Creative agency gender imbalance 'terrible', study finds

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 17 December 2016
Image: AdNews Gender Issue

Creative agencies are predominantly Caucasian and have an overwhelming male bias in the c-suite and lead creative roles, an extensive survey of agencies carried out by The Agency Circle has revealed.

More than two-thirds of women in the industry regard the gender imbalance as between ‘mediocre’ and ‘terrible’, while 51% of men agreed.

Disturbingly, the survey found that sexism in the creative agency workplace is rife with 42% of women experiencing sexual harassment and more than half on the receiving end of inappropriate remarks.

“There’s not much to be proud of in the numbers – and we’ve no interest in being the best of a bad bunch. We’ll use this snapshot to track our individual progress, and make sure that the plans we’ve already got in place are making an actual difference – with regards to gender diversity and beyond,” Clemenger BBDO Sydney managing director Emily Perrett says. 

White men run agencies

The survey attracted 1,211 employees from 15 agencies across the country, including 303 Mullen Lowe, BWMDentsu, CHE Proximity, Clemenger BBDO, DDB, Havas , JWT, Leo Burnett, Marketforce, M&C Saatchi Group, McCann, TBWA, The Hallway, The Monkeys, VCCP.

It found that 85% of agency staff were Caucasian with 70% identifying as ‘Australian’. Of the non-Caucasian staff, 6% identified as Asian and there was only one person who was Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander.

Although there were more female respondents (53%) than male (46%), the gender bias towards men really begins to show when senior roles are considered.

At C-suite level (Chair/CEO/MD), men take up 84% of positions compared to 16% for women. This improves at the next level down (senior executive) where the divide is 60% men and 40% women.

Worryingly, and unsurprisingly, key creative and design roles are dominated by men 71% to 29%. The reports said that the addition of design to this category helps masks the paucity of women in creative practitioner roles.

Women dominate support functions (HR/Finance/Admin) 71% to 29%, as well as creative support services (57% to 43%) and account management (64% to 36%).

These results stack up reasonably well against the industry norm in the media and telecommunications industry according to this year’s Workplace Gender Equality scorecard.

In that study, CEOs were 92% males while key management personnel and other executives were 74% male.

The figures don’t tell us whether media companies equivalent of key technical roles, such as creative director, is as heavily skewed as it is in creative agencies, but at media agencies it appears the gender balance, in pay at least, is more even.

That creative is heavily homogenised towards one gender and race in a country as multicultural as Australia is like to be contributing towards a lack of diversity in advertising, The Monkeys co-founder and ECD Scott Nowell recently said. 

Unacceptable sexism

But just as worrying is how women are made to feel in the sector, with report highlighting a worrying amount of sexism in the workplace.

Nearly half (45%) of women agreed to feeling vulnerable in the creative industry because of their gender, compared with just 3% of men.

More than four in ten women (42%) acknowledged they had been subject to sexual harassment while 20% reported they had experience it more than a few times, which is shockingly high and unacceptable.

More than half (51%) have been on the receiving end of inappropriate remarks in the workplace, while 49% have witnessed a co-worker make such remarks a few times or more.

“When the senior ranks of creatives are all white, straight men (mostly with wives at home or part time looking after kids), it sends a message that there's only one kind of person fit to fill the role,” one female respondent, aged 31-34, said.

Another female worker, aged 25-30, added: “There are not enough female role models to aspire to and when I think about where my career is going I consider client side as my only option - I do not believe advertising will provide me with the right opportunities to have a family or equal ability to progress.”

The report will be circulated to each agency to review and benchmark their performance against the industry standard.

“Agencies who took part in the inaugural survey are digging deep into their findings, listening to their staff and planning the changes they want to make in the coming months,” The Agency Circle chair and director of strategy at VCCP Michelle O’Neill says.

“2016 may just have been the perfect storm for diversity, there is a palpable sense of change and commitment in the air. We’re excited about the year ahead and warmly welcome any agencies who’d like to join in.” 

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