Close-Up: Live issue - Is the advertising industry sexist?

Less money, fewer big jobs and maternity worries. Does sexism still exist, Kate Nettleton asks.

"A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she adjust to prejudice and discrimination." These words, written by Betty Friedan in her 1963 novel The Feminist Mystique, ignited the feminist campaign to try to eradicate gender inequalities in the workplace.

Forty-five years on, accusations of institutionalised sexism should be a thing of the past, yet with the IPA Census revealing that women occupy just 16 per cent of advertising's senior managerial roles, it seems that the industry is still allowing gender prejudice.

Although the days of overt sexism may well be over, many senior female agency heads still admit to having faced sexist attitudes, from laddish male-dominated clients, to witnessing a noticeable preference towards male candidates.

Amanda Phillips, the chief executive of Proximity, admits: "When interviewing women for senior positions, people still look for clues to indicate whether she's thinking of having children before appointing them. It's that gender drain that stops you moving forward."

Some argue that this irritation towards, and bias against, those women who wish to pursue their maternal instincts has created a kind of "occupational segregation"; whereby talented women are being forced into lower paid, lower status jobs.

This is particularly prevalent within the creative sector, where a "publish or perish" culture is denying women the flexibility to have children and maintain a creative career.

Kate Stanners, the executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, and one of very few female senior creatives, believes that this female creative deficit is attributable to women's personality traits: "Creative departments can be very difficult to get into and you have to be quite bullish, have a degree of arrogance and be thick-skinned - and those are all very male attributes."

The rise in the number of women client-side has also gone some way to help eliminate any preferential treatment towards male-dominated agencies, and there are now some examples of agencies where senior-level gender inequality is no longer an issue. For instance, both Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and Proximity are run predominantly by women.

However, these examples are like needles in a very large haystack. And even if escalation to the upper echelons of senior management is becoming easier, once women reach the top rung of the ladder they still face fiscal discrimination. The service industry remains the worst offender in terms of pay differentials, with male directors earning an average of £70,657 while their female counterparts earn just £56,933.

Farah Ramzan Golant, the AMV chief executive, says: "The pay gap remains one of the best kept secrets of our industry, and it's important for people like me to normalise that and ensure that all things are equal between those who are rising up the ranks."

As well as redressing the imbalances in wages and stifling any subconscious consideration of a woman's maternal commitments, agencies need to ensure their culture values women. This involves a tricky balancing act between the needs of the individual and those of the agency.

While women need to be provided with good maternity policies and reasonable client portfolios that won't require them to travel frequently if they have children, the male members of staff must also be nurtured to prevent them feeling embittered by any preferential treatment.

Not only should agencies be actively trawling the maternity returnee pool for talent, women also need to play their part and push harder to get what they want.

"Women are more polite when it comes to making demands. Our soft feminine skills, that are very good for building harmonious relationships with clients, perhaps work against us and make women less equipped to make demands about pay and promotions," Phillips says.

However, some women have found their femininity to be advantageous. Annette King, the managing director of OgilvyOne, argues: "This isn't good for feminism, but I take a positive out of being in the minority. It hasn't held me back at all, it has actually helped me because you're unique and you bring a different perspective."

Advertising may not be an overtly sexist industry, but as long as women remain a minority at senior levels, combating veiled gender bias needs to remain high on every agency's agenda.

- Got a view? E-mail us at

AGENCY CHIEF - Farah Ramzan Golant, chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"I can't say I've been blighted by sexism, but there have been moments with regard to very male- based clients that I encountered as a young woman. Rather than railing against it, you have to be sophisticated in the way you handle it - you have to finesse it and be so good that you bust the prejudice.

"There has been a rise of senior women client-side that is a helpful force and has allowed women to rise up the ranks on our side.

"But we still have to make sure the environment allows diversity and ensure your culture doesn't eliminate women. This means recognising the needs of women through good maternity policies as well as getting maternity returnees back in the system."

CLIENT - Amanda MacKenzie, group marketing director, Aviva

"I'm not so sure it is sexist. I don't think people are intentionally and knowingly sexist - you get the odd soul who is, just as you'd get the odd female who is prejudiced in a different way.

"As a general rule, it isn't an issue for me because so many of the men I work with have grown up in a generation where their mothers have worked. The issue, however, is that it is still quite hard to have a family and a working husband and be successful - but I don't necessarily think that's the fault of sexism."

MEDIA AGENCY CHIEF - Ita Murphy, managing director, MindShare

"Media in the late 80s and early 90s was not for the faint-hearted. Since then, the industry has matured and so have (most of) the men. Most senior successful women today would have been given a stark choice when they had children: 'Give 100 per cent commitment or your career is pretty much over.'

"The biggest barrier to women reaching the top is not sexism, it's the constant stress of juggling motherhood, childcare, managing the home and a demanding career. Women today expect more balance in their lives.

"We as an industry have to work hard if we are to keep these bright, talented women in our organisations. We have to offer flexible conditions and be prepared to continually adapt."

CREATIVE CHIEF - Kate Stanners, executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi

"When I first started with a female partner, we used to get comments like 'you've got a very good portfolio, but we've already got a girl team'. But I don't think it's like that any more.

"I don't seek girls out more than boys, I just look out for brilliance. I don't think it is a sexist business, but it is self-selective in terms of personalities and I think the personalities that suit creative departments are made up of male attributes such as total childishness and a blind confidence and self-belief."