But data collected from the third annual salary survey prepared by Altschuler, Melvoin & Glasser for Advertising Age suggests the situation isn't as prevalent as in other industries.
The glass ceiling-a level women "theoretically" rise to, see the path to the top but can't break through-is supported in the study by a salary gender gap and a high ratio of males to females holding down similar titles.
The new survey considered gender among several issues involved in compensation. However, demographics like age, family, race, education, mobility and experience were not solicited-and would need to be for a comprehensive review of the glass-ceiling issue.
Identifying pay levels for seven agency middle-to-upper management positions and four top-tier posts within corporate marketing departments (see story on Page S-2 for general salary and raise information), the survey indicated women drew salaries 5% to 20% less than men per position.
Jobs like chief copywriter and art director carried mid-range differentials (11.1% and 7.9%), probably because employees rise quicker to these posts, thereby minimizing age and experience, factors often on the side of men.
Another title with a similar pay chasm-creative director-shows males averaging $86,900 in base pay and female CDs $78,800, a 10.3% differential.
Good for women? Not exactly. Of that CD salary pool, some 77% was held by men.
Indeed, males hold the majority of executive positions surveyed, except for agency account exec and media director, claimed 64% and 71% by women.
Even in these positions, women averaged from $5,000 to $10,000 less than men.
The salary gap between the sexes is just as pronounced among marketers, where the ratio of men to women per post is even higher than at ad agencies.
The pay discrepancy among marketers is widest for VP-product manager. Men average $107,500 in base pay, some $20,400 more than women, and outnumber them 3 to 1.
The gap is smallest among VP-brand managers. The title drew the largest number of women, at 30%. The gender pay spread was only 5.3%, or $97,500 for men and $92,600 for women.
The top marketing post surveyed, VP-marketing, carried the second narrowest pay spread, 5.7%, but also had the smallest share of women in the post at 17%.
CEO, the highest level solicited on the agency side, had a 25.8% gap, the largest among all ad agency and corporate marketing positions surveyed. The CEO gender percentage split, 14/86, also was the lowest for women among all positions.
The AM&G survey echoed gender pay gaps found in a study of the Chicago area workforce by Women Employed Institute and Office for Social Policy Research at Northern Illinois University.
In that study's job category breakout covering managers in marketing, advertising and PR, the female/male earnings ratio was 0.628 on an annual basis in 1990, based on census data identifying 24,885 managers. That was up from 0.516 ten years earlier from a larger population base of 27,420.
Women also rose from 13.7% of that job census in 1980 to 31.7% in 1990, the latter share approximating the number of women managers in all U.S. industry, according to Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Among all industries, women's earnings equal 70.6% of men's on an annual basis, according to a study in 1990 by the bureau. That compared with 61.7% in 1980.
The bureau says the spread is less dramatic when viewing earnings on an hourly basis because women tend to work fewer hours than men. The hourly wage spread narrows to 79.4%.
Data show all women's wages moving up about 1 percentage point per year compared with men, although the real income for men (aged 25-34) dropped by $8,381 between 1973 and 1992. Conversely, real earnings for women have risen $1,401 in the same period, according to National Committee on Pay Equity, an independent nonprofit coalition.
Ironically, such accelerated growth in the number of women moving into management ranks noted by the Chicago study may encourage the glass ceiling.
"There is evidence that shows the more women in an occupation, the lower the pay scale," says Kelly Jenkins, program coordinator at NCPE.
"There also is the so-called job enlargement phenomenon where employees just below the senior ranks, particularly women, are asked to carry a heavier load at their same pay or a slightly higher pay," says Ms. Jenkins.
They don't get the higher job that was eliminated, generally through downsizing. That lost job might have pulled them through the glass ceiling, she adds, admitting there's no hard data quantifying the theory.
Hiring theories abound in the workplace, and one of the more intriguing ones is a takeoff on the old-boy network: Women in charge of hiring, hire more women.
A woman ad executive doesn't see this as a "bra-burning drive" to correct a social ill; it's more subtle than that.
"The hiree is more likely to be a woman even when she doesn't seem quite as good as the man. She's good enough," she says.
Mr. Gaines is advertising/-communications industry group chairman at AM&G, a U.S. accounting and consulting organization.
R. Craig Endicott contributed to this story.