A study of the underrepresentation of women in advertising agency creative
Paper submitted to the Advertising Research Division of AEJMC
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Colorado
Campus Box 287
Boulder, CO 80309-0287
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School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Colorado
Campus Box 287
Boulder, CO 80309-0287
E-Mail: robbs@ spot. colorado.edu
A study of the underrepresentation of women
in advertising agency creative departments.
A survey conducted by the authors indicates that although women make up 60% of
account service departments, they remain vastly underrepresented in creative
departments. Interviews were conducted to determine if there were aspects of
the job or the creative culture that might account for this. A number of
factors were identified. The two with the greatest impact were the conflict
between professional and family roles and the sexism found in certain aspects of
A study of the underrepresentation of women in advertising agency creative
A study of the underrepresentation of women in advertising agency
The women's movement is almost 30 years old and yet, as Pirto (1991) and Eccles
(1985) have observed, creative fields are still largely a man's world. Women
are not only underrepresented in a majority of high-status professions, but also
in such creative areas as music, visual arts, theater and film.
The question is why. It's one scholars have been asking for decades and clearly
no consensus has been reached. In an effort to find explanations, they've
investigated the social and economic forces which discriminate against women.
Such investigations are highly persuasive and have shown that women not only
continue to receive less pay (Danzig and Wells, 1993; Gaines, 1994; and
Miller,1993) but that the work of women fine artists is often taken less
by reviewers (Harris, 1989 ). Such discrimination could clearly discourage
women from pursuing creative endeavors including a career in advertising.
Researchers have also attempted to account for women's underrepresentation
in creative areas by (1) identifying physical and psychological differences
between men and women; (2) investigating the impact of gender roles and
stereotypes on intergroup processes; and (3) examining the differences in
the ways men and women are socialized and how those differences influence
both behavior and career choice.
The attempt to identify physical and psychological differences
In order to provide a better understanding of the educational and occupational
patterns of gifted males and females, in 1921 Terman, for example, began a
longitudinal study of 1,450 gifted boys and girls seven to fifteen years old.
But the data is so bound by its historical period that while it can provide a
useful perspective on the present, it's not especially helpful in explaining the
Somewhat more recently, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) reviewed the literature
relating gender to a large number of behaviors and concluded that there were
only four areas in which female-male differences were well established:
aggression, spatial-ability, verbal ability and quantitative ability. If
Maccoby and Jacklin were correct, these differences could be helpful in
suggesting possible reasons for the differences in the numbers of men and women
in creative fields. But as Lips (1988) has observed, recent studies using
meta-analysis have either outright challenged or heavily qualified the
differences cited by Maccoby and Jacklin. The differences, if they are present
at all, would not seem large enough to explain why women are so underrepresented
in creative fields.
Nonetheless, researchers continue to attempt to measure differences between men
and women in order to explain women's underrepresentation in creative fields.
Because empathy could be an important creative asset, its presence in men and
women has been carefully examined. Stereotypes would suggest that women are
more nurturing and empathetic than men. But as Eisenberg and Lennon (1983) have
demonstrated, the evidence does not support the stereotype. Gender differences
are most in evidence when it's obvious that empathy is being measured. Since
empathy is a stereotypically female trait, not surprisingly men and women differ
in how empathetic they wish to appear to others.
The one area of empathy where researchers consistently seem to find higher
levels for women than men is in the sensitivity to nonverbal cues (Abra and
Valentine-French, 1991; Eisenberg and Lennon, 1983; and Hall, 1978). But as
Snodgrass (1985) has suggested, these differences probably aren't intrinsic but
instead are explained by differences in status and roles. Not only does the
traditional maternal role give women more practice in interpreting nonverbal
cues, but their lower status makes such sensitivity especially important, since
those with lower status have to develop such sensitivity simply as a matter of
survival. Still, if women feel that they are especially aware of nonverbal
cues, such awareness might have some bearing on career direction.
