Ann Fudge, an exemplar for black women in advertising

Women don’t want any favors from their male counterparts when it comes to career opportunities. Neither do they need to make any excuses, in a business setting, about their greater sense of family and community. Within the advertising industry they have fiercely fought their way out of the stereotype of using their beauty to sell everything from breakfast cereal to automobile exhaust pipes. It has been a while now since they jumped out of the press ads and thirty second commercials and barged into corporate boardrooms to successfully steer agency conglomerates.

To this end Ann Fudge remains an icon that has defined exacting standards for women and men alike who set their careers in the branding and marketing sector. She was the first African American to gain the summit of a global network of marketing communication companies, the giant Y&R Brands, where she was chairman and CEO between 2003 and 2007. Before joining the agency, she had retired as the President of the $5 billion Beverage, Desserts and Post Division of Kraft General Foods, a company in which she had a stellar rise and spellbinding career.

Her journey has taken her to heights where both the air and population density are thin, serving in corporate boards of some of the world’s most successful companies including General Electric, Novartis, Unilever and Infosys. However, what sets her apart is not just her ability to scale the escarpment of power and influence, but also her capacity to prioritize family commitments within the pressure cooker of executive life.

For example, as she was growing in her career and being recognized with more responsibility, she passed up a promotion to general manager at General Mills. Instead, she accepted another job offer so that she could be closer to her ailing mother on the other side of the country. On a different occasion while on a trajectory to the executive vice president of Kraft General Foods, she turned down another promotion. This time it was because her son was going into his final year in high school, and she felt that it wasn’t right to move him. She also didn’t want to be a commuting mom and wife.

Ann has a penchant for setting personal and career goals, and one of those goals was to retire by the age of 50. So, in the year 2000 she retired as president of the Beverage, Desserts and Post division of Kraft General Foods. She felt that she had accomplished her goal and also wanted to reconnect with the most important people in her life, having recently dealt with the illness and death of her parents and some friends and relatives. She also got engrossed in community and charity work, but it didn’t take long before Y&R Brands came calling and she returned to an active executive assignment.

Characteristically Ann says that it was the roadblocks that she found on her way that kept her going. Considering that she is a black woman in corporate America, there must have been more obstacles to overcome than you would encounter between East and West Germany during the Cold War, inclusive of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. From overt discrimination to systemic resistance to change, and even unconscious bias, she met every expression of prejudice with a steely resolve and a healthy disregard for stumbling blocks.

While the world celebrates International Women’s Day and recognizes role models like Ann Fudge it is also crucial to acknowledge that there are many more people in the workforce who may have the requisite qualifications and experience, but do not have the same vision, resilience and ability to overcome the conditions that enable social inequity.

In the past decades, leading companies have taken steps to increase diversity, equity and inclusion but the progress remains slow and largely unsuccessful. David Pedulla, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University offers evidence-based ideas to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. This involves setting goals and being as transparent and accountable as with corporate finance, and then using the data available to continually eliminate roadblocks and allowing key stakeholders to weigh in to chart a path forward. An alternative complaint system may also be necessary because studies have shown that traditional grivience mechanisms can lead to retaliation and eventually derail the effort.

While technology has become ubiquitous with the workplace there is also concern that it can reproduce and even exacerbate group-based inequities by race, gender and other social categories. These problems are even harder to identify when the number of the people being discriminated against are small as compared to the whole. Finally, it is critical to involve managers from the start so that it can fit in with the way that they already work and they in turn can champion the change.

International Women’s Day helps to keep track of the progress being made by organizations to be more inclusive while incorporating diversity and equity across all measures of success. It requires vision and the determination to make positive changes over time in order to achieve that seemingly elusive goal.


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