A look at the comments sections of trade press articles over the past couple of days reveals a couple of common threads. ‘Why does the creative gender ratio matter when women dominate account service?’ some people ask, while others claim that ‘There is no bias; it’s all about the work’.
I’d like to discuss why it matters to have women in creative, and how our experiences shape our understanding of ‘the work’.
In any agency, it is the creative department who come up with the ideas that clients spend untold amounts of money sending out into the world. And when 75% of the people creating those ideas are men (not to mention 97% of the ECDs approving them) then we end up telling brand stories through the lens of male experience.
We are all shaped by our experiences; our schooling, parenting, the movies we see, books we read, conversations we have and music we listen to. From the time we are girls and boys, women and men are socialized differently. On top of that, we have different chemicals coursing through our brains, different bits in our pants and, by and large, different taste in shoes.
In creative both sexes are trained to talk in different voices to different people, given insights and asked to enter other mindsets with empathy and understanding. But because we bring diverse life experiences to the table, we come at our work from different angles and feed in our various influences: comedy, pathos, the odd Lady Gaga reference.
When the vast majority of creatives are feeding their male influences into the vast majority of consumers who are female, there is a disconnection. In the States, research conducted by Terry Sandi Solution found that 91% of women think advertisers don’t understand them. Here in Australia, comments responding to Leo’s hires on Facebook page Destroy the Joint reflect this sentiment: “That explains why advertising is so sexist” said one, another, “That explains the tampon ads”, and yet another “I find most ads insult my intelligence… wish these young, white men would realize that”.
Women are crying out to be talked to meaningfully. ‘50 Shades of Gray’ went gangbusters despite being one of the worst written books of all time, because it talked about sex in a way that appealed to women, not men. The male voice has been dominant through time immemorial, and as a woman, I can’t tell you how refreshing and exciting it is to, on occasion, come across a truly female voice: Elena Ferrante, Caitlin Moran, Amy Schumer and Nicole Holofcener (to name a few) give us honest insights into the female experience and enjoy huge success because of it.
Still, while much of our life experience is informed by our gender, there are of course any number of human and individual experiences to be had in this world. Melbourne University academic and former creative director Dr Jackie Dickenson contends that it doesn’t do us any good to discuss the issue of creative gender equality in terms of “most women are consumers therefore we need more women creatives”.
That’s old news, she says, and her upcoming book Australian Women in Advertising shows that while this train of thought helped women move into creative advertising roles in the first place, it failed to get them into positions of power because by its own admission it limits them to the idea that “women talk to women”. It’s more important, Dickenson says, to question why women are the key consumers in the first place.
In consumer society women take on traditional domestic roles. Look at any ad promoting household products and you’ll find women doing the shopping, women doing the washing, women stuck in the 1950s with a toddler strapped to a hip (and presumably a hipflask strapped to her pantihose to stop the penetrating boredom that comes of a century spent depicted in domestic servitude.) On the flip side, young men are often presented as doofuses, Dads as hapless, and businessmen as all-powerful. In creative we often succumb to gender stereotypes because they’re easy to communicate—but they do not represent reality, and besides which, they’re kinda boring.
In her wrap-up of the 3% conference this year Cindy Gallop calls for advertisers to present more aspirational role models, depicting an equal partnership rather than ‘man as strong bread-winner, woman as nurturing carer’. Gallop argues that when we have gender equal leadership and creative departments, ‘not only will we see better depictions of women in advertising, we will see better depictions of men.’
Shaking up the conventional images of both men and women can only be good for us as a society. Billions of dollars are spent each year pushing gender stereotypes out into the world, and as long as those images perpetuate the idea that women belong at home while men bring home the bacon, the status of women will remain secondary. The way women are represented in the media, the gender pay gap, the lack of women in influential positions throughout society and violence towards women—all of these are interconnected. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recognized this when he announced his $100 million payment to help quell the onslaught of domestic violence and called for Australia to make a cultural shift, because "violence against women begins with disrespecting women”.
By accessing female insight and experience we will not only broaden our scope and relevance; we can start to improve the status of women.
Gender, class, ethnicity, culture, whether you’re into ACDC or Miles Davis or Lady Gaga: all of these things help define us as individuals. Women may dominate account service, but it’s the creative department that come up with the work—and the greater the diversity of a creative department, the greater the pool of influence that can be accessed to create original thought and relevant ideas.
Because at the end of the day, creative is all about the idea. But here’s the thing: you cannot take the life experience out of the individual who is responding to the idea.
It matters to have women in creative to ensure we’re making innovative work that achieves commercial success. It matters to have women in creative because the work we do has a broader impact on society than possibly any of us really understand. And it matters to have women in creative because, at the end of the day, some of us are bloody good at it.