Creative enterprises are highly competitive. So men and women have constantly
been compared as to their competitiveness. As Lips (1988) has noted, gender
stereotypes would suggest that boys are more competitive than girls and some
research supports the stereotypes. An early study by Miller and Pyke (1973)
suggested than females behave less competitively than males in some experimental
game situations and a large-scale survey of elementary and high school students
found cooperative attitudes higher among girls and competitive attitudes higher
among boys (Ahlgren and Johnson, 1979). But a study by Alghren four years later
suggested the issue was more complex. Attitudes towards competition continued
to change and develop until senior high at which point cooperation was shown to
be completely positive for both sexes though women linked it more closely with
their sense of self worth. Competitiveness had also become positive for both
sexes though women did retain some negative associations with it. This led Lips
(1988) as well as Abra and Valentine-French (1991) to conclude that girls may
find themselves more uneasy than boys in achievement situations that stress
competition at the expense of cooperation while in those situations where
cooperation is the requisite for success, girls will feel they have the
Significantly, Griffin-Pierson (1988), has found such conclusions less than
helpful, because by adopting a male definition of competition they are almost
sure to find women wanting. Instead, she suggests it's more fruitful to study
women's competitive behavior for what it is, instead of trying to fit their
behavior into constructs based on the behavior of men. Griffin-Pierson suggests,
in addition to interpersonal competitiveness which is defined as the desire to
do better than others, there is goal competitiveness which is defined as the
desire to excel and be the best one can be. When defined this way, women are
seen to compete differently from men but are not judged to be less competitive.
The point is well taken. But as Abra and Valentine-French (1991) have observed,
in creative enterprises, whether it's a piano competition, fighting for gallery
space or the desire to make a discovery before someone else, the competition is
highly interpersonal. That, they argue, may lead some women to avoid creative
The impact of gender roles and the socialization process
Griffin-Pierson's (1988) position, however, makes clear the problem raised by
such comparisons of men and women. They are almost always based on male-typed
activities and so inevitably lead to the question "why aren't women achieving at
the same level as men." Instead, as Eccles (1985) has convincingly argued, a
more fruitful question is "why do creative women and men choose particular areas
for achievement." Asking that question legitimizes the choices both make.
Eccles suggests such choices are guided by (a) one's expectations for success,
(b) the relationship between the perceived choices and one's core values and (c)
the individual's gender schema and process of socialization.
A woman's expectation of success in a creative field can certainly be affected
by her awareness of whether other women have been successful in it. As Agnes de
Mille (1958) has noted, "put a gifted child at the keyboard, train her, exhort
her six hours a day but let it be born in her that there never has been in
recorded music a first-rate female composer and you may get results but they
won't be Beethoven." Put another way, role models may make women aware of novel
options and options not generally associated with their gender. So, for
example, the women whose creative careers were followed by Cangelosi and
Schaefer (1991) reported that mentors were crucial to the choices they made and
to the development of their creative potential.
Both the socialization process and assimilation of the culturally defined gender
role schema can also have a critical impact on career decisions. As Block
(1984) has observed, boys are generally encouraged to explore far reaches and be
independent while girls are often closely supervised and given few chances to
master the environment or take risks. And her position is confirmed by that of
a variety of other researchers (Levin et. al., 1988; Sorentino et. al, 1992; and
Verma and Sharma, 1990) So it might follow that women would prefer careers
which call for fewer risks than the creative arena. Of course, as Eccles (1985)
and Luchins and Luchins (1980),have suggested, for example, the impact of such
gender role assimilation can be reduced through the influence of such social
agents as parents and teachers.
Conflict between family and professional roles
Finally, whether the conflict between family roles and professional roles
actually explains why there are so few women artists as Pirto argues, certainly
this tension influences both career decisions and careers. Eccles (1985)
suggests that if success in one's gender role is of central importance, then
activities that fulfill that role will have high value and those that hamper it
will have low value. But the matter is not nearly so simple. Certainly, gender
roles and social pressures encourage women to retain the primary responsibility
for the family even if they work. Not only do many career women find
satisfaction in that responsibility but there is some evidence to suggest that
women prefer to have more varied responsibilities than men (Baruch, Barnett and
But that very enjoyment of a multifaceted and varied life means that many women
also place high value on their careers. Conflict is inevitable. In fact,
numerous studies of dual career couples with children, show that women
experience more conflict between work and home than do their male partners
(Duxbury and Higgins, 1991, Greenglass et. al, 1988, Greenhaus, 1989, and
Wiersma and Van Den Berg, 1991). There is some evidence to suggest that this
conflict may be even stronger among women pursuing creative careers. Piirto
(1991) cites Foley's unpublished dissertation which reported the findings of his
study of 15 producing artists/mothers the majority of whom experienced intense
conflict between their roles as mothers and their roles as artists. As one
mother/artist said, "having a family has hindered my development as an artist,
because being constantly on duty prevented me from sustaining any creative
thought" (see also Cangelosi and Schaeffer, 1991 and Ochse, 1991).
