Advertising’s Gender Problem

We all know that advertising has a bit of a gender problem. Any episode of Mad Men will show you the heavily male-dominated tradition of advertising and the struggles faced by women trying to succeed. However we like to think that advertising has changed – it’s 2018, things are changing, and we live in a world of meritocracy and equal opportunity. But while things may be slowly improving, some of the stats can be surprising. Especially when it comes to the creative field.

Recent figures from the Comms Council Benchmarks revealed that while the gender ratio for junior creatives just entering the industry was fairly equal (or even leaning majority female), there is a steep decline in female representation as these creatives work their way up the career ladder – culminating in there not being a single ECD level female creative in this survey group.


Why does this matter?

A common comeback to criticism of the number of women in a certain field is that there are other industries that are male-dominated (e.g. mining or rubbish disposal) and no one seems to care. However, there are good reasons why the number of women in the advertising industry is so important, especially at a senior level.

  • We’re in the business of creating content that resonates with society. And we’re going to do a better job of it if the people coming up with these ideas have a wider range of experiences.
  • Advertising has influence. The ads people see can actually shape the way our society operates. Having proper representation of female perspectives away from stereotypes is important for everyone.
  • Senior roles in advertising are highly paid. So a lack of women in senior roles contributes to the gender pay gap and larger societal issues for women.
  • Diversity drives creativity. The more diverse the group of people you bring to the table to solve a problem, the better the outcome.

Why does this happen?

What the reasons behind this declining ratio of women in senior roles in advertising?

  • The boy’s club. If a team is already overwhelmingly male, it can be hard for women to break in. When they don’t feel part of the team, they may not get the same opportunities as their male colleagues. Especially if it has a boy’s club culture to go with it.
  • Unconscious bias & the myth of meritocracy. Meritocracy is the idea that all success is based on merit. In reality, unconscious bias affects women’s success in getting hired, and promoted.
  • Family. Women take around 95% of primary parental leave. Our industry tends not to support women taking that leave, or their return to work. Without flexibility and work / life balance, a return to our industry can be unfeasible. This compounds to limit women’s career opportunities, and contributes to a skills shortage.
  • Negotiation. Women face additional difficulties in negotiation when it comes time to ask for a pay rise and/or promotion. The reason for this is a combination of factors including the way women have been raised and influenced by society to not demand what they’re worth, and the fact that women who are more assertive are viewed negatively and thus run the risk of being seen as “difficult”.

Inspo from initiatives for change.

The gender ratio in advertising is a complex issue that requires a lot of work and discussion to correct. The below are just a few inspiring initiatives that are pushing things in the right direction.




Cybele Malinowski, a Sydney-based photographer, created a female photography collective called “Agender”.

It’s an ongoing initiative to showcase female photographers to the advertising industry.


There are just as many women working in the photography industry as men. Yet male photographers continue to win more of the jobs. This is particularly true of highly paid jobs, like those in advertising.

Since advertising equals money and influence, it’s important to open these opportunities to women… both to address equality, and to introduce more diversity in photography.

What can we do?

  • Put in the extra effort to find amazing women who will do an amazing job. Commit to researching and including female photographers in our recommendations to clients.
  • Don’t immediately disregard less prestigious portfolios. Instead, consider style and technique rather than being overly specific. E.g. if a photographer has worked with liquid, but not on alcohol, chances are they know what they’re doing.


Diet Madison Avenue



This is an anonymous Instagram account. The mission? To name and shame prominent men in advertising, accused of sexual harassment.

Claims are always researched before they are posted. The page is powerful, resulting in investigations and dismissal of offenders.



Victims of sexual harassment don’t often report their experiences, particularly at work. There’s a fear that it will negatively affect their career… a reasonable fear based on how a lot of claims are usually handled.

Diet Madison Ave helps expose what these powerful men do. And in doing so, is helping to change the culture of complacency in agencies.


What can we do?

  • Report any inappropriate behaviour to HR / senior management
  • Listen to your colleagues (and friends at other agencies) who tell you something isn’t right
  • Call out “locker room talk”


The Agency Circle



A collective of creative agencies committed to diversity in the Australian advertising industry.

Members report on their diversity statistics and meet to discuss challenges and successes. The group share ideas, with the goal of providing equal opportunity for all people at all levels.


It’s not enough to just say you want a more diverse agency.

The Agency Circle provides accountability for member agencies. Members commit to change and show the changing the shape of their workforce via annual reporting.

Meetings provide a forum for member agencies to discuss successes and failures confidentially. Guest speakers present on key areas such as workplace flexibility and unconscious bias.


What can we do?

  • Be a member and review our policies (we’re a member – check!)
  • Be bold, and try things. It’s not enough to implement policies if they don’t work for the reality of your business, or your team. Try things, and change them (or not).
  • Support colleagues with flexible working arrangements. And consider what “flexible working” actually means – people aren’t all the same.
  • Consider the effect of unconscious bias on your agency. Especially when it comes to hiring, career planning and the contribution of ideas. Examine your own behaviour and beliefs, and be honest with yourself about your own biases.
  • Hold everyone accountable for participating in a culture which celebrates diversity and individuality. Create an environment where team members respect and support each other.

One more thing

If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s not real feminism.

If you haven’t heard this term before, intersectionality is:

“The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”

– Kimberlé Crenshaw

In all cases, we should broaden our view outside just gender and consider all types of diversity:

  • Ethnicity
  • Disability
  • Neurodiversity

While increasing the number of women succeeding in the industry is a start, we also need to focus on broader diversity and how this intersects with feminism.

Of course all of this barely even scratches the surface of the issue. But hopefully, it has provided some inspiration to keep feminism and diversity front of mind in our work in advertising and make a conscious effort to support and encourage women in the industry to succeed.