37 Women Who Are Disrupting the Status Quo and Championing Gender Diversity in Advertising and Tech

Celebrating top female leaders in media and marketing

These women are working to close the glaring gap in C-suites across the country. Photo Illustration: Adweek

It should come as a shock to no one that there is a serious lack of gender diversity in C-suites across the country. Currently, just over 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by a female CEO, while only 19 percent of their senior management positions are held by women. In the advertising industry, a mere 11 percent of creative directors are female.

So what exactly is being done to fix this glaring gender gap—and, more importantly, who’s stepping up to fix it? Read on to find out about 37 of the women who are taking on that crucial task and disrupting the status quo.
—Emma Bazilian

Anjula Acharia
Partner, Trinity Ventures
A true connector, this venture capitalist and talent manager spans the worlds of Hollywood and Silicon Valley while also bridging the gaps that women and people of diverse backgrounds face in both industries. Her clients include Bollywood star turned American TV phenom Priyanka Chopra, who recently starred in the movie remake of Baywatch as the villain—a role that was originally written for a male actor. As a partner at Trinity Ventures, she’s invested in a number of female-founded tech companies while working with initiatives such as the Holberton School to help diversify the next generation of engineers. “We are not one thing,” she says. “And we can’t be defined by one story, as nobody can be.” —Marty Swant

Sharmi Albrechtsen
CEO, SmartGurlz
Sharmi Albrechtsen wants more women in technology jobs. The co-founder and CEO of SmartGurlz is hoping its products—coding robots made for girls, with girls’ play patterns in mind—will make that happen. The SmartGurlz coding robots look like typical dolls but come with different coding games that teach girls about science, technology, engineering and math. “Our mission is to catch as many young girls as possible,” says Albrechtsen. “[We want to] give them role models, confidence and interests in technology so that they do not ‘self-select’ away but instead ‘lean in.’” —Kristina Monllos

Gretchen Carlson
Television journalist
Since her well-publicized departure from Fox News last summer following a sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes (parent company 21st Century Fox settled with her for $20 million and issued a public apology), Carlson has become a prominent advocate for women’s issues, passionately speaking out against harassment in the workplace. “Empowering women has always been central to who I am, especially mentoring young women interested in the television business,” Carlson says. “My door has always been open.” Her mission is continuing through her new fund, Gift of Courage, which “inspires women and girls to stand up and speak up,” she adds. Meanwhile, her upcoming book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, will be published in October. —A.J. Katz

Solange Claudio
President, Moxie
Solange Claudio knows it’s hard to walk the walk when it comes to achieving a more diverse workplace, but as president of Publicis Groupe’s Moxie, she has done just that. In her first year in that role, Claudio elevated two women to round out the agency’s female leadership to six. “Our goal is to set up more programming of that nature so we continuously encourage women to take on leadership roles,” Claudio says. And she’s not stopping there. Within Moxie, Claudio created and now leads Amelia, an offshoot of Publicis Groupe’s VivaWomen program. As a member of the Atlanta ad community, she found the needs of Moxie’s women differed from the rest of the network. And with Amelia, she places a premium on promoting women in data, content and technology.
—Katie Richards 

Lisa Clunie and Jaime Robinson
Co-founders, CEO and CCO, respectively, Joan
Joan co-founders Lisa Clunie (CEO) and Jaime Robinson (CCO) took a big chance when they decided last year to bring yet another advertising shop into the world. Joan was born over a lunch during which the two made a list of all the things driving them nuts in the industry (it came out to about 90 items) and made a pact “that we would start a company if we felt we could topple those over one by one and bring a new energy and spirit to the industry,” Robinson recalls. By identifying key tension points that many agencies and clients face—from collaboration to the pricing model—Joan is able to present brands including General Mills and Netflix with a different business model. —K.R.

