Feature

Sexism in the creative department

Do female creatives need a pretty face and an even thicker skin to succeed, or is adland shedding its sexist past, Kunal Dutta asks.

Come in, sit down and take your clothes off." Not the consoling words of a doctor before a medical check-up, but how one woman remembers being summoned in for a creative review.

Yes, it was probably in jest. But if you thought sexist attitudes like this in advertising ended with the era of Mad Men, think again.

For sexism isn't dead. It's just more covert. And for a glimpse of it, look no further than the blogosphere where many creatives correspond anonymously. "Birds, eh? Mad as hats the lot of 'em," one wrote recently. "If they didn't have tits, I wouldn't bother talking to any of 'em."

Another post reads: "A lot of (production) reps really know their shit and are v nice, but a lot are shit. Nice tits, though."

These sentiments aren't exceptional. Not constrained by obligations of political correctness, blogs are frequently bombarded by creatives venting their inner voice, with women frequently in the firing line.

Of course, flippant anonymous comments on a niche (and relatively closed) blog don't necessarily reflect attitudes in the workplace. Perhaps, if anything, the blog provides an outlet for extreme opinions that don't actually ever see the light of day.

So have attitudes to females in the creative department changed? Well, yes, in theory. The idea of an industry where women are judged more on looks than ability certainly doesn't sit as comfortably in the 21st century as it did in the last. Look at how quickly adland distanced itself from the sexist portrayal of advertising in Mad Men earlier this year.

Indeed, as one female creative observes: "There was a time when you practically couldn't walk in the door of a creative department without a pair of Y-fronts, a string vest and a motorbike. That has changed dramatically."

Yet there is no doubt that beneath the good intentions, certain attitudes linger. The testosterone-fuelled conditions of many of London's creative departments make it a tough, and unappealing, arena for many women.

Of course, there are exceptions. Women such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty's deputy executive creative director, Rosie Arnold, M&C Saatchi's head of art and deputy creative director, Tiger Savage, and Saatchi & Saatchi UK's executive creative director, Kate Stanners, have all risen through the ranks and are the names instantly wheeled out to defend the cause of female creatives everywhere.

But while their talent certainly isn't in doubt, wider questions persist. One male creative director says: "The question you have to ask is, would these women have got to where they are if they weighed 40 stone?"

Plus, look at the way that Savage was lambasted last month after posing provocatively on the cover of Shots Magazine. Much of the creative community on either side of the gender divide were up in arms. But in an unusual inversion, many men criticised her talent and dusty trophy cabinet of recent years, while several women suggested that she had hampered the cause of her peers - doing little other than reinforcing old sexual stereotypes. "As a young female creative, I find it pretty depressing that there are so few successful females. Now one of the few we do have to look up to has reduced her career down to going on about shoes and getting her kit off," one post on Lunar BBDO's blog read.

It is often at this point that industry optimists tell you things are getting better. Yet figures suggest otherwise. Data from the last IPA Census suggested that male art directors comprised 79 per cent of the total in 2007 compared with 82 per cent in 2004 (that's a hardly celebratory 3 per cent drop), while male copywriters have increased from 77 per cent in 2004 to 78 per cent last year.

These figures are in stark contrast to most other advertising departments, including account management, planning and new business, where women are better represented. There is also the visible fallout of women who graduate from advertising college and fail to make it any further than five years into their career.

And that, of course, is only if they opt to become creatives in the first place. West Herts College, one of the UK's renowned schools for young creative talent, has seen the number of female applicants grow by just four this year - taking it from two out of 20 candidates to six. So why is the outlook so depressing? And what is it about creative departments that keeps women away?

The reasons are unclear but appear to include the demands of the job, job prospects, the quality of life, the long-term security (including maternity options) and the glaring absence of role models.

Much of this is underpinned by a fundamental difference in outlook. "I think it's a maturity thing, rather than a chromosomal thing," Gerry Moira, the chairman and director of creativity at Euro RSCG, says.

"Being a creative needs a Tigger-like tenacity and infantile enthusiasm. It's not that women can't cope, it's just that many don't have that adversarial appetite. If you're a creatively open-minded woman, alternative career options such as journalism, design, fashion or retail can seem more appealing than scrapping around in a creative bearpit."

It is a point endorsed by Tony Cullingham, the course director at West Herts College, who suggests the long-term outlook isn't as appealing for women: "Being a creative in advertising at the moment is brutal. It's tougher than before, there are financial pressures that lead to elements of paranoia and insecurity. Women tend to be good at sensing the emotional vibe within an agency very quickly and many seem to want careers that are more secure and offer long-term job satisfaction."

