Taking the Pulse: The Latest Research on Gender Equality in Advertising

December 4, 2016

Melissa Beseda

Melissa Beseda is the global content specialist at POSSIBLE, where she tracks and researches industry trends and curates thought leadership content for agency staff and clients. Before joining the advertising world, Melissa led digital and social media programs for museums and other arts and cultural organizations. Connect with Melissa on Twitter and LinkedIn, and read her article—"Moving Beyond Our Fear in the Wake of 3% and the Election"—inspired by Madonna Badger's 2016 3% Conference opening keynote.

How prevalent is sexism in advertising? Is it anti-woman or pro-bro? Is it better or worse than tech? 3% asked you to tell us through our “Elephant on Madison Avenue” survey and our in-depth interviews with women across the industry. Hear what we discovered and what the 4A's uncovered in their own 2016 survey. 3% Advisors, Megan Averall and Michele Madansky, 3% Chief Knowledge Officer, Erin Carpenter and Nancy Hill, CEO of the 4A’s, will share key insights. Sponsored by 4A's.

This session aptly began with a research question:

“Has anyone experienced discrimination at their workplace or generally felt like they don’t fit into their culture at their agency? Please stand.”

Most of the room stood up. Unfortunately, the research presented over the next 45 minutes reflected this informal poll.

4A’s Research on Gender Discrimination

The American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) was on a mission. It decided to conduct a study in response to high profile issues, such as Erin Johnson’s discrimination lawsuit against Gustavo Martinez and Bayer’s Cannes-winning ad (that made light of a sex crime that have garnered a lot of attention in the ad world.) It wanted to get “numbers” because there were those in the industry, including Publicis Groupe chief Maurice Lévy, who believed that these were isolated cases. So, they undertook three research projects to find out how prevalent sexism and gender discrimination are with their members, people of color, and consumers.

Some key findings of the research:

  • Women in creative departments felt discrimination or harassment more than any other function and more than the industry average.
  • For women overall, 50% of women in the industry believe that they have experienced sexual harassment at least once. But in the creative department, 58% of women say that they have experienced sexual harassment often.
  • 70% of respondents for both women and people of color said that they do not get the same opportunities as white males at the agency.
  • 60% of women working in creative, ages 45-54, believe they are overlooked for promotions.
  • 72% of women from 25-34 feel either somewhat or very vulnerable to discrimination.

In most cases, respondents didn’t believe that the behavior is as overt as it used to be in the industry for both for women and people of color. However, it has become more insidious: if you are not getting the opportunities to do great work, you can’t move ahead in your career. That is the uphill battle women and people of color have to face everyday.

Adweek covered the research findings in Patrick Coffey's article, "Study Finds Most Women in Advertising Have Experienced Sexual Harassment and Discrimination."

Elephant on Madison Avenue

The idea for Elephant on Madison Avenue was actually born out of Ellen Pao's historic lawsuit against discrimination in Silicon Valley. After Trae Vassallo was subpoenaed to take the stand at Ellen Pao's trial, women in the valley flooded her inbox with emails about their experience of discrimination at work. She wanted to do something about it, so she formed a research team that included Michele Madansky. They debuted their findings, Elephant in the Valley, on Re/code Decode with Kara Swisher.

Madansky and Vassallo took on Elephant on Madison Avenue after meeting Lisen Stromberg at SXSW. Finding women to respond to Elephant in the Valley was difficult, but they had a great response from women in advertising.

Here’s some of what they found:

  • The advertising industry is worse for overall trust – women are not afforded as many opportunities as in Silicon Valley.
  • 9 in 10 women have heard demeaning comments from male colleagues and 6 in 10 hear demeaning comments monthly.
  • The Goldilocks Syndrome: 70% have been told they are too aggressive, while 62% have been told they’re too emotional. In other words, women can’t win.
  • 60% of women said they were less well compensated than their male colleagues. One woman found out that her direct report made $17,000 more than her. When she inquired about that discrepancy, the response was that he needs to make more money because his wife is at home.

Read more on the study here: Elephant on Madison Avenue.

Bro Culture in Ad Agencies and the Impact on Women

Megan Averell of The Insight Inn had a burning question: There was a lot of research looking to quantify outward discrimination and harassment, but what about the lived experience of women in advertising? So, she developed a qualitative research project to uncover the effects of bro-culture on women, specifically the day-to-day, insidious undercurrent of working in a culture that women aren’t completely comfortable with, nor welcomed into.

According to her research on bro-culture:

  • It has strict ingroups and outgroups and many women have felt the discrimination of being in the latter. “I detest the insider and outsider politics that are pervasive. If you’re not in the very inner circle, you get crappy projects.”
  • It is extremely pervasive. When asked what it felt like to work inside of it, women equated it with a fraternity or a college tailgate. Elements that comprised it: party attitude, inappropriate humor, and combative and competitive sense of how business is done in ad agencies. “Men push and push and push and push. And in some places, that’s what’s rewarded.”
  • It has arbiters and enablers. Arbiters are typically found in creative departments. The creative leadership, which is often white men, sets the tone. They model for the rest of the agency how one is expected to behave. However, the idea of cultural arbiter does not extend to women. The enabler part of the equation is the CEO. CEOs are often modeling competitive behavior, allowing the creative team to do what they want and often have a fraternal relationship with the ECD or CCO. “Whoever has the cultural power is usually the coolest or the richest and that is usually the ECD or the CEO.”
  • Bro-culture causes women to feel like outsiders. Women talked about changing and adapting to fit agency culture. “I had to yell because I was being yelled at. I wasn’t comfortable with that.”

Averell also found that women in advertising are constantly negotiating Goldilocks Syndrome, attempting to find that line between aggressive and assertive. She noted that the “in the service of the work” mindset also makes women subordinate to men by role. If you are in account, strategy, or media, your job is to extract something from the powers that be, not necessarily have power yourself.

Dive into the full study findings here: "Bro Culture in Ad Agencies and the Impact on Women."

What are we gonna do about it?

Advertising is a data driven industry. This data provides insights we didn’t have before, but there is more work to be done. The panelists were asked about the experience of women of color in the industry, but there has been even less research done on it. Fortunately, the 4A’s and the 3% Conference are undertaking benchmarking studies this year with a prioritization for women of color in the industry.

The advertising industry can no longer pretend that there is not a problem.

Megan Averell called CEOs and ECDs to form task forces to own agency culture and ensure that it is more inclusive for women and people of color. Armed with data and the belief that we, too, as women and people of color, can be insiders in the industry, we have the power to change the industry—whether it be at our current agency or the agency we start ourselves.