Wendy Clark
With a reputation for making waves, the former Coca-Cola marketer’s longest-lasting act of disruption may well concern one brand in need of a shake-up: McDonald’s. Omnicom’s dedicated Golden Arches agency, We Are Unlimited, has broken several industry taboos, from adopting performance-based compensation to bringing third-party organizations like Accenture and Facebook in-house. “That model has become the one that we get calls about,” Clark says. Meanwhile, her decidedly “traditional” agency, DDB, has also rebounded since she became North American CEO, most recently winning digital and social media duties for Miller Lite. Beyond the business itself, she has “put culture firmly back on the agenda” via initiatives like a “Motivation Mondays” open Q&A series and an unconscious bias training program. “Every single day, we’re doing something disruptive somewhere,” she adds. —Patrick Coffee

Beth Comstock
Vice chair, General Electric
As General Electric’s first female vice chair, Comstock wants to close the 125-year-old company’s gender gap. Elevated from chief marketing and commercial officer in 2015, Comstock has proactively championed women in leadership and technology, promising to hire 20,000 women in STEM roles by 2020. Moreover, the brand is working to fill 50 percent of technical entry-level jobs with women. As of February, GE employed 14,700 women in such roles, equivalent to 18 percent of its workforce. Comstock also invests in women-led startups like GoodLooks and Human Ventures to support innovation. “Companies need to make a commitment to hiring more women in technical roles and provide opportunities for challenging and fulfilling jobs. Universities need to make a commitment to educate more women in technical fields, and we all need to create more role models and examples that people can follow.” —Lauren Johnson

Jacqueline Corbelli
CEO, chairman, co-founder, BrightLine Partners
Interactive ads all over Hulu and other major streaming platforms are mostly thanks to Corbelli. As co-founder of BrightLine Partners, a company that produces dynamic, interactive and now T-commerce ads for partners like Hulu, Corbelli has had to deal with adversity in both the advertising and the technology industries. “If you let your confidence and conviction drive you, you can ignore other dynamics that try to distract you,” she says. BrightLine’s goal is to help television find its place in the digital world, and navigating the frequently changing horizon of digital media isn’t always easy. “There’s an old tech saying that we use as our guiding light,” says Corbelli. “Keep things modular, flexible and scalable.” —Sami Main

Susan Credle
FCB’s Credle has long championed gender balance. From Liz Taylor, FCB Chicago’s CCO, to Nancy Crimi-Lamanna, FCB Toronto’s CCO, women are solidly represented throughout the agency’s leadership ranks. “I’m a believer of picking the best person, but the most important thing is that you’re looking at a diverse group of candidates,” Credle says. Under her leadership, FCB has sponsored initiatives like Cannes’ See It, Be It, which helps senior women creatives accelerate their careers. Credle believes that pushing for 50/50 male-female representation on awards juries also will help put more women on the leadership track. Awards juries are “a master class in how to look at work,” she adds. “That push is going to help tremendously in getting the right people in the right jobs.” —Christine Birkner

Geena Davis
Founder, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media
Geena Davis was watching television with her daughter when she realized that most of the shows were male-dominated. Instead of being annoyed and moving on, the actress founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, which works with companies like Google and agencies like J. Walter Thompson to provide hard data on the gender gap in film, television and various other media. “If we don’t show that women and girls take up half the space in the world and do half of the interesting and important and fun things, we’re literally teaching kids that girls are not as important as boys from the beginning,” says Davis. —K.M.

Rita Ferro
President, advertising sales, Disney-ABC
When Disney-ABC combined its ad sales operations into a single portfolio in February and tapped Ferro, who previously oversaw Disney Channel’s sales and marketing, to run it, the exec created a senior leadership team made up entirely of women, a rarity among media companies: Debbie Richman (heading up brand, revenue and yield management), Laura Nathanson (client and audience solutions) and Debra O’Connell (sales and marketing). “One level down, it’s also predominantly women,” says Ferro, who credits Disney Media Networks co-chairman Ben Sherwood for elevating women across the company. In her new portfolio, “we have a lot of women to watch,” she says. “We’re looking to elevate them, because they have tremendous skill sets and knowledge that will drive the business forward.” —Jason Lynch

Kirsten Flanik
President, BBDO New York
Having spent more than a decade at BBDO before being promoted to president of its New York office, Flanik knows that the most effective way to change any organization is from within. In recent months, her passions have centered on showcasing and promoting ambitious, successful women inside and outside the agency world. Last April, Omnicom CEO John Wren promised to double the number of female creative leaders within its largest U.S. network over the following 12 months; today Flanik can confirm her team achieved that goal. “Our industry is stronger when we have diversity of thinking as a part of every conversation,” she says. This conviction goes beyond advertising: Flanik recently collaborated with the AOL-sponsored Makers Conference to launch “Put Her on the Map,” an initiative to name more landmarks after women, and she’s working on a communications campaign to help pass the Equal Rights Amendment. —P.C.

