Does Gender Matter?

N eil French’s sexist comments about women in advertising delivered in Toronto in early October have sparked another debate: Do men and women think differently? Or, more specifically, do male and female creatives work differently?

It turns out this may be an even touchier subject than the well-worn conversation about women and their agency roles. In fact, it’s so sensitive that some people in the advertising industry were unwilling to talk openly and on the record about it.

One male chief creative officer who, in the process of explaining that women can add a more feminine perspective to the creative process—but that he’s also known some who excel at acerbic humor—stopped himself midsentence, saying, “I’m afraid I’m sounding sexist just saying that.”

Jamie Barrett, creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, says, “It’s extremely sensitive. Hopefully, I won’t have to resign tomorrow.”

Most say when it comes to creating work, there is little difference, if any at all, when it comes to men and women (mind you, this could be a way to avoid offending any colleagues). “How can you make a gender statement about creativity? You can’t,” says creative recruiter Susan Kirshenbaum of Greenberg Kirshenbaum in New York. “You’re going to compare Pablo Picasso and Louise Nevelson? They do it how they do it. I’m sure there are many different things that may make their approach different other than gender. I don’t think you can ever generalize about gender. Once you generalize about gender, you get yourself in trouble.”

But are men and women better at certain types of assignments? Most creative directors say no. “There are different styles of creatives, but those styles don’t hinge on gender,” says Kathy Delaney, co-president of Deutsch New York. “Ideas are genderless. I’ve had female creatives come up with brilliant stuff in categories that are very male dominated. And men write beautiful stuff for female cosmetics. Any smart creative can channel the mind of the target audience.”

So why are there more women on perfume and tampon accounts and more men on beer and cars? When women are relegated to working on female-targeted products, it may be more a reflection of the service-oriented nature of the business than the belief that women can better speak to that particular audience.

“The client may feel ‘I need a female creative team,’ and therefore you serve up a female creative team,” says Barrett. “It’s our service mentality that leads us to that. [But] going against type is a really smart thing to do. You bring people with different sets of experiences to different categories and interesting things happen.”

Sally Hogshead, creative director and author of Radical Careering, does think women are different. “Being a woman gives you insight into certain emotional experiences and it allows you to tap into the profound emotion that in general is harder for men to be able to express,” says Hogshead, whose book was published this year by Gotham. “It’s my experience as a copywriter and creative director that female creatives can write like male creatives, but males have a more difficult time capturing an authentic female voice.”

Hogshead and most others interviewed for this article were careful to emphasize that they were speaking in generalities. “If you look at 100 female creatives and 100 male and compared their bodies of work, generally speaking more of the work that came from the female creatives would be more what you would expect, a bit more emotional, a bit more introspective, a bit more overall intelligent,” says Barrett.

Generally speaking, he adds, the work produced by male creatives is “a bit more testosterone driven, a bit more outrageous and a bit more serving the male humor.” On the other hand, he says there are examples of “outrageous testosterone-driven work” created by females, as well as “countless examples of sensitive, emotional, expressive, introspective work created by males.”

Barrett says this is true of other businesses as well and pointed to the music industry. “You don’t get much more hard core in the world of music than people like Patti Smith and Courtney Love, but when people think about female pop music, they think about the Lilith Fair crowd,” he says. “It’s the old heredity versus environment thing. I think largely the way we all create in our adult lives is more shaped by our experiences than our gender. However, your experience is partly a reflection of what gender you are.”

Mark Tutssel, worldwide deputy creative director of Leo Burnett, Chicago, says it is the yin and yang coming together on a problem that really creates the most interesting work. “Both bring strengths,” he says, pointing to John Hegarty and Barbara Noakes as one of the best creative teams in the history of advertising. At his own agency, he praises the work done on Special K by Reed Collins and Stephanie Crippen. “It’s about combination rather than either/or,” he says.

It is this balance that Nina DiSesa, chairman and former chief creative officer of McCann Erickson in New York, would like to see more of. It’s like the male and female plug, she says. “When you gently put those things together, you get electricity. But if you keep them apart, you get nothing.”

