Marketing How Do You Solve a Problem Like... Career

How do you solve a problem like... gender bias in ad agencies?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

March 8, 2021 | 10 min read

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum, from brands, agencies and everything in between, for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

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How do you solve a problem like... challenging gender bias in ad agencies?

As International Women’s Day arrives once again, many in the industry are considering how they can do more to help achieve gender parity throughout the marketing sector.

Last year, it was reported that the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic on women could set progress on gender equality back 30 years. What can marketers and advertising agencies do to prevent the pandemic from arresting progress?

How do you solve a problem like... gender bias in ad agencies?

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Sarah DeCiantis, chief marketing officer, United Wholesale Mortgage

If you’re struggling to create an equal, inclusive and gender diverse workplace in 2021, you’re years behind the curve and putting your business at risk of extinction.

As a female leader who has worked in traditionally male-dominated industries, one of the most critical pieces of advice I could offer would be to have women in the room at all times.

Whether it’s the ideation of campaigns or office-wide policies, you need to have women and other diverse perspectives on hand to foster inclusivity, avoid missteps, generate well-rounded ideas and ultimately drive your bottom line.

At United Wholesale Mortgage, we run our marketing team like your traditional agency and we’ve been intentional in creating a team that’s diverse in gender, age, ethnicity, educational background and more. It’s a move that’s paying huge dividends for our brand and our culture as we inch closer to becoming the number one lender in America.

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Carol Tay, senior director sales for South East Asia, Verizon Media

Unconscious bias creeps in and presents itself in myriad ways, though it is especially harmful when perpetuated through ad copy and content. A talented and diverse team with unique backgrounds, identities and experiences will ensure that all business activities meaningfully connect and truly reflect consumers and society.

Seek diversity and create inclusion within your organizations, beginning from the hiring process through to nurturing and retaining people. Leverage diverse perspectives that will drive innovation, responsiveness, creativity and agility – important characteristics for agencies that seek to stay ahead and meet the fast-evolving needs of today’s industry.

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Vivian Chua, managing director, HP Singapore

Women remain underrepresented in the technology industry. According to IDC, women account for only 25% of senior leadership roles in tech companies in Asia Pacific. At HP, we actively champion diversity, equity and inclusion, and this includes making sure we have strong female representation, including in technical and leadership roles.

In Asia, women make up 45% of HP’s workforce across technical and non-technical roles, of which 35% hold leadership positions. We are extremely focused on strengthening our pipeline and this takes focus and intentionality, and we need to make sure we start even before these women become managers.

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Sarah Baumann and Becky McOwen-Banks, managing director and executive creative director, VaynerMedia London

Ad agencies have long been a boys’ club, so challenging gender bias is not one simple action but many. You need to look (start with an honest reality check for the need to change), listen (to discover where the unseen moments of gender bias come into play), welcome (make space for women, and acknowledge responsibilities outside of work), collaborate (remain humble and ask for help where your know-how is lacking) and speak up (call each other out wherever you hear, see or encounter gender bias). And you need to celebrate the wins, but never rest.

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Stephanie Marks, managing director, Havas Media

The pandemic has layered an extra dynamic on to a female working population that was already balancing on a knife-edge, and it was never going to take much for that to topple over. Agencies must now wake up to what being a working woman really means and create an environment to support this.

Lockdown has proved that flexible working can work, so agencies should continue to embrace this. It’s also about making multiple small gestures. For example, we sent a reassuring all-staff email when schools closed to make it clear people should put their family first, and we’ve laid on regular bespoke events for kids over lockdown.

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Sarah Douglas, chief executive officer, AMV BBDO

The biggest issue here is creative departments. They ought to be the most diverse departments in the world. You don’t help brands shape-shift through culture looking the same. Our Hatch program has helped us find more young female talent, and as the agency itself is totally gender-neutral, we hope this will follow.

But as with all DE&I progress, it takes intentionality, care and fluidity. For women, there’s undoubtedly a crunch point at motherhood, given the intensity at the sharp end of the creative process. We have to remember our output is nothing without humanity, therefore neither are our businesses.

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Isabella Mulholland, strategy partner, Wunderman Thompson

Our industry as a whole needs to redefine what success looks like, especially for women. It’s not about the KPIs of the past – the working hours, the salary, the job title – but the outcome and what it took to get there.

People are fearful. Women even more so. We see what is happening around us and we are scared of losing our livelihood. As a consequence, we take more than we can chew. Being busy in times like this is becoming an ugly social currency that is taking a big toll on women’s mental and physical health in particular.

We have a responsibility to change this narrative and create environments where empathy rules and programs are put in place to help all of us get through this together.

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Kasha Cacy, global chief executive officer, Engine

There has been a ton of progress in getting women into the C-suite, but there’s still more progress to make. The pandemic has shown us that people do not need to be in the office to be collaborative and creative. We need to dramatically reimagine the balance of work and family, and offer more flexibility for women.

At Engine, we have quite a few moms with very young children, and I know that the flexibility of being able to work from home has been greatly beneficial to both their work and home lives. And our recent national Insights survey showed that 78% of working moms want to continue working from home. The old ways will not be coming back.

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Rania Robinson, chief executive officer and managing partner, Quiet Storm

Balancing work and home responsibilities are one of the biggest barriers women face to progressing in the workplace. This is compounded by the perception that they will be less committed or have different priorities after starting a family (usually by their male bosses).

While we can’t influence the division of labor at home – outside of enabling shared paternity leave – implementing a more flexible way of working can help. This takes into account individual and personal circumstances so can minimize the potential fall-out where women feel unable to manage both workplace and home demands.

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Rukaya El-Turki and Tanya Brown, co-chairs, M&C Saatchi Group Equals Network

Challenging gender bias is as much about culture as it is about the output and it begins with being honest about the current state of play.

The second step is making yourself accountable for changing that, starting by facilitating conversation internally and creating safe spaces for honest, uncomfortable but necessary discussions.

We’ve launched several initiatives to raise awareness and make a change in the way we think about genders in our work. We will redress gender imbalance at the senior level and influence decision-making where gender bias can be considered a barrier to gender equality

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Nadine McHugh, president, ANA’s SeeHer initiative

Gender bias is bad for business. Research proves that ads that don’t portray women and girls accurately are less effective and can be corrosive to a brand’s reputation. Only 25% of women believe that the media usually portrays them accurately. Conversely, data shows that accurate portrayals of women and girls in advertising (and programing) lift sales/brand image between two and five times. And 81% of consumers agree that media is critical in shaping gender roles.

When we take this truth to ad agencies, it resonates. We support our partner shops with our Marketing Essentials Tool Kit, an organizing framework to embed gender equality into creation/production of messaging/content, and by providing metrics that agencies and content creators can measure bias in their work. That’s not just good for business. It’s the right thing to do.

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Eberé Anosike, diversity insights consultant, DECA Media Consultancy

There is a lot of learning and unlearning that still needs to happen to dismantle the structures which hold back women. In 2020 we saw an undeniable shift in global consciousness; people are realizing that it’s far better to speak up than pretend issues don’t exist.

When we recognize talent is not just able-bodied or heterosexual but those from different races and diverse communities, we will start to reflect what womanhood looks like accurately. Otherwise, we continue to paint fictitious stories of our society. If we want to make a real change and challenge gender bias, we must have an authentic representation of women.

Want to join the debate? Email me at to be included in future editions of this series.

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