Examinations of women in advertising
While studies have examined the underrepresentation of women in the fine arts
and a few other creative professions, little attention has been paid to women in
advertising. In fact, the only extensive research is a general survey conducted
in 1993 by the Advertising Women of New York (AWNY) which generated responses
from 1,233 women and 710 men in advertising, broadcasting and publishing. The
survey examined career experiences in terms of job satisfaction, salaries,
gender discrimination, family issues and the "glass ceiling." While the survey
found that both men and women enjoyed their jobs, 65% of the women respondents
found that the "old boys" network and a sexist cultural climate continued to
inhibit progress for women, particularly in ad agencies. This climate was not
only reflected in attitudes but in a salary gap and glass ceiling. Subsequent
salary surveys by both Advertising Age (December 2, 1996) and Adweek (June 17,
1996) have continued to reflect this salary gap though nothing so wide as that
reported in the AWNY survey.
Furthermore, the recent Advertising Age salary survey of 203 agencies also
reported data on the number of men and women in selected positions in both
creative (e.g., creative director, copy chief) and account service (senior
account executive and account executive). In account service, 57% of those in
the positions surveyed were women, while in creative 35% were women.
Advertising Age made no attempt to explain why women would be in the majority in
one department but vastly underrepresented in the other.
Advertising Age's survey reported on those in selected positions. It's also
important to learn whether the magazine's findings are representative of the
creative and account service departments as a whole. But it's equally important
to understand why, despite their growing numbers in the advertising industry,
women may still be as underrepresented in agency creative departments as they
are in other creative professions. Such underrepresentation could result from
women choosing not to enter creative or from their leaving creative careers.
This study was designed to determine if there are aspects of the job or the
culture that might encourage women to leave creative careers. Four questions
1. What are the ratios of men to women in the creative and account service
2. Does the conflict between work and family encourage women to give up full
time careers in the creative department?
3. Were there female role models who either attracted women to creative
work or helped them chart their careers?
4. Are there aspects of the creative culture that might discourage women from
staying in the creative department?
To gain an indication of the ratio of men to women in both account service and
creative, 18 advertising agencies were surveyed. Agencies were asked to
indicate the total number of men and women employed in both account service and
creative excluding support staff. In selecting agencies three size
classifications were used: those with billings exceeding $500 million, those
with billings between $150 and $500 million and those with billings of less than
$150 million. Five large, eight mid-sized and five "small" shops were surveyed.
Because agencies are reluctant to provide information about the number of men
and women they employ, the authors selected agencies where they had contacts.
So within each size category the sample is one of convenience.
Nonetheless, the agencies surveyed are equally distributed among the Eastern,
Southeastern, Midwestern and Western regions of the country. Furthermore, the
five agencies billing over $500 million are among the ten largest agencies in
the United States according to the most recent Advertising Age rankings. Most
importantly, the mid-sized and small agencies all have strong creative
reputations and have had an average of six ads per shop featured in both the
1995 and 1996 One Show Advertising Awards Annuals.
Moreover, the One Show awards annuals from the past three years were used as a
second way to gain an indication of the number of men and women in creative.
Gender was determined from the names of the winning art directors and writers.
If the gender were unclear from the name, the person was counted as female.
To better understand the survey results, 16 in-depth interviews were conducted
via telephone with men and women who currently work or have worked in either
creative, account service or the human resource departments of the agencies
surveyed. The interviewees had an average of 16 years experience. The
researchers interviewed 11 women creatives. Five of those currently work for an
advertising agency and six no longer work for an agency full-time. To provide
perspective on their experiences, interviews were also conducted with one male
creative director, one male director of account services, two female account
supervisors and a female director of human resources.
