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Is the ad world still gender-biased?

The advertising agency has come a long way since the Mad Man era when it comes to gender equality. But the real question is: has it come far enough?

According to Elisabeth Trotzig, head of Swedish self regulatory ad body Advertising Ombudsman, in 2014, of all of the more than 200 cases the organisation handled, 52% of complaints were on gender discrimination.

This went up 9% from the previous year. She said this was because Swedish consumers were very aware of this prominent issue in marketing and advertising.

“Gender equality is very high up on both the political front and the Swedish consumer mindsets today. Nearly 90% of complaints usually come from the consumers and are regarding the ads from the fashion industry. Consumer trust is a brand’s biggest asset,” she said.

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Meanwhile, author of Mad Women: A herstory of advertising, Christina Knight, said that for an industry that prides itself on being progressive and modern, the gender inequality is still quite “embarrassingly traditional”.

Knight, who has spent almost 30 years in advertising and is now a creative director for WPP’s INGO in Sweden, explained that she has often been the only woman on ad juries, events, award shows or panel discussions.

“It was almost as though I was only there to be the symbolic woman expected to represent all other women. The business world today is still very much defined by a male norm and the ad industry is no different,” she said.

Knight added that today inequality in the ad industry is no longer about the men getting handed the bigger accounts or roped into the important pitches and client meetings, but rather it is the subtle experiences such as not being part of the crowd or opinions going unheard.

These “slight discomforts” ultimately result in women dropping out of the ad scene and result in the creation of what Knight deems “mediocre work” by the creative industry.

She added that while advertising is supposed to mirror society, the lack of diversity present in the ad world creates work which is less relevant and insightful and which is “tone deaf” to the needs of the target group.

“How can middle aged white men know what young girls want today? It is sad that the people who populate ad agencies are not mirroring people out there.”

According to Knight, while clients have seen and asked for the need of diversity, and are actively asking for teams with diverse backgrounds, ad agencies have not met that demand with supply. The responsibility now falls on the shoulders of ad agencies to pick up the pace and integrate more women and add diversity to their portfolios.

Women in marketing need to lobby for their rights

Knight was also of the view that more women need to lobby and fight to have gender equality and rights in the ad world. She explained that women often put too much pressure on themselves to be exceptional whereas men get by with being simply “mediocre”, but having the aggressiveness to put themselves out there and market themselves better.

She advises that women who are already in the communications field take opportunities when given, be it speaking, presenting or teaching, to assert themselves into the ad world and influence the younger generation.

“Women have been told what and who to be through advertising,” Knight said.

Yet this field is still dominated by men. Speaking of the 1940s to the 1960s era, when the men were away at war, advertisements would often show women to be self sufficient and all capable. But once the war was over, women were once again encouraged to take their place in the kitchen and in the home through the same ads and companies.

These were all narratives created by the ad world, she explained. Hence, today, more than ever, women are needed in the ad field to empower the gender for the future.

“Moreover, women today are the growing economy and are holding the money. They are no longer the niche, but rather the main market.”

Actively promoting women in the ad world are also young ad industry executives Sophie Lokko and Ellinor Ekström. The pair recently came up with GuldvÄgenpriset (The Golden Wave awards) this year in a bid to award the ad agency and marketing organisations that are not only good at communication, but also create a good workplace regardless of gender.

Partnering with the firm Add Gengerm, which is a consulting company that helps companies and organisations improve gender equality and diversity, the award hopes to create an equal society.

According to research, currently the top 20 earners in Sweden are all men with these men earning nearly four times that of the highest paid women. Also, 84% of ad agencies in Sweden today are owned by men. In the CEO position in the marketing and communications industry, a man earns 12,000 SEK more than women monthly.

“This needs to change. To get equal communication we need equal agencies. That is why we created GuldvĂ„genpriset,” the pair said.

The Embassy of Sweden in Singapore and the Swedish Institute paid for this journalist’s accommodation and trip to the event.

(Photo courtesy: Shutterstock)

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