Five ways to get more female creatives to the top in advertising

If you do a Google Image search for ‘advertising creative director’, this is what comes up. It’s the ‘face’ of the industry: white, male, in black T-shirts. But does it have to be this way? Here, Ali Hanan, creative director and founder of Creative Equals, offers five practical suggestions for how we can get more women to the top.

Currently, writes Ali Hanan, only 11% of the world’s advertising creative directors are female. A recent study shows 70% of female creatives work in a department with a 75-25% male to female spilt. So as a female creative in your first job, you’re often the token woman in the corner.

And, as you look up, there are few female creative directors to mentor you. In London, only 14% of creative directors are women, which is maybe why 90% of young female creatives say they lack role models, according to the study by the Young Creative Council and Creative Equals, a new initiative to tackle the gender divide. Studies show men tend to mentor junior male talent or ‘people like me’, so male talent is earmarked for leadership roles early on – and with so few female creative mentors, young female talent misses out.

So how do we change as an industry? Here are five key areas we can tackle now.

1. Put female creatives on juries – and on stage

Look at many of the jury panels in the industry. Some you’ll see with a few ‘token’ women judges or in worst-case scenarios no women at all. Creative Equals is calling for all juries and awards speakers to be as balanced as possible and that imagery from the event needs to reflect diversity (to see it at its worst, check the Tumblr Too Many Guys One Girl, which has received some media attention of late). One of the reasons given for not having female judges is so few women are ‘known names’. This creates a double bind. If they’re never seen, they’re never ‘known’.

As ECD of Cheil, Caitlyn Ryan, says: “There is little point being the only different voice or view in the room – it needs to be closer to 50/50. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most awarded work in our industry is usually sports brands, beer and or male grooming products. Ads that are made by and for young men. Guess who’s judging the work – young men. Perhaps men should start refusing to sit on juries where there is less than at least 30% women.”

From the Tumblr Too Many Guys One Girl, which highlights the gender imbalance at ad award shows
From the Tumblr Too Many Guys One Girl, which highlights the gender imbalance at ad award shows

2. Don’t let motherhood be a barrier

Motherhood often dovetails with when women are moving up to more senior levels. Shockingly, the YCC and Creative Equals study showed 60% of young female creatives believe they can’t stay in the industry with a young family. Parenting is a joint responsibility, but in the early years, flexible working hours for new mums, new parent support groups within agencies and off-site working means they’re more likely to stay. One of London’s biggest agencies is looking at term-time working contracts, which will be an industry first, since at the moment many working parents – particularly women – find the only way around the nine-week school holiday period is freelance.

3. Hire more women on potential, not on proof

Research demonstrates men apply for a job when they meet 60% of the hiring criteria, while women apply when they meet 100% and are hired on ‘proof’ of their ability to do a job. The simple answer is to hire female candidates who have the ‘potential’ to do the job.

Recent award show jury reflects the urgent need for change in the industry
Recent award show jury reflects the urgent need for change in the industry

4. Creative conflict leads to better work

More than 85% of all purchasing decisions are made by a powerful, growing force of female consumers. Currently, 89% of the ads these women see are made from a male bias, which could be why research has shown that 91% of female consumers feel advertisers ‘don’t get them’. In the words of Cindy Gallop, ex-chair of BBH, hiring more females might feel ‘uncomfortable’ at first, but out of ‘creative conflict’ comes bolder work.

5. Move everyone up one rung

Lastly, to make sure change happens wider, deeper and faster, Creative Equals is asking agencies to look at how to move every female creative in the industry today ‘up one rung’. This involves a plan for action, with on-call mentoring, comprehensive training and a commitment to making sure the faces they have are ‘seen’ internally – and out on the industry stage. Agencies like AnalogFolk (the initiative’s pilot agency), JWT, DigitasLBi and Mr President are some of the names behind Creative Equals.

With more diverse perspectives, creative work could better connect with audiences. At best, the industry will gain more campaigns like the multi-award winning Like A Girl campaign for Always, championed by Judy John, CCO of Leo Burnett. At worst, ads like ‘Claire’s got a big one’, seen in the Metro last month (shown below) would never see the light of day.

Photo by Ali Hanan
Photo by Ali Hanan

Ultimately, with more female creative leaders curating and directing the ads that our powerful audience of female consumers see, we as an industry will better portray women in the media, create effective advertising for female consumers, and drive more sales for clients and brands.

To find out more about Creative Equals, visit

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