Jean Freeman
CEO, Zambezi
Zambezi, a full-service shop, started as an agency solely focused on the sports entertainment world. Freeman, its CEO and majority owner, saw a need for the company to pivot and embrace a broader range of work. “Adaptability is necessary as the industry continues to change,” she explains. Under her leadership, Zambezi’s staff is now 50 percent women and was named one of the largest women-owned businesses in Los Angeles. “The only way there can be more of [companies like] us is if we get enterprising women in decision-making roles,” she says. “It’s one thing to have a certain percentage of staff as women, but what percentage of them are in director or executive positions?” —S.M.

Cindy Gallop
Founder, IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn
When asked how she has disrupted the ad industry, Cindy Gallop, founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn, says she has “failed spectacularly.” But that’s not stopping her from trying to “fuck shit up,” in Gallop’s words. White men still dominate the business and hold most of the top positions at agencies, leaving little room for women and people of color—so how has she made a change? By disrupting the industry from the bottom up, she says. Gallop has managed to make waves in the business by speaking (when paid) at conferences and inspiring women and people of color to speak up, ask for pay raises, say when something isn’t speaking to their demographic and, when the opportunity presents itself, even leave their agencies to start their own. —K.R.

Piera Gelardi and Christene Barberich
Co-founders, ecd and global editor in chief, respectively, Refinery29
In 2005, four friends set out with a $5,000 investment to launch a fashion-focused online city guide called Refinery29. Under the leadership of two of those co-founders, global editor in chief Barberich and ecd Gelardi, Refinery29 has since become a global media powerhouse with an audience of 500 million and, as of last October, a reported valuation of half a billion dollars. The lifestyle site has also become a key part of the female millennial lexicon. “We often hear people say that Refinery29 is their cool best friend or older sister. … These young women have gravitated toward Refinery29 because they see themselves represented in our content,” says Gelardi. Meanwhile, Barberich and Gelardi are spearheading initiatives like The 67% Project, which encourages the representation of a wider array of female body types, and Shatterbox Anthology, which seeks to get more women behind the camera by producing short films directed by the likes of Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. “Twelve years on, it’s more and more exciting to find new and important ways to have content in all its forms push critical female agendas forward,” adds Barberich. —Emma Bazilian

Kat Gordon
Founder, The 3% Conference
For the last five years, Gordon, CEO and founder of The 3% Conference, has been trying to raise awareness about the lack of female creatives in the ad world. “I was part of the 3 percent,” says Gordon. “I was one of the few female creative directors, and it really mystified me why our agency continued to view leaders as primarily men and primarily white men because I knew all the clients I serviced were very multicultural, very multi-ethnic.” In the years since Gordon created The 3% Conference, the percentage of female creatives has changed; it’s up to 11 percent now, she notes. Now she’s about to embark on what she calls the “activation phase” of The 3% Conference. “In my discussions with agencies it became clear that everybody was desperate for some kind of watermark about where they should be, how they compare to other agencies,” says Gordon. “This summer we are enrolling agencies in our certification program.” —K.M.

Karen Kaplan
Chairman and CEO, Hill Holliday
Kaplan, who started her 30-year career as the receptionist at Hill Holliday before rising through its ranks to become CEO, is passionate about balancing the ratio of women in the agency’s creative department and building diversity in the industry overall. Under her watch, Hill Holliday’s leadership team has grown to 60 percent female. Efforts like Program 35, an internship program launched in 2014, have helped the agency’s creative department go from 20 percent to 40 percent female. “The most stubborn place to have gender diversity is the creative department, so we’re tackling this head on,” Kaplan says. “We’re all very progressive around the culture we’re trying to create and the problems we’re trying to solve for our clients. You have to have a modern workforce in every sense of the word.” —C.B.

Kerry Keenan
Former CCO, Deutsch N.Y.
After stepping down as CCO of Deutsch in New York in August 2015, Keenan spent time working for the branded content shop Half Irish, which she co-founded in 2013. It wasn’t until the 2016 election that Keenan truly found her calling, though. With help from co-founder Kathrin Lausch, Keenan has worked tirelessly to start a collective of brilliant women in advertising, which now totals about 100 members of all ages, called Never The Less. “We just manage all of these threads and make sure if anybody needs help they know that we can connect them with the right people,” says Keenan. The mission is to market the resistance by tapping into advertising’s finest to raise awareness for topics ranging from immigration to women’s reproductive health. —K.R.

Winnie Kemp
Svp, television and film, Super Deluxe
Heading up TV and now film projects for Turner’s independent digital content venture, Kemp gives a home to promising new voices, many of them female. Six of Super Deluxe’s eight digital series featured female creators or directors. “It’s really hard to make things on your own as a female creator, when you don’t have money,” says Kemp, who developed the series BKPI, from Hye Yun Park, about three female vigilantes who help fight crime in their immigrant Brooklyn neighborhood. Another of her series, The Chances, whose creator-stars are both deaf, premiered at Sundance and in April was picked up by streaming service Sundance Now. “It’s almost like an incubator,” says Kemp. “You protect their vision and help them make the best version of their show so they’re able to keep that intact.” —J.L.

Cathy Lang
President, Epsilon’s automotive practice
As the head of Epsilon’s auto practice, Lang and her global team of 1,600 provide everything from agency services and creative to CRM and digital media for clients such as GM, Nissan, Honda and non-auto brands like AT&T. However, she’s increasingly focused on what she calls “the fourth screen”—the entire car. “When you think about that, the North Star of my role right now is that connected car,” she says. When she’s not busy thinking about how to drive the future, Lang is heading up a pilot leadership program for women. This year, it’ll start with around six U.S. offices before rolling out more broadly next year. “I think in five or 10 years you’re going to see that gap go away,” she says. —M.S.

Danielle Lee
Global head, partner solutions, Spotify
While data and emotions appear to be opposites, Lee is combining them and making sense doing it. Both are integral to Spotify’s Branded Moments ad product that was launched in January, representing a native mobile video opportunity for music-minded marketers at brands like Bose and Gatorade who want to target listeners in a relevant, effective way. Seth Farbman, CMO, Spotify, says that Lee’s “drive and intellect has taken our ads business to the next level.” —Christopher Heine

Michelle Kydd Lee
Chief innovation officer, CAA
For Kydd Lee, the first woman appointed to CAA’s executive board, diversity has always been a top priority. She joined CAA in 1995 as director of the CAA Foundation—the company’s philanthropic division—and from day one has worked to improve gender and diversity numbers in the business. “It’s absolutely at the forefront of all of my decision making,” she says. Thanks to her diligent work, 43 percent of CAA’s interns come from diverse backgrounds, and 50 percent of the agency’s staff is female. She has also made waves outside of CAA, counting herself as a founding member of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization. —K.R.

Danielle Maged
Evp, global solutions, Fox Networks Group
When Maged started her career at NBA Entertainment in the ’90s, “I worked in a very male-dominated environment, and we were left to fend for ourselves,” she recalls. “I made a promise to myself that when I could, I would provide tools to help people navigate their careers because I didn’t get that.” She’s been mentoring ever since. After joining Fox two years ago, Maged became the executive sponsor of Women of Fox Sports, which provides development and mentoring. She’s leading the charge to expand it from L.A. to New York and create an umbrella organization, Women@Fox, for the whole company. “But I think the informal part of mentoring and development is just as important,” she adds. “Anyone that reaches out to me, I make time for.” —J.L.

