Why it Matters that There’s a Lack of Women in Advertising and 6 Things We Can Do About It

This post originally appeared on Our Collective Muse. 

Advertising at the Super Bowl is the big time. Creative agencies dream of getting a client with a budget and an imagination big enough to attempt work that will hit the eyes of more than a hundred million people at once. For that reason, it’s a microcosm of what the advertising world is capable of. Men and women in advertising relish this opportunity. Everyone is here to show off, both their sales prowess and creative genius

Last year, the Super Bowl ads were political. This year, they were…lame? With #metoo and #timesup movements, the political climate is ripe with feminism and its steadfast opponents. Companies were hesitant to take a stance, and that makes sense—either way they may alienate consumers. This year, there weren’t many Super Bowl commercials selling through misogyny and sexy targeting, so that’s an improvement. I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to say goodbye to bikini beer commercials and yawn-worthy advertising that perpetuates gender stereotypes that don’t represent my experiences. But while I was happy to see that most agencies had steered clear of cliché and sexist advertising, I was incredibly disappointed to see a lack of any women.

super bowl women advertising

Women influence 80% of consumer spending, yet comprise only 3% of creative director roles (Fast Company). This year, women accounted for 49% of Super Bowl viewers, and women were 26.1% more focused on the ads (Forbes). While I couldn’t care less about the Eagles or whoever Tom Brady plays for, I may be in the minority— women were also over 27% more likely than men to be paying attention during the game. With this near even split of viewers, it seems inexplicable why companies would alienate nearly half of their audience after blowing mad bank on that ad space. Why are women in advertising, and in particular at the Super Bowl, being left unvoiced?

Super Bowl to Super Barrage

If most advertising is being created through a dominant male lens, there’s a bias. You only see one perspective and it likely isn’t representative of your experiences. Oy, that’s dangerous! We are bombarded by advertising and marketing—billboards, radio, television, social media, movies, retargeting, digital ads—everywhere, throughout our entire day. We are progressively exposed to more and more of someone else’s reality.

The lack of women in advertising tells us a story about the importance we (don’t) have, the roles we (can’t) play and the space we (shouldn’t) take up.

Walker-Smith says we’ve gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970s to as many as 5,000 a day today (CBS). It’s naive to think we aren’t influenced by this constant barrage. The narrative we put out there is what we get fed back, double time. To be constantly bombarded with women in stereotypical roles, or even absent, is extremely harmful.The lack of women in advertising tells us a story about the importance we (don’t) have, the roles we (can’t) play and the space we (shouldn’t) take up.

Changing the Numbers of Women in Advertising

There’s hope, though! Let’s change those pathetic numbers of women in advertising, and how women are percieved in the narrative of the media. The 3% Movement made a new Bechdel Test for ads, establishing that to “pass” a commercial needs to:

  1. Have a woman in it
  2. Have that woman defying a stereotype
  3. Be the hero.

I’m a big fan of the Bechdel Test for narrative works, and think it’s just as important—maybe even more so—to ensure that ads reflect women in advertising. Focus on our realities and are filled with our stories.  

6 Things You Can Do

You don’t have to be a woman in advertising or marketing to make a difference. Here are a few small things you can do to change the way women are perceived in the media and in your day-to-day life.

  1. Switch your pronouns. When I first started reading Seth Godin, something stuck with me, though it took me awhile to realize what it was. He used sentences like, “When you go to your CMO to ask her for more budget, she’ll want data.” Eventually I realized it was his pronoun usage. Even in hypothetical situations, we don’t often put women in places of power. Watch for it as you’re reading, and try to replace he with she, his with hers.
  2. Stop apologizing. Your questions aren’t stupid, and you don’t need to apologize when asking for things. So many of us excuse ourselves for asking a “dumb” question before we speak up in meetings. Once we stop apologizing for our presence, we’re able to have a more meaningful impact. I still use this insecure language sometimes, though I’m always working to address it. When I start acting like I’m confident, I actually start to feel more confident. Fake it til you make it, eh?
  3. Build up those around you. I am absolutely surrounded by amazing people doing amazing things. Photographers, developers, marketers, athletes, dieticians, social workers, teachers, etc. And these people that I look up to, I often hear them deprecating their work, making it seem trivial or mundane. As a firm believer in the power of humour and not taking oneself too seriously, self deprecating comments definitely have their place—we can all laugh at the absurdity of our careers and even our existence. But that line of thought shouldn’t be the most dominant one. When you introduce colleagues, friends and family, build them up. “This is my friend Brittany, she’s an amazing visual storyteller and has the ability to capture moments and document lives in a way that truly moves people.” Or when someone makes a comment devaluing themselves or their work, interject with the actual narrative. It’s easy to say and let others say this kind of thing, but for people who don’t know them or their work, they might just believe what is said. 
  4. Be an advocate in the subtleties. If you’re working on a project at work, do what you can to advocate a diversity in voices. Diverse teams make better decisions, and we get back from the world what we put into it. When I worked at a tech company, we decided to take a bunch of “stock” photos so we’d have a wide selection for our own marketing collateral. I was obnoxiously emphatic that they include women, and show women in places of power. It is just marketing, but I want the Google image search for “CEO” or “marketer” or “computer engineer” to turn up some less homogenous results.
  5. Correct language. Of course sexual assault, rape culture and all the issues raised in the recent feminist movements are problems. They’re big, societal, hard to tackle problems. But the subtle, chronic and unconscious ideologies can be just as damaging. If you hear a coworker call you or a peer “young woman” or “dear” or say something otherwise alienating, something that diminisheshes all her skill and hard work and turns her only into her reproductive organs, say something. This is really hard, and you might not be able to do it in every situation. Don’t feel guilt for the times you can’t, but take ownership for the times you can. Do it kindly and diplomatically, if you can. Being confrontational won’t make you any friends and makes your message far less likely to be well-received. I used to go to tech conferences for work, demoing and selling software. Once a man said to me “I see why they bring you to these conference.” I was livid, but calmly (?) said “What you couldn’t possibly know is that I bring back the most leads and have a track record of closing the most revenue at these conferences.” It wasn’t everything I wanted to say by any means, but I hope it made that guy hold his tongue at another booth on another day.
  6. Do not conform. You don’t need to act like a man to be taken seriously. Acting like a man—in the sense of acting in traditional gender roles, like aggressive, loud, immovable, etc—may help you be recognized by people in leadership positions that exhibit these qualities themselves more quickly. But we want—scratch that, need—to change the industry. Emphasize your strengths and don’t get lost in acting like a woman or a man. In my experience, the people who have excelled at their jobs are often somewhat androgynous in their character traits. They have the best of both worlds. When the timing is appropriate, they use their voices, loudly. They also listen, a lot. Sometimes they spout motivational speeches, and sometimes they cry in front of their teams. Be who you are, and work on addressing your weaknesses.

I know that addressing the gender gap isn’t the only thing we need to work on, and that where gender intersects with race, sexual orientation, poverty or anything else, addressing this problem gets even more difficult. But I have hope that small changes can lead to big changes. Little actions, big impact. I’m an eternal optimist and believe that things are changing for the better. For women in advertising, and also for women in any workplace. 

I’d love to hear your ideas on how we can make things better together. Connect with me or comment below.

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