We have an estrogen imbalance

Karen Howe on the ad industry's troubled situation with women - but also what's being done right.


By Karen Howe

As I watched the parade of winners pick up their Lions in Cannes this year I was, once again, struck by the lack of women.

I’m afraid it’s official. Contagious and Razorfish presented a study showing that the number of women winning has dropped over the last 15 years.

Our business needs more estrogen. The vast majority of consumer purchase decisions are made by women – statistics put it at 85% – yet the work created to speak to us is made almost entirely by young men, and over 90% of their bosses are men. Only 3% of creative directors around the world are female.

This lack of diversity means that most advertising is created from one very narrow point of view. Subtleties are lost and opportunities are missed. A 30-year old guy doesn’t know what I’m thinking or how to sell to me. They simply cannot know our world with the same intimacy that we do, and it does advertisers a disservice.

It shows itself in much of the work.

Ad exec Madonna Badger’s stunning “#WomenNotObjects” video pulled samples of advertising from around the world and showed the shocking manner in which women are objectified in advertising. In many cases they are represented merely as an anonymous pair of breasts or a vagina.

Yes, it seems bleak. But here’s why I take heart: at Cannes this year, gender inequity was actually a top issue – the subject of presenters, panels and workshops. Women were well-represented in the line-up of speakers which included such mavericks as Madonna Badger, Kim Getty, Anna Wintour and Cindy Gallop.

I am encouraged by events like Kat Gordon’s 3% Conference (for which a Toronto event is being held today), which champions female talent and leadership. I am heartened by the ADC’s 50/50 Initiative which challenges award shows and boards to be accountable for gender balance. And I know from being on its advisory board how hard Cannes works to ensure female representation on the judging panels.

The problem is there simply aren’t enough senior women to choose from.

So let’s change that.

As an industry we need to knock down the barriers, starting by hiring more women. With women making up 51% of the population we are missing out on a vast talent pool. One CMO I saw speak told recruiters that when she’s hiring, she wants 50% of the candidates be women. She wants to hire the best and that means looking at the entire field of contenders.

Let’s mentor young women, encourage them to set their sights on the corner office and then help guide them there. We need to coach women on how to own the boardroom and champion their ideas. Let’s build and strengthen our female network.

And let’s always call people on sexist bullshit.

When we develop creative ideas, we need to stop soft stereotyping. Women aren’t one-dimensional. Mom doesn’t always have to be in the kitchen. Dad doesn’t have to be behind the wheel when there’s a couple in the car. The VO doesn’t have to be a man to be “authoritative.” And by the way, don’t buy the trope that “women aren’t funny” – tell that to Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy.

Yes, there are times when we do use our talent for the greater good, but it seems that “female causes” seem only worth embracing when it comes to the awards show circuit. Witness the awards lavished on work tackling issues like domestic violence, campus rape, child brides and misogynistic music lyrics. The “Make Love Not Scars” campaign addressed the women in India scarred by acid attacks and the need for accountability. Awards were also bestowed on work that drew attention to pay inequity, the disparity of domestic chore-sharing and the lack of women in coding.

Perhaps it’s time we used our considerable talent to address the final frontier: the lack of women in advertising. Who knows? It just might win an award.

KAREN HOWE PIC- higher rezKaren Howe is president of The Township.

Featured image via Shutterstock