Lessons from Advertising Week: How to lead the charge on gender equity

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As advertisers, we need to constantly question how unconscious bias shapes our content, writes a senior communications strategist at Droga5

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Advertising Week New York’s Empowering Women series. While I knew the topics we’d be discussing, I wasn’t sure how deep we’d actually go. I was expecting to attend, get inspired by women who’ve made it, analyze the number of women versus men in the audience and have some healthy dialogue about the advancement of our gender. Instead, I was elated at the amount of conversation around a really important subject: unconscious bias.

If you haven’t heard by now, unconscious biases are those that happen outside of our control, made immediately by our brain. They develop over time, informed by what we’re told and what we’re exposed to. It is estimated that 98% of thinking happens with our unconscious mind, and this influences and skews our perception of reality. The result is dangerous: we end up reinforcing deep-seated stereotypes without even realizing it, and the cycle continues.

This year’s Super Bowl was a great example of how unconscious biases can seep into advertising. As Andrew Hampp, a writer for Billboard, keenly pointed out during this week’s panel, 25% didn’t even feature women. Of those that did, only 44% featured women in a speaking role. What was the viewer base for the big game, you ask? 46% female. Think about that for a second. That’s our unconscious bias at work, reinforcing outdated notions that women and sports don’t mix.

As advertisers who create content that feeds into culture, we carry a great responsibility to ensure that the things we’re making and the places we put them reflect reality, not bias. Taking it a step further, we, of all people, carry a responsibility to be future facing—to interrogate and imagine what the world would look like in an increasingly modern era and show it to people. The truth is simple: our responsibility reaches far beyond our industry. So, how do we get there?

As agencies and employees, here are a few things we can do today to bring about change:

Talk about it. In order to address an issue, you have to raise awareness of it. Recently, here at Droga5, we hosted an agency-wide talk about unconscious bias, and we are continuing with custom sessions for each department. All agencies can do something simple like this to open the dialogue. What opportunities do you have to bring this conversation into your workplace?

Take a hard look at the teams you’ve assembled. Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media who sat on the panel about erasing gender stereotypes in ads, said it well: "The output will automatically be influenced by what’s happening behind the scenes." The good news is that we can control what behind the scenes looks like. Ask yourself, what perspective am I missing? Am I advocating enough for the underrepresented team member?

Take a hard look at the work you’re creating. Constantly evaluate and assess if we’re doing our part to represent culture in a way that’s progressive versus regressive. As you evaluate work and strategies, take another look—are outdated stereotypes being reinforced? What would happen if you changed the main character from a man to a woman, from white to Latina?

Don’t set it and forget it. Remember that unconscious bias is unconscious for a reason. We need to constantly reinforce, reexamine and maintain an open dialogue about the issue. How can you keep the conversation active?

Hold yourself accountable. Notice how you’re perpetuating your own unconscious biases. This awareness will start to shift your own behavior. Can you challenge yourself to become more aware?

While big cultural moments that help bring the conversation of equity to the forefront—whether a campaign dispelling outdated gender biases or an unexpected casting move—are incredibly important steps, real change is going to happen in the everyday moments that get us there. So, as we move forward, consider this: think a little harder, question yourself a little more, do your part to ensure we’re creating a different, more evolved world. As the shapers of content and so many images, it’s our responsibility.


--Taylor Hines is a senior communications strategist at Droga5



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