Three Years Post-Pandemic, Women Still Haven't Returned to the Marketing Industry

Nonprofit She Runs It shows women make up 37% of employees, still down from 50% pre-pandemic

In 2020, advertising leaders committed to expanding emphasis on DEI. In 2023, new data from nonprofit organization She Runs It shows some promising improvements, but also underscores that marketers’ are relaxing their commitments to equity.

Other studies back that up. Only 18% of respondents to a MediaLink survey marked diversity, equity and inclusion and environmental sustainability as top priorities.

There are other studies that show existing diversity and inclusion efforts aren’t enough to fix advertising’s representation problem, and that the industry representation is worsening when it comes to agency ownership. 4A’s 2023 data showed that between 2021 and 2022, the number of agency CEOs who are white jumped from 71% to 90%

“The purpose of this work is to work toward having our workforces be as inclusive and diverse as the population we serve,” said Lynn Branigan, president and CEO of She Runs It. The nonprofit began tracking data six years ago, in partnership with Seramount’s Inclusion Index. Tracking the data helps members of She Runs It’s #Inclusive100 consortium understand how their inclusion initiatives are paying off.

Three years since the pandemic began, the percentage of women who work in the media, marketing and technology industries in 2023 hadn’t bounced back to where it was before. More positive data show industry progression in a few ways: More of the women who remain in the workforce are rising to C-Suite roles, alongside people of color.

Women still haven’t returned to the workforce, and they’re still underpaid

The advertising industry is still reeling from the pandemic’s impact on the workforce. Women, who before the pandemic comprised half of ad industry employees, now make up only 37%. 

She Runs It did not ask respondents for information about why they left the workforce. Branigan thinks factors like economic issues, childcare costs and generational differences are keeping women out of the media, marketing and technology industries. 

“The younger population … They don’t want to live the lifestyles that their father’s lived. They want a more flexible work schedule, they’re more entrepreneurial [and] they want to create their own side hustles,” Branigan said.

Another reason is pay. 

Women’s compensation still trails men’s. Women comprise only 32% of the industry’s top 20% of wage earnings. That number is up only 2% from last year, underscoring the slow pace of change.

But there are more women in the C-Suite, and companies are embracing diverse-hiring practices

Even though women haven’t returned to the workforce, more women are rising to the C-Suite. That’s true across demographic groups.

This year, Black women executives made up 8% of executive roles, compared to 4% last year. Latinx executive representation also rose from 5% to 8%. 

It could be because companies are paying attention to diverse hiring practices and employees are building up ERGs. A whopping 79% of companies mandate diverse interview slates when hiring, up from 57% last year. 

Another encouraging development is that some companies erected new ERGs serving Native Americans and some religious groups. They’re also taking ERG participation seriously, given that 43% of companies consider employees’ ERG leadership roles when considering succession planning—up from 36% last year. Plus, 64% of the time, companies consider ERG leadership roles during an individual’s annual performance review.

Data on Black representation in advertising is unclear, and She Runs It suspects attrition issues

Media, marketing and technology companies are in general hiring more people of color. Latinx representation rose to 11% industry wide this year, compared to 8% last year, and Black employee representation hit 17%.
This would be good news, given that Black people make up 13.6% of the U.S. population. But, because She Runs It’s 2023 survey was so broad, the data doesn’t represent specific sectors.

Even if Black employee growth is up, Branigan is worried it won’t last, and that companies are largely unprepared to retain Black talent. In its 2024 survey, the nonprofit is tracking attrition to measure the extent of the retention problem.

After experiencing significant 15% growth last year, Black employee representation across all levels is reaching a plateau. There was just 4% growth this year. 

“The challenge is if [companies] don’t have more Black people in leadership roles, they’re going to lose these people. We’re seeing some evidence that there’s fatigue from people of color in believing that their companies are walking the walk and talking the talk,” she added.

One piece of evidence is that Black employees were less likely to participate in mentorship programs. Last year, 23% participated in these official company programs, whereas this year the number dropped to 9%.

Measurement initiatives like this one are costly for nonprofits

The first thing companies must do if they want things to change is to invest in measurement, Branigan said.

“They view it as a vital part of their strategy. They must be measured, whether the information is good or bad, because you can’t create a DEI strategy without the measurement,” she added.

The nonprofit revamped its survey tool this year, cutting 300 questions down to 100 and adding segmentation capabilities that Branigan said will make 2024 data the first available to marketers who want to compare their progress with competitors. 

“We made it an investment to say, ‘What if we could give you segmented data, so that if seven companies in each sector participate, you get to see your agency versus agency, media company versus media company, ad tech versus ad tech, marketer versus marketer,” Branigan said.

She Runs It invested $125,000 to build the new tool in partnership with Seramount. So far, it’s received $5,000 commitments from NBCUniversal, DoubleVerify, Basis Technologies, SiriusXM, BCW, Netflix and TransUnion. She Runs It is working on attracting interest from others to recoup its full investment.

The revamped 2024 survey is open to respondents now and will close on March 12. 

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