying goes, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I didn’t originally start my career in the ad business.
But diversity is more than just gender, skin color, or a sexual preference. It comes with a mixture of thought and a culture that embraces many opinions and professional backgrounds and ultimately results in a powerful alchemy.
So rather than developing quotas, our culturally diverse workforce has resulted from a strategy for building a high performance company and culture that promotes diverse thinking. It’s not wallpaper diversity; It’s an infrastructure that supports diversity of all kinds.
I’m proud that we have so many women & LGBTQ folks in leadership positions at our agency. But I think we still need to make stronger inroads on ethnic and racial diversity, encouraging more people to believe this can be an industry for them as they consider their career paths. One way we’re working to achieve this is through partnerships with organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone, Year Up, and New York On Tech, which give high school students and young adults exposure to what a future career path in advertising could look like, and providing the tools and opportunities to get them there.
Office environment that supports diversity
There isn’t one sweeping solution to building an office culture that is a comfortable place for all. Just as bias displays itself in many small ways, there are many small changes that can be made to create a more inclusive culture.
For example, one of the things we noticed in our analysis of 360i’s employee retention is that working mothers are much more likely to stay at the agency long-term. Their attrition rate is a third of the average. A large part of that can be attributed to the support they receive from the agency to ensure they’re empowered to deliver high performance at their office job as well as their most important job via a re-entry program following maternity leave. I wish I’d had that option.
The advertising industry is far from achieving gender or diversity parity. And while I’m proud of the culture we’ve established at 360i, we still have work to do.
I’m challenging myself to find ways to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into the industry at large. And that means continuing our commitment to building a culture that values diverse people and thinking, not merely checking a quota box.
Sarah Hofstetter is the CEO of digital marketing agency 360i.