More Than Half of Women in Advertising Have Experienced Sexual Harassment at Work

By Erik Oster 

Industry organization the 4A’s released the initial findings of a yearlong research initiative examining diversity in the advertising industry and the results suggest the “diversity debate” is really far from over.

The survey questioned 549 4A’s members, including375 women. Among the more disconcerting findings were that over half of the women who responded said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (which, for the purposes of the survey was defined as “the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks in workplace, professional or social settings”). Additionally, 54 percent of women said their gender had made them feel “either somewhat vulnerable or very vulnerable in the workplace.”

Sometimes overlooked in a diversity discussion usually more focused on hiring practices is that women creatives in advertising, when they are given jobs, are often overlooked on important assignments or passed over for promotions in favor of male coworkers. 33 percent of female participants in the survey said they had been passed over for key assignments or promotions due to their gender on multiple occasions, with 42 percent saying they had been left out of decision-making processes due to gender-based discrimination.


The 4A’s pushed up the release of the preliminary results ahead of schedule in the wake of Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts statements in a Business Insider interview that “the fucking debate is all over” (regarding diversity) and that he doesn’t spend “any time” on diversity issues at his agencies. Roberts, of course was subsequently placed on a leave of absence and then announced his resignation, as of September 1. 

“We had planned [the project] before the Kevin Roberts thing happened,” 4A’s CEO Nancy Hill explained to Adweek, “and we debated whether to hold off but, with people being in the middle of a heated conversation it felt appropriate. One of the reasons it’s so important is that I can talk until I’m blue in the face about anecdotal information, but if you don’t have the statistics, people can continue living in denial. If there were any people out there who are in denial, these stats prove otherwise.”

Hill, who claims the survey is “the most comprehensive study of its kind within the advertising community,” added that she didn’t find anything in the report surprising.

Of the participants, 43 percent work in middle management, 33 percent in senior management, 12 percent in “the C Suite” and 2 percent were interns. 

“These are our top findings we wanted to release when talking gender and discrimination,” clarified vice president Samantha Wolfe of Havas, the organization’s PR agency of record. “We also did a study partnering with [marketing firm] SSRS about general consumers and how women are portrayed in advertising. Other parts of this survey include a diversity element that we will release in the fall.”

That future portion of the report, which will presumably be released during the 4A’s talent conference at Advertising Week next month, will feature findings classified by gender, ethnicity and geography.