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Marketing Diversity & Inclusion Women

Where are all the women? It’s still a Mad Men’s world


By Nina Etienne, Global VP marketing

August 15, 2023 | 9 min read

Nina Etienne, VP of global marketing at SumUp, wonders why there aren’t more women at the top of the business. Are the men biased... or afraid, she asks?


Just a few days ago, John McCarthy, the opinion editor of the Drum, posted a call to action on LinkedIn for more female voices to contribute to the publication.

It wasn’t really an OMG moment. A publisher looking for more diverse voices, female representation, and women’s opinions in its commentary… well, it wasn’t even a new story. Not even a news story.

But is the fact that it’s not new news actually news?

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And is writing this age-old story of female under-representation, this story of neglecting female voices, this summary of old news - along with this tongue-in-cheek introduction - going to get my voice heard and change anything?

‘This is a man’s, man’s, man’s world’

James Brown sang it back in 1966. It’s a story of male decision-making, male enterprise and man’s success against the backdrop of a supportive but powerless female presence.

Yet isn’t it still the truth today? The world of work remains an unfair place for women. And if you don’t want to listen to my feminist commentary, you can listen to the facts and that oh-so-important objective data:

  • Less than 10% of the FTSE 100 CEOs are women (Google it).

  • It will take 132 years to get to gender parity (World Economic Forum).

  • Just 1% of the 1,400 North American ad agencies are run by women (4As).

  • 38% of C-suite roles in advertising are held by women (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising).

This last one’s not as bad as you might think (if you are a man in the 62%).

Above I cite some data points, yet there’s also an endemic lack of data on global gender diversity within and across the advertising sector. While agencies and clients commit individually to diversity, equity and inclusion policies and celebrate their on-paper commitments at all the right calendar moments, we don’t have a full data-driven picture of the true scope and scale of the underrepresentation of women.

And while businesses are slowly pushing for evolution (and celebrating the fact that the female pay gap in advertising has improved by 6% and is now only 17.4%), the communal revolution to the system and the systemic bias - for example, in hiring, pay equality, promotions, workplace flexibility and organizational culture - remains a long way off.

The problem isn’t that there are no women

Let’s get back to that social media post from John. Just a few days in, John had received 797 likes, 238 comments [editor’s note: it’s still rising] and issued a follow-up post stating that he had over 100 “amazing women” [editor’s note: it’s still rising] pitch him op-eds.

So the women are there. And they are ready.

Looking at the advertising industry, we know that overall there are actually more women working in the sector, 54%. This is much higher than the boy’s club of fintech (30%) or tech overall (28%). Stats are cobbled from various Statista reports and may vary in detail but not in the overall trend.

Despite this 54%, representation falls off a cliff as we scale up the “sticky” corporate ladder with all its broken rungs.

And this is where the real problem arises because - let’s face it - whatever your commitment to non-hierarchical organizational design, there are only certain tables at which decisions are made. Women are systematically underrepresented here - the tables where their voice matters most, where they could change things for other women.

And those rare women who make it there face disadvantages, obstacles and unconscious (and sometimes conscious) discrimination. Nishma Robb, VP of the advertising industry gender equality board WACL, was quoted recently saying that female leaders “face micro-aggressions in the workplace, alongside a lack of recognition and are also often overlooked for new opportunities”.

Have we really moved on from Don Draper, or are we still living in an aggressive, alpha-male ‘man’s man’s man’s’ world [that’s a call back to the James Brown song, not a typo]?

The women problem is a man’s problem

The most frustrating part about the issue of gender disparity is the onus on women to fix it, to create grassroots groups and forums to try to influence change, step by step, they say. But why is it on the disadvantaged group to fight for more advantage?

Isn’t it equally important for men to invite more women to the table and, when they’re there, to listen to them? And if this is not happening, why not? It must be either because:

1. Men are biased. Perhaps society hasn’t moved on, and the majority of men still believe women should perform traditional gendered roles. A good wife, a caring mum, and a domestic goddess.


2. Men are afraid. Perhaps men worry that women will do a better job than them. It’s certainly interesting that women-owned businesses earn twice as much revenue per dollar invested as male-owned businesses do (BCG 2018).

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Suppose you’re a man and get annoyed by what I’m writing here; good if you’re a man running or leading an ad agency and are getting annoyed, even better.

Because if you’re not biased and not afraid, then ask yourself what you’re doing to effect change, get us out of this mad(man) world, and make gender no longer a news topic.

Below are a few tips. Thank me later:

Change your hiring process: From how job descriptions are written to the interview selection and the final decision to hire to ensure you have an equal pool of talent that is reviewed fairly.

Change your feedback and performance process: Ensure you’re not perpetuating the stereotypical male leadership trope that you must be loud, outspoken, confident and aggressive (and a man) to be a successful leader and get promoted. Give women non-biased feedback and non-biased opportunities.

Review company culture: Ensure your day-to-day activities (meetings, presentations, social activities) fosters diversity and enable voices of women to be heard; reject microaggressions against women; have a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination; and make positive culture part of a performance requirement.

How you are personally an ally to women: Support women in rooms they’re not in; create training to help educate your teams on the importance of diversity; support female employee groups; set up surveys to get to the crux of the issue.

Assess whether you need to implement a quota or targets: if you’re not organically improving your representation, think about pushing this through more forcefully. Yes, there are pros and cons; likely, the pros outweigh the cons.

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