A Call to Action for Intersectional Gender Parity in the Creative Sector

Bridging the gap between intent and impact

In the wake of International Women's Day, we are confronted with the harsh reality that the pace of change in advertising can be glacial. While there is an abundance of interest in driving inclusivity within teams and through creative output, substantial barriers exist between that drive and the current reality.

The gender gaps that remain in the creative industries are best seen through the numbers, as only 29 percent of U.S. creative directors are women despite the fact that over 50 percent of the advertising workforce is female. The sector has a yawning pay gap, with lack of senior female creative leadership as the key factor behind this. Our studies found that in the U.K., racially diverse talent comprises only 5.5 percent of senior leadership in the creative sector.

It's time for serious, immediate and global change within the industry, driven by a massive shift in our collective philosophy and the creation and implementation of inclusivity tools and initiatives. And these philosophies and tools must address the needs of all women from all racial groups.

Even with many amazing diversity-led talent programs in place to get great young talent into the industry, those programs can take women and women of color only so far. In New York, the number of creative directors who are women of color remains shockingly low. And once women do get into higher levels of advertising, we are seeing that gender bias coupled with racial bias and age discrimination has resulted in a group of women who no longer want to use their talents, expertise and experience to support it. In the U.K., the rate of women leaving advertising altogether is as high as 12 percent.

One specific bias driving women, and especially women of color, from the industry is an unconscious workplace bias that excludes women from the type of workplace wins that lead to promotion and leadership opportunities. We saw this  clearly through our Equality Standard data model: Only 60 percent of women of color are asked to pitch work, compared to 80 percent of their white male counterparts. In an industry where you're only "as good as your last piece of work," and where a vast collection of awards from buzzworthy work is a measure of success, the fact that women are not brought to the business development table is more than problematic: It negatively impacts who progresses to leadership. Our research also found the discouraging fact that even post-#MeToo, 2020 women still face hostile workplace challenges, with 28 percent of creative women in the U.K. having experienced "inappropriate behavior" in the workplace.

What can we do to improve our industry? The most important first step is to unpack what recruitment bias in advertising looks like. Since women in the U.S. face a brutal federal maternity leave policy of up to 12 weeks, many women have to leave their career altogether if they want to stay home longer with a baby. After a woman takes time out of the advertising industry, the industry quietly closes the door on them. Let's open that door and embrace returning talent. 

Next, we must confront the subtle everyday bias that prevents women from having the same opportunities as their male colleagues. Make sure female creatives know what they need to do to get promoted, give them the same level of feedback as their male peers, and have senior members of your team show a genuine interest in their careers so they are just as likely as their white male colleagues to gain access to key projects.

This call to action is for the creative sector to close the gender gap and bridge the divide between positive intent and tangible impact.

The philosophies that will create meaningful change with the smallest amount of overhead include:

Rethinking the ways in which your company is approaching diversity in your hiring practices.

Does every action you are investing in lead back to attracting, growing and retaining intersectional female employees? And are your recruiters trained to reward career gaps and life experiences as creativity's gifts? Your talent team spends 7.2 seconds looking at a CV. They'll dismiss talent just for having spent time outside the industry. Educate them on why this returning talent matters.

Changing the conversation around what diversity is and means in your culture.

Diversity must be viewed not just as a facet of physical identity, but as a perspective to seek out. We need powerful voices from women from all walks of life at the table to provide robust, groundbreaking creative solutions.

Encouraging and providing flexible working hours for those to whom it best applies, including neurodiverse employees, those with mental health challenges and parents.

Although many companies have these initiatives in place, in practice there is often a stigma that lies in flex-working, as it goes against traditional norms around working and the workplace. Companies must encourage their employees to take advantage of flex-working initiatives through active awareness of their employees' needs. If employees think flex working will be detrimental to their career progression, then they've failed.

Celebrating your employees' differences openly and often.

Raise their voices, recognize their cultures, talk about their lived experiences, and be willing to have uncomfortable conversations around your biases: Awareness is the first step in addressing the problem.

Creative diversity can and should be shaping a future-fit industry that unlocks our creative potential. And if advertising is to be a reflection of the world, the industry should be a leader in influence. The time to act is now.

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Ali Hanan
Ali Hanan is CEO of Creative Equals.

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