Staff Reporters
May 22, 2024

Inclusion drops in Advertising Council’s DE&I census: ‘Average is not good enough’

Create Space Census: Instances of sexual harassment have slightly decreased, but over half of female-identifying respondents still experience being unfairly spoken over or ignored in meetings—a prevalent negative behaviour in Australia's advertising landscape.

Inclusion drops in Advertising Council’s DE&I census: ‘Average is not good enough’

The Advertising Council Australia’s (ACA) latest Create Space Census reveals both progress and setbacks in the industry’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Conducted in November 2023, two years after the first iteration, it provides the most recent picture of the demographics and experiences of diversity, equity, and inclusion in Australia’s advertising, media, and marketing industries. Nearly 2,500 people responded to the anonymous survey, which used Kantar’s Inclusion Index to benchmark performance.

The good news is that females now dominate across all levels, including C-suite and executive management, senior staff, middle and junior management, and even at intern or entry-level positions. Since ACA’s 2021 census, there has been an 8% increase in females holding C-suite and executive management roles. However, the overall Inclusion Index Score has declined from 56 to 62. Clearly, the sense of belongingness is diminishing, which is difficult to attribute to a single cause, but ACA claims it aligns with broader national and international trends of workplace negativity.

Interestingly, 35% of respondents say they’ve observed significant changes that have positively impacted diversity and inclusion in their company over the last two years. Overall awareness of companies’ DE&I strategies and policies has also increased by 6 percentage points, reaching 59%.

Rose Herceg, WPP ANZ president and D&I Committee Chair, finds the positive changes in the data encouraging, as they indicate organizations taking action.

“Progress is progress, especially as part of a long-term program that aims to drive systematic change over time,” she said.

“However, a perception gap exists across the industry. Those most likely to report positive changes belong to the C-suite, are aged over 45, or identify as heterosexual or male. That means the groups most affected by the lack of inclusion and representation are not feeling the positive change as much. We need action that makes a difference for all people at all levels.”

The Create Space score reflects a worldwide pattern observed in eight out of twelve markets from 2019 to 2022. Bias perceptions in hiring and career advancement, inadequate skills support, and undervaluation relative to colleagues contributed to the decline—the impact was most pronounced among those under 34.
ACA chief executive Tony Hale said that despite the Australian ad industry’s performance being aligned with global trends in DE&I, the drop in ranking was disappointing. 
“The future of Australian advertising is reliant upon a wide variety of people feeling that they are included and listened to. Average is not good enough,” he said.
This pattern of declining inclusion is evident in other indexes too. Diversity Council Australia’s Inclusion@Work Index 2023–2024 also indicates that worker experiences of exclusion have increased post-pandemic. Non-inclusive teams and managers are more common than ever, and workers report feeling less connected and less able to contribute to their teams.
Awareness of companies’ DE&I policies has improved
While Australia’s overall Inclusion Index Score has declined, topline awareness of companies’ DE&I strategies, policies and procedures has improvedfrom 53% in 2021 to 59% in 2023.
70% believe their company is actively taking steps to be more diverse and inclusive, just below the 73% recorded in 2021. 56% believe their company still needs to do more.
Meanwhile, 35% of respondents reported significant positive changes to DE&I in their company. However, those noticing significant changes that have positively impacted DE&I at work in the last two years rocketed up to 64% among C-suite respondents. It drops for everyone outside executive leadership, as well as among females, LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people, and people aged under 35.
Who’s feeling the drop in inclusion?
The six-point decrease in Australia’s overall Inclusion Index Score was driven by a decline in people’s sense of belonging and an increase in the presence of negative behaviour. The score was further affected by perceptions of bias around hiring and career progression, insufficient support for skills development, and feeling undervalued compared to colleagues.
The decline is evident among all age groups, though most pronounced among those under 34. As in 2021, the inclusion score is still lowest for 25 to 44-year-olds, the advertising industry’s engine room.
Inclusion declined for males and females, with female inclusion dropping seven points since 2021 and male inclusion dropping four points. 
Nevertheless, the number of women in C-suite and executive management roles has increased from 46% to 54% in the period from 2021 to 2023. Females now dominate all five census levels, also dominating senior staff, middle management, junior management, and intern and junior executive levels.
"It’s brilliant to see female representation at senior levels growing steadily," said Hale. "We now know we have to address equitable career development and training, particularly for people managers, as key drivers of inclusion.”
Over the past 12 months, reports of sexual harassment have decreased marginally, from 6% to 5% overall and from 8% to 6% for women. The ACA reported that there is evidence of a more open culture, with a 6% increase in people reporting mental and physical health issues to their employers and 5% more LGBTQIA+ employees being "out" at work.
One in five people (19%) still say they’re likely to leave the industry due to a lack of inclusion or discrimination, similar to 2021. This is higher among freelancers (33%), LGBTQ+ respondents (27%), those working in creative roles (25%), Asian people (30%) and females (23%). For females who have taken parental leave in the past five years, the likelihood to leave the industry is 28%.
"Australia’s ad industry has done a good job updating its policies and approach to DE&I," said ACA national head of engagement, Hannah Sturrock. "But the work must continue to translate strategy and intent into action and accountability at all levels, not just the C-suite where the most change is being seen."
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