Where do all the women in advertising go?

Research shows that the industry loses up to half of its qualified female talent between education and employment, so what is happening?

We all know that statistics show an underrepresentation of women in the creative departments of advertising agencies, particularly as creative directors. Indeed, IPA research suggests that 89% of creative directors in the UK are men.

However, I was curious to learn that when we look at the gender split of graduates from the creative courses that train people for these roles – such as advertising, art and design higher education courses – it is biased towards women, with 61.7% of graduates female. There are more young women training for roles in creative departments than men, by quite a long way.

Encouraging right? Wrong. My study showed that shockingly we are losing up to 50% of our qualified female talent between education and permanent roles in advertising agency creative departments – these are the 'Lost Girls'.

So where do the 'Lost Girls' go? Quantitative analysis of my students at Southampton Solent over the last six years shows that they were gaining roles in agencies, but just not as creatives.

Whilst only 11% of female graduates went into creative departments – less than half the proportion of their male peers – 45% went into other agency roles and 34% gained roles in marketing and other creative companies. This is reflected in IPA figures that show an overwhelming majority of entry-level account managers are women.

In short, these girls were becoming account managers, planners and project managers, but not creatives, despite training specifically for this role.

I wanted to look into why the Lost Girls disappear and my research confirmed a number of interrelated reasons as to why we lose this talent:

  1. An unconscious bias amongst male educators and creative directors that leads them to champion more masculine work

  2. Exclusion of women from social events and networking

  3. Lack of female role models, especially successful creative directors who are mums

  4. Lack of confidence in traditional masculine soft skills, such as assertiveness, drive, resilience and self-promotion

  5. Denial amongst young women that gender is a barrier to their success

Essentially, the common thing about all of the causes is that they are small behaviours and cultural biases that we experience every day. These small perceptions build up throughout education, work placementsand very early years in industry to result in talented women simply, slowly opting out.

Addressing the problem

When it comes to the industry righting itself and addressing this very real issue, I believe that this problem is something that all women, and men, who work in the creative industries can change.

To save the Lost Girls, we first need to get better at connecting with education; this female talent is not going to come beating our doors down. We need industry leaders to go into higher education institutions, provide female role models and show young women that we want them. Whether through guest lectures, holding female portfolio reviews, establishing female placement schemes or simply being prominent on social media, we should help make successful creative women more visible for our undergraduates.

We also need to recognise that right from the start, even when on work placement, young women need coaching with soft skills such as assertiveness, confidence, resilience and self-promotion. We need coaches and mentors to provide them with support early on in their careers.

Encouragingly, on speaking to industry leaders about my Lost Girls research, I have had some positive feedback. Indeed, Sheryl Marjoram, managing director of McCann London, has some sage words for those looking to get ahead in the industry: "What struck me most about Kat’s research was the impact a lack of confidence in traditional masculine soft skills such as assertiveness, drive, resilience and self-promotion has on the number of women we lose. I think maybe too often, us women want to be ‘good’. We ask permission to speak rather than assert our right to be heard and what’s liberating about what we’re learning now is that if you want to be great, don’t worry about being good so much. Just go kick up some dust."

Action points for advertising agencies: seven steps to save a sister

  1. Keep up to date on the current information and debate around gender asymmetry in UK advertising creative departments by signing up to the Lost Girls feed

  2. If you’re a successful woman, and particularly a successful mum working in a creative role, raise your profile. Get tweeting, sharing, article writing and public speaking

  3. Connect with the top creative advertising educators in the country. Offer yourself up as a guest lecturer or a mentor to inspire the next generation of female talent

  4. Lend a hand to one of the great organisations, such as Creative Equals, who are already tackling gender asymmetry in creative departments and supporting female talent

  5. Get girls in permanently or on placement, and when you do give them training on the stuff they really need to stay put

  6. Mix up your teams. The most progressive creative departments are doing this already. Break up same sex teams. Get different people to work together on different projects

  7. Balance the work you show as inspiration to your teams. You may do this unconsciously, but be sure there is a conscious effort to include some work by women, or with a strong female voice, in the great examples you share.


Kathryn Ellis is planning director at McCann Bristol and associate lecturer in advertising at Southampton Solent University

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