Mike Fromowitz
Dec 6, 2013

Why the dearth of female creatives?

Time and again, I'm asked: Why aren't there more female creative people in advertising? Why are women creatives in such small numbers compared to men?

Why the dearth of female creatives?

Despite the fact that women control 80 per cent of consumer spending, women are dramatically underrepresented in power positions, making up just 3 to 4 per cent of agency creative leaders. Women are a huge part of the workforce in the creative services industry, yet as recent reports indicate, in most ad agencies it seems the number of women goes down the higher up the ranks you go. 

I recently attended a marketing conference where the ratio of men to women was about 50 to 10.  There was a big difference in female representation in senior management/leadership ranks. There is no good answer for this, at least none that I can give. 

Over my many years in the ad industry, in Canada, Asia-Pacific and in the USA, I have always found that there was a shortage of females especially in creative roles. For certain, in Asia-Pacific, there were fewer female creatives that came knocking at the door looking for jobs. I do not believe the advertising industry as a whole has ever really stood out as one that favours either sex. Men and women appear to be pretty much in equal supply. Yet, if you take a closer look at creative departments within some of the larger, regional agencies, it’s quite a different picture. In the majority of cases, there are twice as many men as women.

Men’s club mentality?

On the other hand, I’ve hired and worked with many women in important account services and management roles. There were far more women in account services and management than there were women in creative departments. When it comes to hiring women in creative roles, I don’t necessarily believe our industry is filled with male chauvinists or misogynists (or racists, for that matter). Perhaps there are some agency heads who have fallen into outdated routines and habits, and need to be shaken out of their routines and habits.

Undoubtedly, women have fared better in other agency departments than they have in creative. The number of women in account services positions has doubled in the last two decades. More than half of account service, media and research employees are women. In media, women actually outnumber men three to two.

Is motherhood a career killer?

Do most women want to have families? Sure. Is the world sexist? Maybe. Do women work their asses off, like every other creative, to get promoted. Yes, and maybe more so. But the simple fact remains: There have been fewer of them looking for creative posts. 

A recent Forbes article “Asia’s 50 Power Business Women” did not make mention of one female representative from advertising. A McKinsey report also noted that “gender diversity is not yet high on the strategic agenda for most Asian companies, and few senior managers believe this will change anytime soon in corporate Asia".

I don’t think women in Asia, for example, have a harder time getting to the higher ranks of the ad business or creative departments in particular. For certain, the same percentage of geniuses happen to be in both genders. You see lots of senior management and CEO positions being occupied by women. There is also a tendency for female creatives to drift away as marriage and children enter the picture. The result is that many do return to the creative world, but in a freelance capacity.

Proof that women do achieve great success.

Nonetheless, there has been some outstanding representation of females in our industry:  When people think of Asia’s most celebrated women in advertising, Linda Locke always comes to mind. Linda has always been a shining star and a pioneer among women creatives in Asia. She first became Saatchi & Saatchi’s creative director in 1983 and, in the following year, was promoted to chief executive officer. She rejoined Leo Burnett Singapore in 1997 as chairman/executive creative director and was appointed regional creative director for Asia Pacific the following year. In October 2008, the 10th anniversary of the Singapore Advertising Hall of Fame Awards, Linda received the ‘Newsweek Lifetime Achievement Award’ in recognition of her three decades of service to the Singapore Advertising Industry. Linda was the first woman to achieve the award.

Then there was the late Yasmin Ahmad, a critically acclaimed, multi-award winning film director and writer from Malaysia. She was also the executive creative director at Leo Burnett Kuala Lumpur. Her work has won multiple awards both within Malaysia and internationally.

[Both Locke and Ahmad are members of Campaign Asia-Pacific's industry Hall of Fame, published as part of our recent celebration of 40 years covering the industry in Asia. —Ed.]

In Thailand, Jureeporn Thaidumrong, creative director of Results Advertising (O&M), is one of the O&M network’s stars. Under her leadership, Results has taken home a several international creative awards, including a Gold Lion at Cannes for a Tabasco print ad, "Cigarette", the most prestigious award ever won by a Thai agency.

In Singapore, creative director Lim Sau Hoong opened her own ad agency, 10AM Communications, and turned it into an instant success. 

Proof that women do achieve great success. Women are more than capable of handling the creative director role. Great creative (and account) people put in as much time and sweat as anyone else.

Still, there is a lack of female role models in creative leadership positions, to inspire and motivate women coming up through the ranks. And there’s much more that agencies and marketers can do to attract more women—there’s much to be gained from their valuable creative minds. 

You’d expect there to be more female creatives. 

If there is one thing that agencies should learn, it is that creative women are not just good at working on female-skewed businesses: fashion, cosmetics, food, etc. Then again, most are chosen specifically to work on these types of businesses.

When you consider that women make 80 per cent of all purchase decisions (Forbes), you’d expect there to be more female creatives. In my opinion, those who leave the industry for a short time to go and have babies come back to their jobs with a heightened skill set that makes them better creatives. Things they learn in the School of Life give them an edge—theirs is a far better understanding of the family and of the consumer. Being a mom is an asset. 

These days, it seems more women are choosing to be in the business and not tied down by children and family. It’s a life choice. They want a career—without kids. On the other hand, I’m also beginning to see more moms and dads reversing and integrating their roles. Men and women both deserve successful careers and families, and the ad industry today still needs to do more to include both sexes equally.

Motherhood is one of the primary prejudices as to why fewer women are hired in key creative roles—the reason so often and mistakenly used is that we are in an highly competitive industry. Little wonder then that the vast majority of highly successful female creative directors are either childless or have spouses with a less demanding job. 

These days, I’m finding that many women are seeking a more balanced life and an empowered career by choosing freelance rather than a job in an agency. They are making this their prime choice because many agencies often leave them unsatisfied, overworked and not valued nearly enough. 

We need some smart visionary ad men to step forward and give the female creative the authority to truly lead, the ladies have been kept waiting in the wings far too long.

—Mike Fromowitz



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