Maureen McCloskey
Managing director, Kinetic U.S.
McCloskey’s move from Chicago to New York in 2015 to serve as managing director of Kinetic involved, in her estimation, “doubling her team and tripling her responsibility,” but she rose to the occasion. “When Maureen came in, it was like a breath of fresh air; she shook things up and did things differently,” Kinetic director, account services Rachel Mauck says. McCloskey instituted a new strategic framework at Kinetic called Active Journeys, which “delivers contextually relevant messages to audiences on the move” and leads “those consumers to take action.” In addition to Active Journeys, she cites the implementation of work-from-home flexibility for working parents at Kinetic as one of her proudest accomplishments. McCloskey says her most important role is mentor, adding that she takes pride in “helping young men and women in the office have confidence that they know more than they give themselves credit for and pushing them to take chances.” —Erik Oster

Wenda Harris Millard
Vice chairman, MediaLink
If you work in marketing, chances are you know Harris Millard. While much has changed as far as women entering leadership roles since she started her career at Ladies’ Home Journal in 1976, there is still work to be done in advancing the careers of women. That’s why MediaLink has initiatives to put forth diverse slates of candidates to companies looking for executive talent. In February, MediaLink launched a practice to arm more corporate boards with marketers, including more women. And in April, MediaLink tapped marketing vet Dana Anderson as its CMO as the firm begins to expand into Europe after being acquired by Cannes Lions parent company Ascential. “If you look at the board members of Fortune 1,000 companies right now, there are 9,800 of them, [and] only 50 are people who are marketers and digital experts—that would be less than half of 1 percent,” Harris Millard says. “We have high-visibility women in our company and in our search practice, [we’re] very sensitive about presenting a diverse slate in establishing this board practice.” —L.J.

Ellen Pao
Investing partner,  Kapor Capital
People probably only understand a part of Pao’s fight for equality and diversity in Silicon Valley—namely, her 2012 gender discrimination and retaliation suit against her former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. She’s now an investing partner at Kapor Capital, an Oakland, Calif.-based venture capital firm, which often asks that startups in its portfolio implement diversity programs. She is also serving as chief diversity and inclusion officer at Kapor Center for Social Impact, a foundation working to use technology to improve life in the U.S. And during her 2015 stint as Reddit CEO, she attempted to tamp down harassment on an online forum that has been known for shaming and disempowering many users. “Whether it was speaking for other people, whether it was getting rid of revenge porn and stolen nude pictures with Reddit, whether it was taking a stand against online harassment—all of these areas were very controversial at the time,” Pao says. “It was very helpful to me to discover my values and stick to them.” —C.H.

Sheryl Sandberg
COO, Facebook
It’s been a little more than four years since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg debuted her best-selling book inspiring a generation of women to “lean in” to their careers and other aspects of life while overcoming obstacles that could hold them back. While continuing to champion and inspire women in the workforce, she’s also guiding the technology juggernaut on its consistent growth track—it’s now a $441 billion business. This past year, Sandberg co-wrote her second book, Option B, which details what she’s learned since the sudden death of her husband in May 2015. —M.S.

Jill Soloway
Creator, Transparent
Last September, while accepting the Emmy Award for Best Director for a Comedy Series, Jill Soloway memorably closed that speech with the declaration, “Topple the patriarchy!” In addition to creating an award-winning show with Amazon’s Transparent, which follows a family and the changes it goes through after a parent comes out as transgender, Soloway has helped kick off discussions about the kind of stories television should—and could—be telling. “We want to topple the patriarchy, of course, by finding new ideas and voices from women, queer people and people of color,” says Soloway. “We dream of a huge slate of wild ideas and bombastic entertainment from the kinds of people who don’t normally get heard on TV and in film.” In May, Soloway released another Amazon show, I Love Dick, based on the Chris Kraus novel of the same name, which is focused on telling a story through the lens of the female gaze. —K.M.

