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What’s the Story for Women in Advertising around the World?


LBB’s Laura Swinton talks to women from China to the UAE to get their perspectives on the challenges faced by women in their local markets

What’s the Story for Women in Advertising around the World?
When it comes to the situation for women in the ad industry, it’s easy to make sloshing, great big generalisations. But depending where you’re sitting in the world, culture and context can have a huge impact on the nature of the challenges that women face getting into the industry and progressing in their careers. Conversely, there are stark differences between markets in the support available to women and the intensity of the efforts to improve the situation locally. 

It’s easy to get locked into local bubbles, but by having cross border conversations – it is International Women’s Day after all – there’s a lot we can learn from each other. With that in mind, we’ve spoken to women around the world to find out what’s working and what’s not for women.


China is a fascinating paradox, points out FCB China CEO Josephine Pan. Since 1949, the Communist Party has led a concerted push to get women into the workforce, driven by Chairman Mao’s famous maxim that ‘women hold up half the sky’. Housewives were belittled as parasites and social and political pressures have had an enormous impact, with the percentage of women working reached 73% in the '90s (though it has dropped to just over 60% in 2018, according to the World Bank ). 

However, 5000 years of a traditional, feudal society in which women were very much relegated to a supporting role is not so easily swept aside. While there is no lack of women in general across the industry, the C-suite is still male-heavy. “Because of being deeply influenced by the impact of feudalism, women still play the supporting roles. Before, it was at home, now, it’s in the corporate world,” says Josephine. “People doubt about female leaders in our industry, as the leading roles have been dominated by males over the last 100 years. And this kind of doubt does not only come from men, but often from women ourselves.” 

There are no concerted cross-industry initiatives to support women in the industry, but Josephine notes that, especially on the account management side of agencies, women ‘already not only “hold half of the sky”, but almost become the sky itself’. 

Currently, one of the big challenges facing women in the Chinese industry is the difficulty of finding a mentor, given the domination of men in upper ranks. As Josephine explains, mentorship – a ‘master and apprentice’ relationship – is particularly cherished in the country. “Mentorship between two men can be very close. The two can do lots of things together to make the relationship stronger, like having frequent working lunches, close talks, hang-outs,” she says. “There is a famous Chinese idiom “One day as a teacher, a life as a father”, which gives you a sense of how much Chinese value mentorship. But it’s impossible for your male boss be close to you, right? Before you two have a relationship of “the master and apprentice”, you have already been the stars of a colleague-generated ‘affair story’.”

There is also a lack of female role models at the top – though Josephine points to Isobar’s global CEO Jean Lin as a particular hero of hers. While at Ogilvy, Jean gave Josephine her first big break in the business. And her support gave Josephine the confidence to forge ahead. “She is my heroine. She was the one who said to me 'Trust yourself' when I messed up everything and was almost scared to death in my first days in this industry.”

Ultimately, Josephine believes that self-confidence is the crux of what is holding women back in China. Deep-rooted mistrust in female leaders (Josephine jokes that they’re stereotyped as “the cold-hearted witches with bad dispositions or the wilful princesses with unspeakable manipulating power”) make women uncomfortable stepping up and seeking to further their careers. “I personally think that’s an excuse for the lack of confidence in women have in ourselves. So if we want to change the situation, let’s start with having faith in ourselves. Applaud our peers and believe in our hearts ‘someday I can do that too!’”


“I wouldn’t say Australia is leading the way by any means when it comes to women in the workplace,” observes Jen Speirs, drily. “When it comes to heads of companies, members of parliament, as well as in our own industry – it still seems patriarchal. Not so long ago we did have our first female Prime Minister, but there was always a lot of discussion about what she was wearing, her body, the fact that she was childless. She was always woman first, Prime Minister second.”

The Deputy ECD at Australian agency BMF has noticed more women coming into creative departments – but a 50/50 split at junior levels is not reflected in senior creative leadership. “Apologies to anyone I’ve overlooked, but I don’t actually know any agency that has a female in the top job in Australia. There are a few of us, maybe five or so, who are second-in-commands (either Deputy ECDs or ECD reporting into CCO). Pretty woeful, really.”

