Gender parity in the workplace took center stage at the Oscars in March, fueled by Patricia Arquette’s impassioned speech during the broadcast, but for the women at cabler Nickelodeon, that issue has been in place since the channel’s launch.
In 1980, Geraldine Laybourne became its first female president, fostering a female-friendly work culture while pioneering a slate of such innovative kids’ programming as “Rugrats” and “You Can’t Do That on Television!” It was under Laybourne’s leadership that the then-fledgling Nickelodeon became a top-rated, Emmy- and Peabody-decorated network.
“One of the great things about the number of women in our organization — and we account for more than 50% — is that we actually have never had to say ‘hear us roar’ because we were all there already,” says Cyma Zarghami, president of the Viacom Kids and Family Group. “For the most part our experience has always been very female friendly and that’s something we’re really proud of.”
Pam Kaufman, president of consumer products and chief marketing officer, was hired when she was eight months’ pregnant, a scenario that, in spite of women “leaning in” across corporate America, is the exception, rather than the rule.
“I was terrified. I told the person with whom I was interviewing that I was pregnant, and the first thing he said to me was congratulations,” says Kaufman, who credits parent company Viacom Media Networks and president and CEO Philippe Dauman for implementing forward-thinking policies. “It is an incredibly family-friendly environment, and it does start at the top. If you’re successful and a hard worker and you need to go take care of something (the philosophy) is to go take care of what’s important.”
An inhouse mentorship program also accounts for Nickelodeon’s female-driven success, says chief operating officer Sarah Levy. “Because it’s a family brand, as women go through the life stages we have come to see that women are incredible executives,” says Levy. “The senior women have mentored the junior women in a way that has made (Nickelodeon) a great place with great opportunity.”
Adds Marva Smalls, head of public affairs and chief of staff, and Viacom’s head of global inclusion, “It’s a culture where the women respect the men and the men respect the women and we’re all just looking to hit it out of the park.
“We don’t skew for female versus male but we really want that balance. We understand that it takes all those voices at the table in order for us put to best product out for our audience.”
To that end, Nickelodeon has long taken pride in providing preschool entertainment with an educational component (“Bubble Guppies,” “Dora the Explorer”) as well as tween, teen and adult fare on its sister channels like TeeNick and Nick at Nite. What makes Nickelodeon’s content stand out, says Zarghami, is the fact that it’s primarily “gender neutral.”
“We believe kids under 11 shouldn’t be so conscious of the gender differences, so we went out of our way to make sure we were boy- and girl-friendly,” says Zarghami, citing “girl-empowering” classics like “Clarissa Explains It All” and new series “Bella and the Bulldogs.” “Once in a while you’ll see a little pink or frills, but storytelling for kids really should be about being a kid, not about being a boy kid or a girl kid. At Nickelodeon your daughter kicks Cinderella’s ass.”