Certainly the long hours and toil for inspiration can often, indeed, come to nothing. And unlike many industries, where individual contributions are valued and feed tangibly into the overall cause, creative teams can find themselves isolated, frequently seeing their ideas, work and world view questioned or crushed. But outside of the demands of the job, the male-dominated environment can be daunting.

"The struggle and effort you have to invest in becoming a creative is intimidating enough. But in some agencies we've worked in, it can feel like you've arrived in an exclusive boys club once you get there," Mareka Carter, a female creative at BBH, says.

Yet, speak to advertising's most successful female creatives and the outlook is more optimistic. Most show an intrinsic defiance to be labelled as the vulnerable minority. "Departments tend to be made up of quick-witted people who enjoy sparring with each other," Stanners says. "It can be cynical, ironic, vicious and sexist in both directions. Everyone partakes in that. But because there are more men than women, it's often their voice that tends to get heard the loudest."

And do the sentiments found in the blogosphere echo within a department? "Creatives expose a lot of themselves to each other all the time," she says. "You'll certainly get the vicious tongues whose comments feel utterly distasteful and wrong, but when you're in the safe environment of knowing each other it can feel like you have earned that right without it being taken personally. It's a different situation to how it would feel if it came from a client, for example."

It is a point supported by Arnold, who brushes off the seriousness: "If it's delivered in the right spirit and you can give as good as you get, it shouldn't really be a problem. Besides which, I've got an older brother and two sons so I'm used to being teased."

Yet it is no secret that over her time in advertising, Arnold has had to fight hard for the rights of women in terms of negotiating both better maternity rights and a four-day working week to spend more time with her children. "None of these are given rights. You're still expected to complete the same amount of work, generate the same level of ideas and pull in the awards. It feels a bit like being Ginger Rogers. You're expected to do everything Fred does - but backwards and in heels."

But Arnold believes that a mixed management team and open-minded agency culture are key to nurturing a climate in which women feel free to assert themselves positively. "I love the fact that I haven't had to grow balls or become nasty and horrible or relinquish thoughts of having a family in order to be a success in the creative department," she says.

Which works for the senior female veterans of the business. But what about the younger female creatives? Ida Gronblom, a Swedish creative at Wieden & Kennedy, argues that the wisdom of working in a creative department only comes with time. "I was previously a fashion designer in Sweden and it came as quite a shock to change careers and move to the UK where the business is very male-dominated," she says. "But being 29, I had the confidence and self-awareness to know how to survive and not get too intimidated, which would have been tougher if I was younger."

Yet there is a younger breed of creatives with an innate self-confidence and feistiness that will almost certainly find the entry into advertising easier than those who come in with a total sense of wide-eyed wonderment. Alex Holder is a 24-year-old creative at WCRS, who cites the importance of knowing how to play the political game: "For girls coming into it, you have to have the same attributes as the boys. You've got to be thick-skinned and determined. And, of course, there's a lot of blokeish banter, but if you're going to be a girl in a male environment you have to learn to play that to your advantage. Use your feminine wiles."

It is indeed a point asserted by several female creatives. They take the opposite line to many male creative directors, asserting that women are emotionally better placed to deal with the pressures of being a creative. Kim Gill is part of an all-female team at Bartle Bogle Hegarty: "There are quite a few men who can get very upset when things don't go their way. I don't think girls naturally have the same levels of ego to get bruised easily."

Yet for all the women with the innate determination, desire and positivity to succeed in the face of adversity, there is a larger number that simply don't make it or even try in the first place.

It is for this reason that Ed Morris, the executive creative director of Lowe London, says that it is vital that talented young female creatives are nurtured. "If you took a random spectrum of women, many of them are calm, intuitive, sensitive types. Under the calm veneer, most creative departments are savagely competitive. It's essential to learn how to survive in this environment, but you also need to ensure younger female creatives are protected early in their career or they can end up dying in a ditch."

And this, it appears, is the key. Come down a couple of levels from the likes of Savage, Stanners and Arnold and there is a gaping absence of mid-level female creative heads. This in itself risks creating a vacuum where new female creatives cannot be properly nurtured by other women. Unless this is promptly addressed, it is hard to see how things can change in the long term.

That said, there is hope. Already many agencies and advertising schools are introducing positive discrimination into their selection process, but now many young male creatives complain how hard it has made it to get an interview.

Ultimately, it is not gender that will decide a creative career. Talent will. As Gill puts it: "Women can't just hope to have a successful career with a good face. If you don't have a continuous flow of good ideas, you'll come unstuck fairly quickly."

But at the very least, adland needs to foster a culture where women are given the best possible chance.

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