One of the challenges that is particular to the Australian market is its size. “We’re a small industry over here, and a lot of the time people work with, or hire, who they know. They know them as people and they’re comfortable with the sort of work they know they’ll do. And because the industry has been male-dominated for so long, that means that often, who they’ve worked with before is a guy,” says Jen.

But it’s not all bad. That small size has fostered an intimacy that has allowed fairly free conversation at an executive level around diversity and the need for change. Plus, points out Jen, that people tend to know which agencies are particularly good or bad in their employment practices as news travels fast.

In terms of coordinated efforts to improve things for women, there are a few initiatives on the go in the Australian industry. Changing the Ratio is a movement and conference that is entering its second year. It aims to make equality and inclusion the norm in Australia’s communications industry. Agency Circle is an industry body established in 2016, a group of creative agencies that come together to share data, progress and experience in order to ‘turn the talk around diversity into action’. 

#MeToo and Time’s Up have been hot topics when it comes to women in advertising, as has the issue of flexibility and support for parents, particularly mothers. “It seems bizarre to me that in an industry where we’re all gagging to be seen as innovative, and doing work with purpose etc., we can’t innovate ways to include a diverse range of working conditions for different employees. But the reality is if we don’t do that, and soon, we’ll be a turn-off for a lot of awesome creative minds,” says Jen.


On the face of it, the Japanese ad industry ought to be set up to support women. Since the Equal Employment Opportunity Law went into effect in 1986, it has been illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender. Mothers have 14 weeks of guaranteed, government-paid maternity leave and both new mums and dads are entitled to take a year off (though in 2015 only 2% of new fathers took it up).

The reality, though, is quite different. While women’s participation in the workforce has been increasing since the mid-80s, there’s a 24% gender pay gap. According to recent research from McCann Worldgroup, only 54% of respondents in Japan said they believe gender equality to be important – and the topic is an awkward one to discuss as 64% of women and 61% of men said they were not keen to talk about the issue. The country’s notorious long hours culture makes it difficult for women to advance in their careers following pregnancy.

In the ad industry, women in creative leadership remain rare. According to Satoko Takada, a Creative Director at McCann Japan, the global ad industry conversation around gender equality has not resonated locally. She has a few pet theories as to why. “We are still seeing tonnes of all-male or too-many-guys-and-one-girl juries at Japanese award shows and panels with all-male speakers with one female moderator. It is pretty shameful,” she says. “One of the reasons for this would be the language barrier and it makes Japanese creative tone-deaf on what's going on in the global creative in terms of gender equality. I am still struggling to start an initiative with female creatives across all major agencies in Japan.”

The #MeToo movement hasn’t found much purchase in Japan either, unlike its neighbour South Korea. Instead much of the local conversation around gender tends to focus on the way in which women are depicted in advertising. “Nearly every week, Japanese national clients display their gender bias and sexist views in their communication and get female consumers angry. Unlike the UK, we don't have any guideline restricting gender stereotypes,” explains Satoko.

But there is some hope for change in the local industry. As ever, it all depends on who holds the purse strings. “The client side is much faster than the agency side,” says Satoko. “I personally have been hearing complaints from clients about the agencies' lack of female talent - especially from western and global clients.” 

United Arab Emirates

Things are changing in the UAE for women, says TBWA\RAAD’s Head of Production Rouba Asmar. Between 1990 and 2018, the percentage of women in the workforce grew from 29.18% to 40.61%  -  below the global average perhaps but a marked increase nonetheless. When it comes to education, more women continue with higher education than men and the UAE has also introduced initiatives in recent months to improve the status of women, including a new wage equality law to ensure women are paid the same as men.

In the advertising industry, there women are making their way into top jobs – although for now this seems to be largely on the management and business side of things and is less the case in creative leadership. “Contrary to popular belief, nowadays, many women from the region are in leadership roles in the industry,” says Rouba. “If we were to take a look, several women are reaching the top and thriving there. There’s Emma Cantwell, the marketing and communications manager at Louvre Abu Dhabi, Francesca Ciaudano the GM on marketing communication at Nissan and many more. 

“However, when it comes to creative leadership, even though several great campaigns are being done by fantastic female creatives in the region, the gender gap is still there. It has not yet progressed enough to foster a balanced ratio between male and female creatives.”