The researchers followed an interview schedule, but also encouraged informants
to discuss emerging topics related to gender issues and careers in creative.
The procedure is described by McCracken in The Long Interview (1988).
Interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes and were taped and transcribed.
Researchers analyzed the transcripts for emerging patterns or themes related to
the research questions. Verbatim quotations best illustrating these themes were
1. What are the ratios of men to women in account service and creative?
The survey indicates that men far out number women in the creative department
but women predominate in account service (complete results are found in Appendix
2). While the percentage of men in creative ranged from as few as 47% to as
high as 78%, the average was 65%. In fact, only one of the agencies surveyed
employs more women in creative than men and it was one of the smallest agencies
The percentage of women in account service ran from as low as 20% to as high as
81% but the average was 57%. Four of the agencies surveyed (two mid-sized and
two small shops) employed more men than women in account service. Not
surprisingly, they were also among those employing the highest number of men in
The five largest agencies in the survey are also among the ten largest agencies
in the United States according to the most recent Advertising Age ranking of
agencies by billings. Four of these agencies employ considerably more men in
creative and more women in account service than the survey average. The other
large agency surveyed has far more women than the average in both account
service (72%) and creative (48%). Significantly, that agency is headed by a CEO
who is known to have made a commitment to hire more women.
The One Show awards annuals were also dominated by men. In fact, over the last
three years 80% of the winning writers and art directors have been men. It's
assumed that men and women are equally talented. So the disproportionate number
of male winners suggests, among other things, that women are vastly
underrepresented in agency creative departments.
2. Does the conflict between work and family encourage women to give up full
time agency creative careers?
The interviewees certainly suggest that women in creative feel a significant
conflict between work and home. That conflict is intensified because, as in
other fields, women in creative continue to take most of the responsibility for
raising their children As one woman who is the executive creative director at
a large midwestern agency said, "I experience the conflict between work and home
on a daily basis and I have to resolve it everyday." It's a conflict, she
added, that men don't experience in the same way. "For most men here their
wives don't work outside the home. Women who are in this business, their
husbands tend to have successful careers and so there is that tension." A
senior art director at a southeastern agency who no longer works full time but
whose husband continues as a full time agency creative also noted that "if you
want to raise your children decently you can't work full time in the creative
The interviewees also indicated that the conflict between work and home is far
more severe for women in creative than in other departments. The head of human
resources at a mid-sized Manhattan shop, for example, said that while all
advertising people work hard, "it's far worse in the creative department. The
hours are brutal and many of the creatives are here every solitary weekend." An
account group manager for a mid-sized southeastern agency emphasized the same
point but added that in addition to working far later than many account people,
creatives also "have to travel for extended periods of time, staying out on
shoots for weeks at a time where account people may have to be away for a day or
two max." That kind of travel, she said, means that women in creative often
have to choose between work and family in a way that account people don't.
Not surprisingly, these same issues were reinforced by the women in the creative
departments. As the midwestern executive creative director said "the hours are
more extreme than on the account side. You're not just fulfilling things on a
check-off list. Just because you've devoted a certain number of hours to the
project doesn't mean that you've reached epiphany so you just have to keep
going." A senior art director who left her agency job at a southeastern shop
to work part time said, "in the creative department unlike any other department
in this business, you travel for as much as a month or more at a time. And
that's very difficult if you are trying to raise three young children."
The conflict seems to encourage women to abandon successful full time creative
careers. A creative director at a mid-sized southeastern shop told of losing
his two top female art directors who left the agency in order to focus on their
families. The female Director of Creative Services at a mid-sized Manhattan
shop pointed out that while many of the 27 women in the creative department are
married, only two have children. That agency's Director of Human Resources
added that she had tried to resolve the problem by exploring options like flex
time but said that the nature of the business made such options almost
impossible to implement. Others talked of friends who had tried to reduce the
pressure by going to work for small agencies where the job could be "more 9 to
5" or of giving up hard won titles and power in order to try and reduce the
workload. Even then it's not easy. The senior art director at a southeastern
agency admitted that " even though I'm now part time I'm still juggling big
time. There are lots of days when I say I just can't do this."
3. Were there female role models who either attracted women to the creative side
of the business or helped them chart their careers?
