By Published on .

Recently, when a large regional office of a multinational agency held a golf day for creatives, the men were invited to play but the women were expected to stay behind at the office. The action came as a shock because the unfairness was so overt.

As recently reported, the issues women face in most creative departments are far more subtle (AA, Nov. 10). But as our research confirms, while subtle, the problems are very real and are a major reason why female creatives continue to remain a minority long after women have assumed a more dominant role in other agency departments.


We recently surveyed 21 agencies, including five of the 10 largest in the U.S., and found women to make up about 60% of account service but only 35% of creative. To understand why, we spoke with 23 executives and freelancers with an average of 16 years experience. The interviewees were guaranteed anonymity to encourage frank responses. Their answers add new dimensions to Creativity's portrait of the creative culture and also suggest a way to correct the gender imbalance.

Recruitment of entry-level women is not the issue. The problem is retaining them after they've gained a few years' experience. Certainly, some female creatives leave to spend more time with their families. And, clearly, the conflict between work and home is far more severe for creatives than for those in other departments.


A freelance art director in the Southeast said, "In creative, unlike any other area, you're often out on shoots for a month at a time, and that makes it difficult if you're trying to raise young children." The head of human resources at a large Manhattan shop echoed the point, noting that, while 27 women in her agency's creative department were married, only two had children.

While some women choose to leave, many others find the creative culture unfriendly, at best, and say it forces women to consider other options. Whether the creative department is a boys club or not, the interviewees said that to be accepted, women definitely have to become one of the guys.

"To get along," said a West Coast senior art director, "you have to curse and make jokes about sex and belching and all the other things guys find funny." In fact, a female art director on the East Coast came to fit in so well that one of the men in her department asked her to be the best man at his wedding. So she got a tux and a black skirt and stood beside him at the altar.

The problem is that women are expected to be like guys in all respects but one -- aggressiveness. As a freelance writer in Chicago observed, "If a guy fights hard for his ideas, he's respected; but a woman who fights the same way gets labeled 'difficult'."

It's a catch-22. If women don't fight for their best concepts, the ideas die and they don't have the kind of work that will get them promoted. But if they do fight, they're labeled "difficult" and that can hinder their advancement.


None of those we spoke with indicated their agencies discriminate against women. In fact, most said their agencies want to hire women. The real issue, they say, is more subtle and is reflected in the way work is assigned and evaluated. The problem is best suggested by the comments of a male executive creative director at a highly respected East Coast agency. He said that even though he looked to hire and promote women, his department remained heavily male. And he attributed that to the fact that the work he most admires has a "traditional male sensibility."

The interviewees talked again and again about the frustration that came from having their work criticized for being "too soft" or "too feminine." One writer said her creative director complained that her work "sounded like a woman wrote it." She told him a woman had, but revised the work to give it a "more smart-alecky tone." The majority of the interviewees noted that all too often a woman's point of view is not valued. And they found it frustrating to have to adopt a male tone especially when so many consumers are women.


But the way work is assigned is of even more concern. All agreed they received good assignments. But almost half of the women believed their creative directors felt more comfortable with guys and seemed to trust them more easily. And that, many of them felt, caused the men to receive a larger percentage of good assignments. An art director in Chicago said, "Sure, I get my shots at jobs that can win awards, but I get a lot fewer of them than the guys. Especially considering all the housekeeping stuff I have to do." An award-winning writer on the West Coast echoed that feeling, noting, "I feel like I have to fight a lot harder for plum assignments. But," she added, "maybe I'm just being paranoid."

And that's the difficulty. The problem is so subtle it's hard to detect. But if the interviewees are even partially right, such attitudes can have a chilling effect on individual careers by denying women the creative opportunities that lead to industrywide recognition and advancement. In fact, a number of interviewees pointed to the scarcity of women in the One Show awards annuals -- not only as proof that women are under-represented in creative departments but also as evidence that the best assignments don't go to women.


Not surprisingly, many female creatives become so frustrated and disillusioned they either become freelancers or leave the business entirely. While this gender drain is a real problem, it's not an insolvable one. But the solution has to come from the top.

Significantly, of the 21 shops we surveyed, the one where women make up almost half the creative department is also the one whose CEO made a commitment to hire more women and to create a more positive working environment for them. That suggests the problem can be corrected if agency leaders commit to doing so. The question, of course, is whether that's a commitment they're willing to make.

Mr. Weisberg, former president of New York ad agency Waring & LaRosa, is associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communications, University of Colorado at Boulder. Mr. Robbs, formerly VP and co-creative director, DDB Needham Worldwide, Washington, is director of the undergraduate

Most Popular
In this article: