Shifting the way women are portrayed in the media can help close the gender gap

As the world's business leaders come together in Davos, EY's global brand leader asks what advertising and media do to accelerate gender parity.

Late last year the World Economic Forum’s quest to figure out how many years until we have economic parity between the sexes brought sobering news: it could take an unbelievable 170 years. This research, the Global Gender Gap Report 2016, finds that the environment is getting worse – last year the WEF estimated this economic parity would take 117 years.

Gender parity has been a big topic for some time and various research papers have established a clear business case, such as the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which found that companies with at least 30% female leaders can add as much as 6% to their net margins.

The overall theme of this year’s Annual Meeting is: Responsive and Responsible Leadership. Certainly more women at the helm of more organisations needs to be a part of the dialogue. EY will be leading various discussions on this topic. Bringing more women into the workforce and a particular focus on attracting more women into the digital space must also be addressed.

How can the world of media and advertising do its part?

The advertising and media world is known for its Mad Men and far too often for its rare women. Late last year, She Runs It, which rebranded from Advertising Women of New York last year on whose board my colleague Janet Balis sits, released some telling research conducted by LinkedIn and EY. The study found that 41% of early stage professionals within the marketing and media industries are women; yet, women only comprise 25% of the executive leadership roles.

I’m disappointed to see that the media and creative agency space is among the worst performing, with women comprising 50% or more of the early stage professional roles, but only around 20% at the executive rank. This is plain disappointing as in my formative years at Saatchi & Saatchi I was one of three men in a group of about 20 women. Fortunately, one of them is now at the helm of JWT – Tamara Ingram – and many others have gone on as leading figures in the advertising and media industry. Luckily, I am aware of many successful female leaders – but the statistics still show a huge gap overall.

Women and men both want to identify with the faces being reflected back at them in advertising and customers also increasingly expect brands to have real meaning and purpose. Companies are realising that if they do not better reflect their customers and the wider marketplace  they risk alienating them and hurting the bottom line. When we spend, we are revealing our inner values so we want to know that we are somehow making a positive difference to the world through the goods and services we buy.

In fact, today, one of the biggest questions facing the advertising industry is: how can we shift the way in which women are portrayed in ads so that we improve outcomes for half the world’s population?

Exploding the stereotypes

There is plenty of useful information on how we can accelerate more women into senior positions – and this piece written by one of my fellow colleagues looks at this issue within the advertising industry. But, we’ve talked far less about what our ads say about the role of women in society. Unfortunately, despite the fact that in the real world women work in a wide range of jobs and have significant responsibilities and interests that extend far beyond looking good, ads still tend to typecast them as housewives and sex symbols.

In June 2016, Unilever unveiled internal research based on analysis of 1,000 ads from around the world. It found that half of the ads portrayed women in stereotypical ways, with just 1% conveying them as funny, 2% showing them as intelligent and 3% depicting them as leaders. Yet, interestingly, the research also found that the more progressive ads – which showed women in less stereotypical roles – actually had a 12% greater impact since consumers felt more involved with those ads.

The good news is that while the advertising industry still actively perpetrates unhelpful and misleading perceptions of women, it is also in a powerful position to change those perceptions. This point was a key finding of a roundtable held in London last year and organized by EY’s Women3.The Power of Three, part of our Women. Fast forward platform. At the roundtable, participants highlighted that brand owners, creative agencies and media buyers need to better understand the gender issues that exist and how the media can have a positive impact on societal attitudes and beliefs.

A clear purpose

Since consumers increasingly favor brands that demonstrate integrity and purpose, I believe this is a great opportunity for advertisers, marketers and media buyers to come together, as an industry, and make a difference for the greater good.

Ultimately, the advertising industry doesn’t just have a moral obligation to reconsider how it portrays women; it must also heed a powerful economic imperative. Women drive an estimated 70% to 80% of consumer spending, according to Female Factor. The most meaningful and relevant brands of the future will undoubtedly be powered by ads that depict women as funny, intelligent and responsible leaders.

John Rudaizky is partner, global brand and marketing Leader at EY. He is a former managing partner at Saatchi & Saatchi and global business director for WPP.

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