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Meet the young creatives who went undercover to prove ad industry’s gender agenda


By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

April 13, 2021 | 7 min read

An experiment by two ad industry juniors has revealed how newcomers to the industry are often treated differently on the basis of gender. The Drum catches up with the creative pair behind The Gender Agenda to hear about the findings of their study.

The Gender Agenda

essica Kielstra and Nina Forbes, also known as 'Emma & Hannah' and 'Liam & Harry' are the brains behind The Gender Agenda study

The Gender Agenda is the brainchild of Jessica Kielstra and Nina Forbes. As recent graduates looking to make their first steps into the workforce, it became clear to them they were experiencing gender bias before they had even walked through the doors of an agency.

This drove them to conduct an experiment that would prove the unconscious gender bias in the industry.

Kielstra and Forbes say the seed for The Gender Agenda was planted after a crit with an unnamed senior creative. “We are all used to the small, everyday sexisms and gender biases, but it was when we were on a crit with a senior creative who recommended we seek advice from another creative who is a known sexual assaulter that we knew we had to do something about it,” says Forbes.

“We felt for a long time that it was just us having these experiences, but when we started asking other people we know in the industry, we realized it was a shared experience,” says Kielstra. ”It was just that nobody was talking about it.”

The pair explain that because they are juniors without current placements or permanent contracts at an agency, they had no opportunity to turn to a line manager or indeed HR for support. “We felt left in the dark and on our own as a result of these experiences, but also felt we didn’t have the resources, nor the responsibility as junior creatives to find a solution,” says Kielstra.

“We realized that what we could do is tell those who have the resources to make change exactly what’s going on so that they can do something about it.”

Every Tom, Liam and Harry

Kielstra and Forbes were keen to gather tangible data on gender bias towards juniors in the industry and settled on concluding whether female graduate creative teams were really less likely to get opportunities than male ones. So the pair assumed new identities, both as men and women, to see if the number of book crit offers they received would change on the basis of gender.

To test their suspicions, the pair sent out 40 emails with a link to the portfolio of ‘Emma and Hannah’ and another 40 emails that linked to the portfolio of ‘Liam and Harry’.”

“We chose names that were clearly gendered either male or female and that were also likely to be associated with white people to rule out as many other factors as possible,” says Forbes.

The portfolios attached to the email, and all the work in them, remained the same with the only variables being the names of the creators.

The pair says that at first they only intended to measure the number of crit or placement offers received, but as the replies came in other patterns of behavior began to emerge. “We didn’t expect such stark differences in almost every category we tested,” says Kielstra.

Tone of voice

While both teams received the same number of responses – 14 each – the pair noticed the tone of those responses differed greatly according to the gender of the team being replied to.

“The level of mollycoddling extended to the women was really surprising and there was such a difference in the way the men’s team were addressed,” says Kielstra. It’s a question of whether women really need that, and whether men’s teams might also benefit from that kind of emotional reassurance – so it goes both ways.”

The duo also recorded data that revealed more friendly and informal language was overwhelmingly used in response to the male team, with greetings such as ‘Hi chaps’ used 20 times, as opposed to only once in response to the women’s team. Similarly, the men received higher usage of slang. The pair felt that this created a more friendly and relaxing line of communication for the men that could lead to advantages due to increased confidence.

Overall, the men received seven offers for crits while the women only received two. Despite the content of the book and email, as well as the number of requests and follow ups remaining identical, the men received more offers and more positive feedback than the women.

Best foot forward

Speaking on what the industry could do to make junior creatives feel empowered to enter the workforce, the pair say they would like to see a more open dialogue between agencies, senior creatives and young workers.

This follows an IPA report that shows significant differences in expectations of future working practices between men and women, as well as between white and Black, Asian or other ethnic minority backgrounds.

“I would love the opportunity to take this piece of work to an agency and request that they level the playing field,” says Forbes, “because it is about having a safe space where people can be open about their experiences.”

Kielstra says the industry has come to a point where most people acknowledge sexism exists within its walls, but that the next step to addressing inequality is to tackle unconscious biases and microaggressions.

“Agencies need to look at how they are communicating with juniors from day one, and how they are teaching their staff to communicate with each other. They need to consider how they are perpetuating all the little things that add to the experience of inequality.”

At present, efforts are being made across the advertising industry to increase diversity through methods such as training schemes and mentorships. However, these endeavors will only continue to pay lip service if they do not encourage a wide range of young people into the workforce – and, indeed, retain them once they are there.

The pair say they had hoped the experiment would prove their suspicions of gender bias in the industry wrong, but that the results and their experiences speak for themselves.

“We have a lot of friends who have given up trying to get into the industry because they are sick of these experiences,” says Kielstra.

“We decided to go through the process of making this study as our way of feeling comfortable staying in the industry. But the fact that we have to put ourselves in a position where proving our point could potentially ruin our reputation in the industry before we’ve even started is ridiculous.”

The pair conclude that with their data proving what’s really happening, it’s now on the industry to make steps towards change.

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