Tricia Clarke-Stone
Co-founder and CEO, Narrative
Noticing “a lack of diversity, not just in people but in thinking and ideas,” Clarke-Stone co-founded Narrative in 2013 as a “new breed of agency, redefining rules of storytelling through tech and culture.” Narrative leverages cultural experts from outside advertising to ensure it “remains relevant and groundbreaking to the category,” she explains. “She’s constantly bringing in different ideas of culture and bringing them into the fold,” adds chief content and tech officer Aaron Royer. Narrative is flipping the RFP on its head with Creative Catalog, which involves brainstorming ideas that are prototyped and brought to an appropriate client when applicable, an approach that netted Samsung as a client. Fresh off a Webby for its “#ChangePerspective” campaign for RushCard, Narrative is also launching a brand content studio, which Clarke-Stone says “takes the best of Hollywood and applies it to our ability for strategy and creative innovation to redefine storytelling.” —E.O.

Robin Thede
TV writer and host
Most TV writers’ rooms are dominated by white men, but Thede helped change that as head writer for The Queen Latifah Show and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. “I intentionally hire people who do not get seen, and I push other friends and showrunners to do the same,” says Thede, who will do that again this fall with her own BET weekly show, The Rundown With Robin Thede, making her the only black female late-night host on TV. Already, “I’ve been beating the bushes for writers I don’t know,” says Thede, noting that out of 160 late-night writers, there are only around five women of color. “That’s something I want to disrupt and demolish. I want those numbers to be hard to count, and I want people to lose track.” —J.L.

Liz Valentine and Alicia McVey
Co-founders, CEO and CCO, respectively, Swift
Swift is one of the few agencies within WPP that is founded and led by women, boasting a 50/50 gender balance in leadership and a 60/40 female/male split in staff overall. Its co-founders, Valentine, who serves as CEO, and McVey, CCO, say that helps them better serve clients like Starbucks, Adidas, Google, YouTube, Lyft and Nestlé. “Those numbers show a balance of diverse experiences and points of view, and our clients benefit from this equity,” Valentine explains. “It makes the work more informed and relevant. If women make up a significant portion of your consumer target—and they are by far the world’s most powerful consumers—they should be well represented on your team and management.”

Whitney Wolfe
Founder and CEO, Bumble
After founding and then leaving Tinder during a swarm of sexual harassment allegations in 2014, Wolfe created Bumble to reverse the rules of online dating and put women in charge. “There is an entire world of voices online insulting, abusing and bullying behind fake profiles that encourage them to hide from those they are targeting—if this had impacted me in such a negative way, I could only imagine what it could do to a young girl,” says Wolfe. “The accountability was gone and I became passionate about changing it.” With 17.5 million accounts and 10 billion swipes per month, Bumble requires that women make the first move. Buoyed by the app’s initial success, Wolfe added a feature called Bumble BFF, which matches women with other women to form platonic friendships. Next up? Bumble Biz, a career-oriented service that helps women network. Adds Wolfe, “The goal all along has been to expand beyond dating and empower women to make the first move in all facets of their life, whether that’s love, friendship or career.” —L.J.

Reese Witherspoon
Actress; co-founder, Pacific Standard
Witherspoon has made a career of playing powerful women, from the take-no-prisoners high school overachiever Tracy Flick in Election to the plucky law student Elle Woods in Legally Blonde to the fierce yet flawed Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Her latest performance as Madeline Martha MacKenzie, the alpha of a coterie of Monterey, Calif., power moms in HBO’s mini-series Big Little Lies, is one of her most commanding to date. Based on the best-seller by Liane Moriarty and adapted for TV by Witherspoon’s production firm, Pacific Standard, the series’ movie star cast, which also includes Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz, band together to fight domestic violence. Talk of a Season 2 already has the internet abuzz: An Instagram photo Witherspoon posted with Kidman and Dern with the caption “Working on some new lies” garnered more than 410,000 likes from fans clamoring for more engaging female-led storytelling. —C.B.

Shelley Zalis
CEO, The Female Quotient; creator, The Girls’ Lounge
Zalis has long been a mentor to female industry leaders through her organizations, The Female Quotient and The Girls’ Lounge, which help women connect with each other through experiential pop-ups at industry conferences, at corporations and on college campuses. “People ask me all the time why I call women ‘girls,’” says Zalis. “In the social world, the difference between girls and women is age or life stage, but in the corporate world, women, at the top, have been competitive with one another. I wanted women to go back to the word ‘girl’ as a mindset: being bold and brave and fearless, and not competing with one another, but collaborating.” —C.B.