In ad world, boys vs. girls isn't black-and-white issue

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Why aren't there more highly ranking female creatives?

A: Chicks just aren't funny. And, face it, funny = creative.

B: Girls can't handle the cut and thrust (heh, heh: thrust) of the creative process-the vulgarity, the bullying of ideas through the system, the strip clubs. That's a man's game.

C: Questions are hard. Let's go shopping!

D: There are only so many tampon accounts to go around.

E: Most women are, essentially, reproduction-crazed and will eventually cave in to the primordial desire to "suckle something" and be thenceforth terminally hobbled as functioning creatives.

This isn't a joke you say? Sure it is. It's a joke that we're even talking about this outside of Afghanistan in 2005, and the hilarity continues with the fact that if you're over 30, some of you-you know who you are-believe at least one of the above.

Option E, of course, is the rationalization for the dearth of female creative leaders evoked by outgoing WPP creative elder statesman Neil French. Mr. French famously went off on ad sisters at a recent event in Toronto in response to the aforementioned question. In a later interview, he asserted there was no pigism intended; he was merely articulating cold, hard truths: being a creative director is a hell of a job, and anyone interested in looking after a family just can't devote the required time and energy.

Forget whether we should bury Mr. French for spewing the retrograde venom expected from the old guard or praise him for having the, um, balls to speak a touchy truth. (Too late for that anyway. Funny how the industry laments the loss of ad "characters" when we clearly can't cope with them anymore.) Are there actual issues here?

"It seems like a bizarrely Victorian conversation," Bartle Bogle Hegarty London Executive Creative Director John O'Keefe said of the debate, calling Mr. French's comment an "idiotic outburst." "I look around this agency and I see a lot of women and a lot of them have children and they are important," said Mr. O'Keefe. "We would be knackered without them."

And yet there's the little matter of the numbers that interrupt our smug meritocratic pretensions-tiny little numbers of female creative leaders in two of the world powers of advertising, the U.S. and the U.K., where females represent over 80% of the buying power for the stuff being advertised. In the U.S., there are four women leading the creative departments of major agencies; in London, two.

"The number of women in high-ranking positions in creative departments is dismally low," said McCann Erickson Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Joyce King Thomas. "The real explanation for the shortage of women creative directors is the same explanation for why women aren't adequately represented in high-ranking corporate positions or politics. Things aren't equal."

Job-specific?

There has never been a shortage of institutionalized biases against women doing one thing or another in any area of society (see also Larry Summers, the Catholic Church, Focus on the Family), but is the gender gap in the creative department a more job-specific problem?

Other professions, surely, have a better representation of women at the top. On the time investment/difficulty scale, being a lawyer isn't exactly dog walking, and women are all over that profession. Or are they? Women make up upward of 50% of law students, and studies put the percentage of female lawyers at 30% to 35%. But a recent study indicates that women comprise 16% of partners at major firms (up not much from 12% in 1993).

So maybe the vast, sexist conspiracy theory isn't off base. According to Nancy Vonk, Ogilvy & Mather Toronto co-chief creative officer and the author of a much-discussed online rejoinder to French's comments, "Coming out of schools it's 50/50, but then [women] disappear. They go out of the business." But nobody has a clear explanation of what happens in between junior copywriter and chief creative.

Mr. French's family/work hours theory is a facile way to explain the drop-off. "French does have a point that senior-level creatives should be 100% dedicated to their jobs," said Kathy Delaney, president-chief creative officer at Deutsch, New York. "However, he has a very narrow view. You can be 100% dedicated to your job without 100% of your time being spent as a creative director."

Marie-Catherine Dupuy, vice-chairman and chief creative officer, TBWA France, and mother of four, puts it a deliciously Gallic way: "You always have this stupid question, `How can you manage private life and business?' Nobody asks this question to men. But men also have children, a wife, a dog, friends, sports and, of course, the mistresses-this takes a lot of time, too."

Once you start looking at some of the other explanations typically offered, things get even trickier. There's the temperament argument-some have surmised that women would rather do the work than be the ego-driven ringleaders. But that seems as old school an assumption as any other. And then there's the wear and tear from less than enlightened male bosses-the crap accounts, the big and small daily reminders that you don't belong. But many male and female CDs would suggest that's just life in the big city.

As the careers of Ms. Vonk, Ms. Dupuy and Ms. Delaney attest, working in an agency headed by someone who doesn't discriminate encourages talent to shine and removes handy excuses-even if such shops are an exception. Said Ms. Delaney, "Maybe I live in a bit of an ivory tower, but in my 13 years at Deutsch I haven't encountered any biases. When you put your head down, bust your ass and come up with great ideas, you win."

Ms. Vonk said she's been inundated with tales of testosterone terror since the French saga began. But it's harder to pinpoint and call out the more insidious transgressions-even harder without sounding whiny. (Hey, why did the editors immediately ask a woman to do this story?)

"Why aren't there more female creative directors?" asked Anomaly Creative Director and father Ernest Lupinacci. "Why aren't there more female film directors? Or CEOs, or CMOs? Or senators and congressmen? Ultimately, this is a sexist business category inside a sexist business community inside a sexist country."

At the risk of making a discussion of gender bias into an exercise in ageism, questions like these will likely subside as a younger generation comes up. Ms. King-Thomas said she's pinning her hopes on them. "My two teenage sons learned early on that women can do anything. They also learned that when they make a big, fat mistake, there's only one thing to do. Apologize."

Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity and Adcritic.com

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