While things have changed and there are more women at the top table, Rouba says women still face particular challenges in the UAE’s industry. “I remember well that 20 years ago there was not much room for women’s opinions in leadership positions in the Arab world.  We have made  significant progress today, but a woman still needs to have her voice heard much louder in order to pass on her opinions. The Arab world is still a man’s playing field, even though things have progressed.”

Locally, the #MeToo movement has catalysed a more open conversation about sexual harassment and also the way women are treated in the workplace generally. Rouma’s perspective on the movement’s impact is that it has triggered broader change and conversation.

“The outcome of it came out quite positive in the region as it gave a certain wake up call for many, not only highlighting the importance of respecting women in the workplace, but also a realisation of the importance of the gender balance, which resulted in empowering women and giving their voice a better chance to be heard,” she says. “Women in advertising today are shown as strong, composed, passionate, successful, and daring.”  

United Kingdom

In the UK organisations like Creative Equals have been putting pressure on agencies to change their attitudes towards hiring and promoting women. The most recent initiative is the returners scheme ‘Creative Comeback’ launched to support women coming back into the industry after a career break of at least 12 months. Women trying to find their way back to work after taking time out to have children or care for relatives still face substantial barriers but the high profile project is at least a start. Equally impactful is the legislation brought in by UK government compelling large companies to publish their gender pay gap numbers – something that has led to red faces and which holding companies like WPP say has forced them to take action

Women-focused networking organisations like She Says enjoy a high following and there are high profile women in creative leadership positions, from Grey’s Vicki Maguire to Leo Burnett’s Chaka Sobhani. There’s still a long way to go before reaching true equality, with only 30.9% of top leadership roles in agencies held by women. 

The #MeToo movement led to some high profile sackings and considerable soul searching. Local industry wellbeing charity NABS (the National Advertising Benevolent Society), WACL (the Women’s Advertising Club of London) and the Advertising Association carried out an extensive research project that found that 34% of women in the industry had experienced sexual harassment at work – and 9% of men. In response to the research, the Ad Association launched #TimeTo, a code of conduct for businesses working in advertising and marketing, alongside a campaign asking people in the industry to consider where their personal boundaries lie and where the line between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour lies.

The Global View

Vesna Siftar currently sits in the Chicago HQ of Leo Burnett, where she is VP Global Account Director – but her career has taken her to five different countries: Slovenia, Serbia, Austria, the UK and the US. It gives her a somewhat more global viewpoint, revealing the differences between cultures as well as universalities.

“I have to admit that I’ve been lucky from the start of my career, having female and male mentors. I was also fortunate to start off in an environment where an ability to get on and deliver were considered far more important than gender or background,” says Vesna. “However, as my career moved me into Western Europe and the U.S., I noticed that the industry was more male-dominated and the gaps between genders larger and more obvious. I think that the situation is changing, but definitely not fast enough, and there are still some topics that are considered to be taboo, such as gender gap pay, support, diversity on leadership positions.”

For Vesna, topics like the gender pay gap, the lack of support for mothers trying to return to the industry and a lack of women in leadership roles are fairly universal. However she does think that the very public nature of the international advertising industry puts it in a unique position to lead the way and serve as an example to other sectors. “Our industry is very much in the spotlight at all times, so we should not only carry this responsibility, but lead the change. The louder our industry becomes, the more it will trigger discussions in other, more ‘silent’ industries.”

At an individual level, Vesna suspects that a fear of judgement can be crippling for women who are otherwise ambitious, preventing them from speaking up. She also suspects that while women strive to progress and reach leadership levels they also need to give themselves a break. “I know it can be difficult, but we all need to recognise that sometimes good is good enough (when did good become such a bad word?). As a very driven woman myself, I find it hard to admit that. But finding balance is not just finding life-work balance (whatever that really means), but finding the courage to allow ourselves to let go, not judge and not be judged, too,” she says.

After all, many of the difficulties facing women in the industry are structural. “A lot of challenges are systemic and cannot be changed overnight,” says Vesna. “All of us, no matter what our gender, can start the change. At the end of the day, change starts with ourselves. Respect, support and equal pay, would be a good place to start, right!?”

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LBB Editorial, Fri, 08 Mar 2019 05:54:36 GMT