Confronting sexism in the marketing industries – women react to The Drum's Women in Marketing study

The golden age of advertising is dead. And with it, the days of endless lunches and whisky in the office. And, for the most part, the sexism that went with it. But with almost half of the women in the marketing industry experiencing it during their careers, The Drum spoke to a cross-section of successful women from across the marketing, advertising and digital industries to explore what can be done to banish the boys club back to the Mad Men era and break through that glass ceiling once and for all.

Almost half (49 per cent) of over 500 respondents to The Drum’s inaugural Women in Marketing study said they have experienced sexism at some point in their careers, with many suggesting that casual sexism is still implicitly accepted. In the free-thinking, supposedly inclusive creative industries, this “low-level casual sexism”, as one respondent put it, can and does have a truly damaging effect on women’s self-esteem, progression and development. By inviting the industry to share its experiences for The Drum’s Women in Marketing anonymous survey, we found women sharing their thoughts on social exclusion, overt discrimination and a ‘boys club’ mentality – and that’s before even taking a look at institutional sexism. Several respondents cited inappropriate comments and advances from male colleagues, while several more complained of feeling patronised by men in the workplace and missing out on promotions in favour of their male counterparts.Here, a cross-section of women from the worlds of advertising, digital, design and marketing converge to share their reactions to the research, and offer their thoughts on what the industry can and should be focusing on in order to combat discrimination against women.

Vonnie Alexander, MD, Kitcatt Nohr

I can safely and personally say that I’ve experienced sexism at work; it has the potential to damage your self-confidence and career. My experience was deeply unpleasant, but also life-changing, in a good way. It strengthened my resolve, and it made me want to stand up as much for myself, as for other women – at the time the women around me who knew what was happening quietly applauded. I recommend that women who encounter sexism in the workplace should confront it, and crash through that glass ceiling. I would also ask that the men (and sometimes women) who are guilty of it take a moment to think about their own mothers, wives and daughters, a little more often.

Laura Jordan Bambach, creative partner, Mr. President, president, D&AD and co-founder, SheSays

Sadly these statistics are disappointing but not surprising. Our industry has been slow to change. Women still account for only three per cent of all creative directors and a very small proportion of board-level directors. Its why SheSays plays such an important role (alongside many other organisations, such as 50/50) in trying to both change things, and raise awareness of the issue of sexism in the creative industries.But with a renewed interest in talking about these problems (inspired in part by digital platforms such as Everyday Sexism) I’m positive that the conversation will gain momentum and change will happen.

Tiffany St James, executive director of Bima, director of Stimulation and TED speaker

At 21 I attended an Exporting to China seminar. I was one of three women in a room of 500 people, a statistic that hopefully is unusual today. Having worked in male-dominated industry in my early marketing career, and seeing and experiencing sexism, it’s encouraging to now feel that there is a seismic shift against sexist behaviour, it being outmoded as well as just plain wrong. Although it's dispiriting to see half the women having faced sexism in the workplace over their career length in this survey, wouldn’t it be wonderful to run the same survey in a decade, hoping we see a sharp decline in those incidences? As the marketing services and digital industries evolve, we must remain mindful to see the benefit of different styles and natural talents of both sexes working closely together. Let us be bold enough to challenge role and sector stereotypes for ourselves and the people we influence, encouraging both sexes to explore careers in once single-sex dominated fields.

Amy Kean, head of consumer innovation, Havas

This research is a blessing and a curse. Whilst it highlights an important issue which should be welcomed, it also serves to remind us that casual sexism is still very real and very common, which is extremely depressing. Unfortunately once you're reminded of this you start to notice it in every email, meeting and water cooler conversation. For me, the 'glass ceiling' is less of an issue than our inherent, learned, subconscious beliefs and assumptions. With this in mind, what we need to work on as an industry is those snap judgments that are far more ingrained than any equality law. Beliefs and prejudices like ‘men are better sales people and have more authority and women are great PAs. Men are fantastic leaders and women are controlling, bossy and have something to prove. Men tell it how it is, whilst women are highly strung’, and so on.The main conclusion we can draw from this research is that HR departments need to work harder to address the subconscious bias that has been learned – probably from as early as the classroom – what is and isn't socially acceptable gender-specific behaviour.

Abi Ellis, group creative director, DigitasLBi

Before Sheryl gave us ‘lean in’, I’d been doing so for quite some years. In fact, at times I’m almost horizontal, with my nose grazing the ground. Maybe that’s why I really don’t feel discriminated against as I go about this job I love. Our industry is not for the faint hearted. It favours the bold, the brazen, the brave… whether you are a bloke or a bird. I’m sure there are quite a few men who also feel passed over in the scrabble to the top, slamming their balding pates against another kind of glass ceiling. And, surely, the struggle to achieve the perfect work/life balance is not one faced by women alone. I’m lucky that throughout my career, I’ve been supported wholeheartedly by inspirational men, who couldn’t give a shit that I am a woman. It’s not perfect. But one thing’s for sure, only a fool would crack a sexist joke around me more than once.

Julia Smith, partner, The 614 Group

It is frustrating to see that the results show that many women are still battling against discrimination in today's industry. This industry may still be male dominated – I moderated two panels recently comprised of all men. However, there are an increasing number of female groups such as DAWN and WIE Network which can help women with mentoring, training and advice – all of which are needed for us to have confidence in our abilities.

Shirley Au, president and COO, Huge

Digital and design industries operate differently to advertising or media agencies. Having shot up since the 90s, there aren't so many old-school veterans running the show, and there are plenty of women in senior positions. That's not to say I haven't experienced sexism in the workplace. But this has been limited to cultures outside Europe or the US, and occasionally – and I feel this has as much to do with my age as my gender - when dealing with men running more traditional agencies. Those whose views hark back to another time will be missing out significantly if not open to hiring or promoting female talent. My advice to women is to be confident in your abilities. There are plenty of companies with environments that foster hard work and creativity in all staff. There's no reason to stick around if you feel you're being passed over for opportunities. Women make up 50 per cent of leadership across Huge and half our offices are run by women. In all honesty, I very rarely consider my gender or anyone's gender and I don't see any sexist issues arising on the floor here. I trust that anyone acting offensively would be put in his or her place, regardless of gender.The full results of The Drum's Women in Marketing Study can be found in the 28 May issue of The Drum.

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