Too Many Women Still Feel Vulnerable Working in Advertising

There’s far too much discrimination happening, even 35 years later

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An Adweek report 35 years ago showed a pay gap between men and women in advertising. Not much has changed since.
Trina Dalziel

Thirty-five years ago, Adweek revealed findings from a shocking survey showing that women in advertising were making 67% of what men earned.

So, how are we doing today? Unfortunately, things haven’t changed all that much.

Women on average make 82% of what men do, and many women of color make even less (black women, for example, make 62 cents on the dollar). Though women drive 80% of consumer spending, we are underrepresented in the advertising industry overall. Women make up 46% of advertising workers overall, but we represent only a sliver of the leadership. Of the women who make it in advertising, four in 10 report having experienced harassment at some point, and more than half of women in advertising say their gender makes them feel vulnerable at work.

What does it mean to feel vulnerable at work? It means that we check ourselves before speaking—if we speak at all. It means the magnification of every slight, snub or insult (of which, each workday comes with plenty) brings us to the brink of boiling over. It means leaving big, bold, creative ideas—and, in our industry, money—on the table.

That’s why it’s so critical that creative agencies and advertisers take gender equality and diversity seriously. And this can’t just be about human resources, either. Company leaders must take full ownership over their people culture, making this issue every employee’s issue.

Four in 10 [women] report having experienced harassment at some point, and more than half of women in advertising say their gender makes them feel vulnerable at work.

Businesses and organizations succeed or fail based on their people. Studies show that companies with greater gender and racial diversity are more likely to have higher financial returns in the long run. And the companies that succeed are usually the ones that see their people as an investment, not a cost factor.

On top of that, today’s consumers are demanding companies share their values. Gen Z places civil rights and social justice issues at the forefront. Civil rights and discrimination are rated the second and third most critical threats facing the U.S., and 41% of Gen Z adults said #MeToo has had a major impact on their worldview. These priorities impact how Gen Z views and interacts with brands. More than one-third of Gen Z adults say they’ve boycotted a brand for political reasons in the past year.

And yet 35 years—nearly my whole lifetime—have passed since this publication brought our industry’s glaring issues with gender discrimination to indisputable light. Frustratingly, little progress has been made since then.

It’s time for agencies and brands to take this issue seriously. They can start by transparently adopting new policies that go beyond paltry legal requirements and affirming a commitment to safe and respectful environments for all workers, including freelancers and contractors, and extending their protection beyond the office. Part of the beauty of the industry is that the nature of our work is dynamic and takes us beyond our desks. Whether in an office, on set in a private home, at a gig or conference and even a holiday party, agencies and brands should ensure all places we work are safe and supportive.

Agencies and brands can also use their power to hold each other accountable. For instance, FCB showed leadership when the London International Awards made the shocking and disturbing decision to surprise a captive room with a talk by someone with a documented record of problematic behavior.

Advertising has the potential to shift how society portrays powerful women, to change the kind of behavior we accept and to challenge gender and racial stereotypes that exist. But we cannot change the culture without changing the industry that informs it. That’s why the fight of our time is to finally, once and for all, root out the discrimination, harassment, abuse and indignities that have, unfortunately, been hallmarks of our industry.

Time’s Up Advertising is playing a critical role in this fight by pushing to change culture, companies and policies in order to protect workers from workplace discrimination and prevent it from happening in the first place. Through the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, we are also holding individuals and corporations accountable for workplace harassment and abuse.

If we are successful, 40 years from now, we’ll have a whole new industry, one that has benefited financially and creatively from the fact that workers of all kinds can show up as whole people and contribute meaningfully to our industry’s success.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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