Both the junior and senior creative women had not found women to serve as role
models. Because most of the senior women were entering the business in the late
1970s and early 1980s, if they found role models, they were men. While the men,
they said, had often been helpful, they nonetheless admitted it would have been
nice to have had a woman to model themselves after. A creative supervisor at a
mid-sized agency in the midwest noted that "if I had known a woman in this
position and had respected her, it would have made a big difference to me. I
would have known more about the position and that it was more of a possibility."
A management supervisor on the west coast suggested that at her agency that "if
you went looking for role models in creative all you're going to see is men. So
you basically assume that there is no place a woman could succeed within the
company in the creative department." A writer at a small west coast agency
complained that while she had encountered senior women in creative, they had not
become role models. "They all behaved the way the guys did" she said. They
were just in your face and all over your work. And it was kind of sad because
it said that women can't be themselves and be successful."
But the experience of the executive creative director in the midwest suggests
that women who choose not to adopt a "male model" can have a real impact on
others and the business. She said that although she had been in advertising for
23 years, she found her first female role model only a few years ago. That
experience helped shape her own approach to reviewing creative work and
reinforced her belief that as a creative director she could take a more
supportive approach than that used by most males.
4. Are there aspects of the creative culture that might discourage women from
staying in the creative department?
Interviewees suggested that certain aspects of the culture found in creative
departments could prove difficult for women.
A. Talent is not enough. You also have to be one of the guys.
The respondents pointed out that in certain respects the creative department is
a meritocracy. What matters is the quality of the work. But as a senior art
director in New York with over 30 years experience who left her agency to form
her own consulting firm underlined "it's not enough to be talented. You have to
be buddies and friends with who you're working with." A senior art director on
the west coast noted that "I have to work hard to be one of the boys. You know
curse and swear and make hidden jokes about sex and farting and belching and all
of the things my creative directors think are funny." A senior art director who
left her southeastern agency to teach agreed, adding "because it's such a men's
club in the creative department, I think you have to have the kind of
personality that blends into that group. I think that men, because they are in
more serious positions, are not going to hire a woman they don't think is going
to fit in with the guys." She went on to tell how at her former agency a male
writer who was planning to get married had asked his female art director to be
his 'best man.' And she got a tux and a black skirt and was his best man. So I
think that plays back a little bit about fitting in with the guys." If women
aren't seen as one of the guys, the interviewees suggested, they won't get hired
or if they do, they won't last.
B. You have to appear tough.
Because women are seeking to fit into male dominated creative departments, most
of the interviewees emphasized the need to be "tough cookies," to be "strong,"
to be a "pistol," "to really play hardball" and "to have a hard shell." Part of
being strong, they say, means being able to take criticism of work that is "your
heart and soul."
That criticism is often delivered by men in a way that many of the women
we interviewed found "assaultive," "unsupportive," "hair raising," and
"intentionally humiliating." A senior west coast art director noted that such
criticism is difficult for anybody. But, she added, "it seems to be more
difficult for women probably because we've been culturally discouraged from
being in situations that are more competitive." A senior art director at a
mid-sized New York shop who left it to open her own consulting business admitted
"I don't think I have the capacity to get knocked down a lot of times without
taking it personally and I think women tend to do that more than men." A
midwest creative supervisor noted that when "you're getting beaten up every day,
you have to believe in yourself enough to come back again. And that's something
boys just learn to do growing up in a way that many women don't."
The criticism that creatives face also is said to be a unique part of their job.
For one thing, it's highly personal. As a creative supervisor in the midwest
said "it's gutsy to show someone the work you've done and to put yourself out
there. It's not the same as what an AE faces." A senior art director who now
works part-time at a southeastern agency added "in account service your soul
isn't put on the line every day." What's more, as the executive creative
director from a large midwestern agency noted, "unlike other departments, in
creative you are subjected to scrutiny and review at every single moment." She
went on to wonder if a person has "a strong bent to please the way many women
do," if such constant and intense criticism might not prove discouraging.
