by Lindsay Stein
Suzanne and a colleague are hard at work on a new-business pitch for a toy targeted to little girls. The day before the big meeting, the duo's male creative director points to Suzanne and says, "You're going to the meeting because we need more women in the room."
On the morning of an important pitch, one of two men in the client service department approaches Leah and asks her to take the coffee orders since no one on his team is in yet. She looks around and notices that she is the only female in the office. Begrudgingly, Leah begins to take orders until her female planning director intervenes. "Get back to the pitch," the director says as she deputizes a man on the tech team to get the coffee.
Julia, a C-suite executive, is asked to take notes in meetings where she's the only woman.
Then there's Michelle, who is constantly left out of meetings and has her work handed over to younger, less qualified men on the creative team. And Gretchen, whose male former managing director sits inappropriately close to her during meetings, legs touching, and asks her to go to a client visit with him alone for the week. And Angela, an intern, whose male executive creative director slaps her butt at happy hour. And so on.
In short, it's ad business as usual.
About 15 months ago, the industry was rocked when former JWT Chief Communications Officer Erin Johnson filed a discrimination lawsuit against Gustavo Martinez, then chairman and CEO of the WPP agency, claiming, among other things, that Martinez made multiple racist and sexist slurs. The flash point vaulted sexism in the ad world to the forefront of nearly every conversation. It's been discussed onstage at huge forums, like the 4A's and Cannes; fired up women's organizations already on the case, such as the Girls' Lounge and the 3% Conference; spurred a cottage industry for firms specializing in righting unconscious gender bias; and launched an uncountable number of internal initiatives and task forces at agencies, marketers and media companies.
But for all the increasingly loud talk that the Martinez case, which is still grinding on in court, triggered about women's representation in the C-suite, equal pay and fair treatment on Madison Avenue, the boys' club remains alive and well.
There is still no yardstick to measure salaries and positions of women in advertising compared with those of men. She Runs It is busy compiling qualitative data about the "hockey stick" drop-off of women who leave creative and media agencies when the C-suite is within reach. Complete results are due out the week of Cannes. Yet even if there were hard numbers that showed more women ascending in the business, it may not matter. The diversity scale is about not just numbers but influence—meaning that if women are not heard and respected in the industry, it may not matter how many of them there are.
Ad Age set up a blind email address, and with an online assist from diversity advocate Cindy Gallop, encouraged women to share personal stories about gender discrimination or bias they're facing in the industry. We received a staggering number of responses—more than 100—that indicate little improvement over the past 15 months. Fearing reprisals, few were willing to go on the record, so the names were changed in the stories above to protect participants' anonymity. Their experiences ranged from outright sexual harassment to simply being ignored or talked over in meetings. And interviews with dozens of women in the ad industry across all levels indicate that there's a lot of discussion about changing the ratio, but sometimes it feels like just that: talk.
"There's a lot more talking about gender equality and diversity," said Gallop. "Talking is useless. There's way too much talking and way too little doing."
According to a gender diversity survey conducted by Advertising Week and Foresight Factory last summer—which collected responses from 285 executives across the media, marketing and creative industries in the U.S. (73% of whom were female)—40% of women respondents claimed to have encountered gender discrimination in the workplace. The survey also found more than one out of three women (36%) claimed to have experienced sexual harassment at work.
"I don't think it's a lack-of-diversity pipeline—it's a mindset," said Shelley Zalis, creator of the Girls' Lounge, adding that people want to hire others who look and act like them.
Less than a quarter of women in the Advertising Week survey (23%) think their pay is equal to their male peers, and it seems their suspicions are warranted: An expert on the matter, who asked for anonymity, told Ad Age that women leaders in advertising are still being paid less than men.
Despite these findings, Claire Telling, co-CEO of Grace Blue, said the company has seen "a massive increase in awareness of the need to have more female leaders at the top." More female candidates are being cautious about joining a male-dominated or nondiverse company and they're not afraid to say it, she said.
'A Dude Fest'
More women may be getting hired at ad agencies, but the majority feel like they're still not heard.
Karen Kaplan, CEO of Hill Holliday, defines it this way: Diversity is being invited to prom; inclusion is being asked to dance. It's not hard to "game the system when you report diversity numbers," she said, but really being inclusive is about allowing people to influence the strategic direction and leadership of the industry.
The fact that there's an app called Woman Interrupted in the iTunes store proves that there's an issue. The app was designed to recognize when a male voice interrupts a female voice in meetings. "Men are louder and better at taking credit for themselves and they have a more aggressive communications style," said Anne Bologna, chief strategy officer at iCrossing, who has been in the industry for about 30 years.
One female creative director in the industry said she feels respected and trusted at her agency, but "it's still a boys' club at the top," which can be uncomfortable. When it's all men exec creative directors laughing in a room, she said, you have to "psych yourself up" to go into the meeting. "You can't help but feel like it's a dude fest, and I hate that feeling," she said.
Lori Senecal, global CEO of CP&B, who is retiring at the end of the year, said she believes the industry has to evolve the vocabulary around the perception of women in leadership. "For instance, it would be great for women with a strong point of view to be described as decisive versus difficult," said Senecal.
