Where are all the feminists in advertising?


The advertising landscape in South Africa has only just started to make headway on transformation, with some agencies leading the charge in making significant change to the industry and country. With our day-to-day focus on achieving genuine transformation, the industry- digital advertising in particular, has to remind itself to keep an eye on gender disparity.


Just this week Google were in the headlines with one of their engineers distributing a rather disturbing internal memo. His opinion on gender equality included this landmine: “Distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership”.


Thankfully, he was promptly dismissed for “perpetuating gender stereotypes,” and violating Google’s Code of Conduct, but this latest headline on gender discrimination highlights a bigger problem globally in our industry. Let’s scratch the surface and look at it from a South African perspective. This year only 23% of the Bookmark judges were women, there are an alarmingly small number of female Managing Directors and event fewer Executive Creative Directors or Creative Directors. Taking a look on LinkedIn, you will be lucky to find one woman listed on the first page when searching for Digital Creative Directors. This is a disturbing fact and it is even worse when you consider the work we produce for our clients. Women provide unique insights and valuable perspectives that are indispensable when it comes to creating truly inclusive work. Collaboration is nothing without diverse viewpoints, and collaboration is a key component in the rise of digital.


It was inspiring to see gender being addressed at last year’s Loerie Awards. Suhana Gordhan (Creative Director, FCB) delivered an impassioned speech as she accepted her new position of Loeries Chairman, discussing her challenges in the industry and the huge challenges she had to overcome to succeed. I am hopeful that Suhana can keep the conversation alive and position the Loerie Awards to be a positive change agent in our industry.


You can’t spend 5 minutes online without seeing a story about sexual harassment or gender discrimination in the digital marketing or technology landscape. Between Uber, Kevin Richards from Saatchi & Saatchi and even Elon Musk’s Tesla, the stories are real and they are alarming. Our industry has a problem and we all, men and women, need to embrace the ideals of feminism to change the status quo.


Actress and activist, Emma Watson said it best with her quip, “If you stand for equality, then you’re a feminist. Sorry to tell you.”


Understanding that equality isn’t just achieved by providing exactly the same to male and female staff, it’s about tailoring our working environments to be personalized to individual needs, providing the foundation for women to be successful. The opportunity to have a child without it affecting your career, the opportunity to be considered stoic instead of icy, the opportunity to be respected and heard at the boardroom table without being considered “bossy”.


We need to strive to be more conscious, we need to use our position in the industry to make a difference, to empower our women and girls. We need to address how we can affect change from ground zero. How are we hiring, how are we training, how are we identifying bias, are we paying fairly, what are we doing to move away from the established stereotypes?


The power we have working in advertising is to change perceptions with our work. As Marc Pritchard from P&G said about their #SeeHer campaign, “With advertising, we can make gender equality normal. It’s all about your cognitive processing. We’re focused on a mission to make sure advertising accurately reflects women and girls.”


So, I challenge you to consider what you are doing to make a change, at its simplest, to make this an industry you would want your daughters to work in. I leave you with a poignant quote from Prince Harry, “We know that when women are empowered, they immeasurably improve the lives of everyone around them – their families, their communities and their country.”