C. You have to be willing to fight aggressively for your work.
The women we interviewed repeatedly pointed out that it's not enough to have a
good idea. The idea must also be defended both within the agency and in front
of the client. For the most part, the interviewees felt that while they were
quite use to strongly defending their work that many women might be
uncomfortable with that kind of fighting. As the female senior art director who
now teaches said, "it takes a strong ego to be willing to fight for your idea
and convince senior level people that your ideas really have merit. I think men
are apt to be a little stronger in that department." A writer at a small west
coast agency added that "men fight tooth and nail for their ideas. And women
have a lot of pride in their ideas, too. But I think we're socialized to be a
lot more flexible and understanding. So we go 'well maybe they're right and
maybe my idea is not so good after all.' And that kind of makes me sad because
I'd like to think that women would be just as tenacious."
A senior art director from New York who now has her own consulting firm pointed
out that it's not just that women aren't raised to fight but that they aren't
allowed to fight. "I mean if a woman behaved the way so many men do, she'd be
out on her ass." A senior writer from Boston who left her agency to free lance
underlines that point. "I know it's been said before, but if you're a guy and
you push for your ideas, you're aggressive. But if you're a woman and you try
to do it, you're a bitch. Women in this business are punished for doing the
exact same thing that men get rewarded for. That's it. That's the big kernel
A female account group manager at a mid-sized southeastern agency agreed that
creative is a "tough, dog eat dog world" and that's a world, she said, that
women "tend to be less comfortable in." She went on to say that by contrast,
account management involves "more of a service environment where there's a need
to nurture clients and establish relationships." It's a world she felt "women
are more comfortable with." A female west coast management supervisor also
believed that "women may feel a greater affinity towards account management and
the relationship skills that are needed there than they do towards the kind of
aggressive traits needed on the creative side." Even women creatives agreed
that account work is a more "natural fit" for women than the creative department
because as the female writer for a small west coast agency said "instead of
always fighting, you're helping make the client happy. And making others
comfortable is unfortunately what society generally encourages women to do."
D. You have to learn to thrive in a culture many find sexist.
None of those we spoke with indicated that their agencies discriminated against
women in hiring. In fact, most said their agencies wanted to hire women.
Two of the women creatives we interviewed also said their male colleagues
were open minded and that they saw little evidence of an "old boys club."
But most of the interviewees suggested that aspects of creative culture can be
sexist. This sexism may be reflected in the kind of work creatives appreciate.
A female writer from Los Angeles told how her male creative director criticized
her writing "as being too soft and sounding like a woman wrote it." A male
creative director at a mid-sized southeastern shop noted that even though he
looks to hire and promote women, his department is heavily male and he
attributed that partly to the fact that the kind of work that he admires has a
"traditional male sensibility." And both the male creative director and the
female midwestern executive creative director noted that the kind of work
rewarded in advertising awards shows has a "smart-alecky tone which is men's
natural bent." The executive creative director went on to note that the warmer
work done by many women is not valued in national creative contests. And that
could well cause them to "become discouraged about their prospects."
But the sexism, a number of respondents said, is often far more overt. Some
types of accounts are still generally viewed as male bastions. The senior art
director who left the agency business to teach told of showing her book to a
creative director who said "your work is really, really good, but we only have
masculine accounts here." The idea, she said, that the agency felt that "a
woman couldn't figure out how to sell cars or chain saws was dumbfounding."
A senior free lance writer in Boston told of working on a beer in the 1980's
and not being allowed to go to client meetings "because the agency didn't want
the client to know that there was a woman working on their business." While the
interviewees did agree that such attitudes are changing and that more women are
working on traditionally male accounts, nonetheless they felt there was still a
problem. The women we spoke with also found what one called a "tragic irony"
in the fact that while women are often excluded from "masculine accounts,"
the advertising for many women's products is frequently created by men.
Finally, a number of shops were said to hire women only to bury them on dull
accounts. The senior free lance writer from Boston said in her experience "guys
get to work on the best pieces of business. Some top agencies hire talented
women and give them really crummy assignments. Then when the woman gets
frustrated and leaves after a year or year and a half, the men go 'I don't know
why she wanted to leave. You know how women are.'" The senior west coast art
director said "where 70% of the work women were given was drudgery work and 30%
reward work, the men if they got a bad assignment people apologized to them for
it. It was just assumed that women would do the dull housekeeping assignments.