"Change takes time," said Lisen Stromberg, chief operating officer of the 3% Conference and CEO and founder of PrismWork consultancy. "We can't go year-to-year. We have to look at micro-actions and micro-changes, because they lead up to big change."
Change is also good for business: 3% is working with an inaugural class of a "handful of agencies" to be evaluated for the 3% Certification Program, a $25,000 auditing process to support agencies in retaining and promoting women. If the agencies meet key culture benchmarks around female leadership, workplace equality and culture, and equal creative opportunity, they will become 3% certified—valid for three years. The cost of the evaluation includes a detailed assessment of workplace programs, culture, female leadership, and creative opportunity and presentation.
One female creative executive believes real change has been an uphill battle because the industry's reputation of partying, drinking and big egos breeds the type of behavior where male leaders feel they have the license to do whatever they want since they're looked at as "some kind of special celebrity."
Tamara Ingram, who was named J. Walter Thompson Co.'s new worldwide CEO a week after Johnson filed the discrimination lawsuit against Martinez, said she feels like the industry is making significant change. "You can't suddenly right everything, but you can get things in place to make a difference," she said.
Last year, Ingram created a global executive diversity and inclusion council for the agency. Part of the plan included the development of an internal network with a "talk-to-me hotline" for employees to call if they are upset or concerned about certain issues.
'We Spend Too Much Time Battling Ourselves'
A young leader in the industry told Ad Age that she often lies about her age, making herself older, because she feels like she's treated with less respect in meetings as a young woman. "I think there's a different standard and way in which women in this industry are measured and what their qualifications are based on," she said. "Meritocracy is not always synonymous with age."
Another young woman in an ad agency said she is often assigned tasks outside of her remit, such as scheduling meetings or picking up lunch orders, but never complains.
Chloe Gottlieb, who was recently promoted to co-chief creative officer for the U.S. at R/GA, urges women to speak up—and seek help from mentors. "We spend too much time battling ourselves," said Gottlieb, adding that women need to focus on their inner selves.
"I just turned 44 and I really feel this inner belief in myself now that I never felt before, but it took me so long to get there, so I want to help younger women get there before I did because a lot of things don't come without saying yes, asking questions, putting yourself out there and taking risks," she said.
Amy Ferguson, creative director at MullenLowe, said the younger creatives at her agency can see that she has a baby and she's doing well in her career, which is a big step. "I didn't see that when I was coming up. I thought it didn't exist," she said.
Mentors for women don't have to be other women either. The good news is men are listening, said Stromberg. "They're saying, 'What can I do?' and they're taking ownership about the role they play," she said. "It's important because if we don't have men willing to listen, this won't work."
Men should, for example, help women navigate "tougher conversations," such as how to ask for a raise or a promotion, said Brittany Slattery, VP of communications at Razorfish. Bologna said she encourages women not to be shy about having male mentors. Men typically advocate better for themselves and each other, and women can learn from that.
Glimmers of Hope
Ingram said she has an "incredibly optimistic view" about women in the industry. She admitted that the industry has "a long way to go" and she's "not complacent about this," but she sees change happening. "When are we going to be there though? When we're 50-50, and I mean all elements: women, different backgrounds, not university educated and so on," she said.
Senecal is slightly more stark on the issue. "The truth is that our work in making this industry genuinely more inclusive will never be done. I've long believed that action creates opportunity, and that's true in this area too. We can never let up on the conversation or the initiatives, because the human element of our business—discomfort and all—is what makes this industry special," said Senecal. "And more than ever before, I am seeing the desire and motivation to make it happen."
Indeed, over the last year, Allison Manswell, a senior consultant at Cook Ross, said she's seen an increase in agencies requesting Cook Ross's unconscious bias training services. A positive sign. But Manswell, who is the lead on the advertising portfolio at the company, said the vast majority only choose to do the first step of training. "I would like to see more agencies engaging in a more holistic approach in how we move the needle on gender," said Manswell. And, she said, bias training around gender has really addressed only white women in the workplace, "so either we decide that both are important or we launch a separate initiative around race."
About a month ago, Serena Stanley, VP-director of integrated production at Neon, an FCB Health company, took Cook Ross's unconscious bias training. While it wasn't mandatory, she said it was strongly encouraged and highly recommended among her peers who had already gone through the course. A couple weeks after the training, Neon created a diversity and inclusion committee.
Because the committee is so new, Stanley said she can't yet say whether the shop has made strides in how women are perceived in the workplace, but the agency is committed to making sure employees think about gender diversity much more consciously than in the past. This is one step, and Stanley hopes the next will be that all staff are required to take unconscious bias training and that it becomes part of the agency's onboarding process.
"Going into it, I thought, 'What could they teach me? I'm a woman and a woman of color and I'm in a male-dominated industry—what could they tell me about me that I don't already know?' But I learned a lot about myself," she said. "It didn't just affect the way I think about work; it affected the way I approach things in general in my life, which is really important because if we have more of that, it would be a better world. Period."