DiSesa currently is writing a book, titled Seducing the Boy’s Club, that she hopes will inspire women of all industries to use their strengths to further themselves in the workplace (the book has not been sold to a publisher yet). It attempts to implore her gender to celebrate its differences and use them to their advantage. It’s about “understanding how to do men, how to handle them,” says DiSesa. “Being driven and clever isn’t enough. The more smart and more driven you are the more threatened they may feel. … It’s really how to use the charm and intuition that are buried within us and use these things to win.”

When trying to answer the question of why there are so few top female creatives in the business, many say that the male-dominated creative departments and the larger agency environments themselves are male bastions, therefore the women that best succeed in advertising—at least for now when the scales are tipped in favor of the Y chromosome—are those who can best operate like a man.

“You need to be a little tougher in this business,” says Susan Hoffman, creative director of Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore. “If you are a girly girl, this isn’t the business for you.”

Hoffman admits that “there are some differences” between male and female creatives and sometimes assignments, like Nike Women, are best handled by the talent that best understands the target. However, she has also gone against type, so to speak, when she put two men on a makeup assignment. Although the piece of business never materialized, Hoffman says she “felt the personalities of the men aligned very much with the client.” One of the men had “very sexy and beautiful art direction, and the client had a little bit of an edge and so did the creative.”

Although women represent 85 percent of all U.S. consumer purchases, there are only a handful of female creative directors at the top management ranks of Adweek’s 33 nationally ranked agencies. Among them are Joyce King Thomas, who succeeded DiSesa as chief creative officer of McCann Erickson, Linda Kaplan Thaler of The Linda Kaplan Thaler Group, Cheryl Berman of Leo Burnett, Chicago, and Kathy Delaney of Deutsch in New York.

Creative departments are Darwinian, argues Hogshead, and men have strengths that are encouraged and rewarded in the ad business. “There are certain traits that are valued within a creative department, and that award shows value, job openings value—and men have more of that than women do,” she says, noting that women can “get out of their own way or acquire those things.”

There is a certain breed of woman that tends to be successful in the advertising business, and in general terms, they tend to have what is traditionally viewed as male characteristics, DiSesa says. “I have a very strong male side,” she says. “I don’t think I got into my female side until I got to Chicago [as executive creative director at J. Walter Thompson]. I wasn’t a nurturer before that.”

“Women as a group tend to seek agreement. This goes back to, is it nature or is it nurture? I don’t know, but women seek agreement,” says Hogshead, who thinks men have more of the strengths the advertising workplace demands, such as tenacious confidence and a strong voice. “It’s much more uncomfortable for us as women to embrace the friction that goes with defending your ideas, coming back again and again, succeeding in a very high-pressure environment, within the agency, within the client relationship and within the creative process as well.”

Generally, in terms of work styles, women are less ego driven and don’t fight as hard for their ideas, note some female creative directors. “One of the many strengths that men have that I envy and have tried to learn from is that men are really good at separating themselves from work getting killed,” says Hogshead. “They are very good at the always-assertive but sometimes-combative process of getting their ideas through the gauntlet.”

Men know how to sell themselves and their work better, adds DiSesa. “Why do some people have a better record of selling great ideas than others? They are all smart,” says DiSesa. “They know how to present their idea and how to make the client believe them.”

Jeff Kling, creative director of Euro RSCG in New York, argues the art of the sell is genderless. “People who make it, period, have those traits,” he says. “They assert themselves against any kind of odds. Maybe if a women makes it, she has real merit. Men tend to fail upwards with more ease.”

DiSesa says the low number of female creative leaders is partly a result of the choices women have to make in their lives. “If you are a really good creative director, you can take the agency to the moon. But in order to do that job well, you have to be available all the time. You can’t call it in. If you have a child in a school play, how do you make those decisions?” asks DiSesa, who is married with no children. “Men don’t necessarily have to make those choices. It can break your heart. Either you are going to let people down at work or your family.”

While Hogshead says she’s never felt a victim of sexism, she does concede that her gender has affected her career—both positively and negatively. “Women bring natural strengths to any endeavor, just as men do,” she says. “We’re different creatives.”

—with Mae Anderson