Without a high percentage of good assignments, it's very difficult for women to
do the kind of work that leads to advancement. A New York art director who left
her agency to form her own consulting firm said she left because "I felt I
really deserved to be promoted to vice president. That year they promoted - I
don't even remember the numbers because I just wanted to kind of forget about it
and get on with my life - but they promoted nine men and no women. I sat down
and I counted how many male and female vice presidents there were and it was 19
to three. So I realized I had to go."
Other women we interviewed said they left their full time jobs because they were
tired of having to prove themselves in a way they felt male creatives didn't.
The writer in Los Angeles said she decided after leaving her full time agency
job to form her own company rather than seek another agency position "because I
knew I was as good if not better than a lot of the guys and I just thought I'm
not going to play by their rules anymore." And the free lance writer in Boston
decided to leave her full time agency job after asking herself "who the hell are
these guys anyway. Why should I have to prove anything to them when they don't
have to prove anything to me." As a free lancer she feels she gets the respect
from the male creatives that she had to fight for while working full time. "As
a free lancer you're OK because you don't intimidate them. You're there to help
them. Not compete with them."
Discussion and Conclusions
While some have suggested that women may be less effective than men in
interpersonal competitions, the vast majority of women in this study felt
perfectly capable of competing with the men in their departments. None
of the women we interviewed indicated that they had even considered
leaving the business because of its competitive nature. While many did
agree that the constant criticism was difficult, again none suggested it
was enough to drive them from the business. Rather, this study suggests
that both sexism and the conflict between work and home may encourage
women to abandon full time agency work. That may be one reason why
women are underrepresented in creative departments.
As the studies cited earlier have shown, most working women experience a more
severe conflict between professional and family roles than do men. That seems
to be true in advertising as well. Moreover, the extended travel required of
copywriters and art directors puts female creatives under particular pressure
and, according to almost every interviewee, makes it far more difficult for
women to have full time careers in creative than in account service. In fact, a
large number of the interviewees had either left the creative department to
devote more time to their families or they talked about women who had.
So long as women continue to be the primary caretakers of their children, this
conflict will not disappear. That creative work requires extended travel is
certainly a problem. But the excuse that solutions like flex time don't work
because of the nature of the business should be rejected or at least not allowed
to stop the search for solutions. The problem clearly deserves more in-depth
consideration than most agencies seem to have given it. But it may take strong,
sensitive leadership at agencies before the issue is given the attention
required to establish a new paradigm.
But an even more serious problem is raised by the sexism found in many creative
departments. The executive creative director of a large midwestern agency said
that even though she is in charge of the department, when she walks into a room
full of men she still feels "viscerally frightened." The west coast senior
art director said that on walking into a creative meeting where men are in the
majority she feels "defensive and on edge." Clearly, having to thrive in a
world where they are the minority and often feel "alien," places women under
tremendous pressure. But that's something most of the interviewees said
they had come to expect from having grown up in "a man's world."
What concerned many of them far more was their sense that they did not receive
their fair share of "good" assignments and had to fight harder than the men for
those they did get. The problem is all the more pernicious, many interviewees
said, because it's so subtle that it's hard to detect and even harder to prove.
Although subtle, such sexism can have a chilling effect on a career by denying
women the creative opportunities that can lead to industry wide recognition and
advancement. In fact, a number of the interviewees pointed to the scarcity of
women in the One Show awards annuals not only as evidence that women are
underrepresented in creative departments but also as proof that the best
assignments don't go to women. This issue had proven so discouraging to a
number of those interviewed that they said it had either caused them to leave
full time agency work or to strongly consider doing so.
Correcting the problem depends in part on women being in visible positions of
authority with the power to assign and evaluate work. But that in turn requires
the agency to be able to attract, retain and promote women creatives in
sufficient numbers that they can help change the culture. And that may be slow
to happen under current conditions unless agency leadership becomes heavily
involved. Significantly, the one large agency we surveyed where women make up
almost half of the creative department is headed by a CEO who made a commitment
to hire more women and to create a more positive working environment. That may
suggest that sexism can be rooted out and an agency's culture changed if it
leaders are committed to that change.
This study is not without its limitations. Obviously, a relatively small set of
agencies was surveyed. The conclusion that men far outnumber women in agency
creative departments parallels that of the Advertising Age study of those in
more senior positions at over 200 agencies. That may give this study's findings
additional weight. But a broader survey is needed to provide more definitive
information. The insights offered by those interviewed for this study are
valuable. But it would also be helpful to interview more women creatives in
order to determine if the experiences of the informants in this study are
typical. Finally, the underrepresentation of women in creative departments
probably results not only from the number of women leaving creative careers but
also from the number choosing such a career in the first place. So it would be
very useful to survey advertising students to determine the number of men and
women pursuing careers in creative and account service and to examine their
reasons for doing so.
Nevertheless, this study focuses attention on a matter that has received far too
little consideration. That focus may lead not only to further discussion of the
issues raised here but also to corrective action.
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Appendix 1. Description of Informants
Executive creative director at a large midwestern agency. She has 23 years of
experience. Her first job was writing copy for a catalog company. She
gradually worked her way up by working on numerous packaged goods accounts at
major agencies in several cities in the midwest.
Creative supervisor at a mid-sized midwestern agency. She has 16 years of
experience. Before taking her current position she had worked at three other
agencies in the midwest.
Senior art director who left her southeastern agency to work part time. She has
19 years of experience and has also worked full time at a variety of midwestern
agencies. Her work appears frequently in the major awards annuals.
Free lance writer in Boston. She has 16 years of experience and worked for
major agencies in New York for nine years before going free lance. As a free
lance writer, she has done national work for some of the largest agencies in New
York City and Chicago.
Senior art director at a mid-sized southeastern agency who left her agency to
teach. She has 15 years of agency experience and has won over 100 top creative
Senior art director at a mid-sized New York shop who left the agency to open her
own consulting business. She has 25 years of experience. Her consulting firm
specializes in work directed towards women.
Senior art director in New York with 30 years of experience who left her agency
to form her own consulting firm. She is an African-American woman who has held
top positions at several well known creative shops in Manhattan.
Director of Creative Services for a mid-sized New York agency. She has nine
years of experience.
Writer from Los Angeles. She has nine years of experience. She began her
career writing retail copy and then worked for a major international agency.
She left that agency to open her own consulting firm and to teach part time.
Senior west coast art director. She has ten years of experience and worked for
east coast and the midwest agencies before taking her current job four years ago
at a highly respected west coast creative shop.
Writer at a west coast agency. She has seven years of experience. She worked
for an east coast shop before moving west. She was an in-house writer for a
well known clothing manufacturer before taking her present position at an agency
known for its high tech work.
Creative Director at a mid-sized southeastern agency. He has 19 years of
experience. His work has won hundreds of national awards.
Human Resources Director at a mid-sized New York City agency. She has 14 years
of experience and has worked at several major manhattan agencies.
Management supervisor at a west coast agency. She has 18 years of experience
and has worked for large, highly respected agencies in both New York city and
Group account manager at a mid-sized southeastern agency. She has 13 years of
Director of account services at a mid-sized New York City agency. He has 15
years of experience.
Appendix 2 Gender Survey Results
Agency/Size Creative Account
M F M F Region
1 # 59 27 55 83 East % 69 31 40 60
2 # 30 14 9 38 East % 68 32 19 81
3 # 34 15 18 49 Midwest % 69 31 29 71
4 # 48 17 41 65 Midwest
% 74 26 39 61
5 # 100 94 42 110 Midwest
% 52 48 28 72
6 # 27 21 18 27 East % 56 44 40 60
7 # 13 7 12 19 East
% 65 35 39 61
8 # 15 6 21 35 West % 71 29 38 62
9 # 29 8 23 16 Midwest % 78 22 59 41
10 # 38 17 20 67 Southeast % 69 31 23 77
11 # 39 14 42 28 West % 74 26 60 40
12 # 17 6 10 22 Midwest % 74 26 31 69
13 # 23 5 19 22 West
% 82 18 46 54
14 # 4 4 6 9 West % 50 50 40 60
15 # 9 6 12 3 East % 60 40 80 20
16 # 10 6 6 10 West
% 63 37 37 63
17 # 10 4 10 6 Midwest % 71 29 63 37
18 # 9 10 10 9 West % 47 53 53 47