Skip to content
Jan 27 13

Female humour: bet a man wouldn’t have come up with this!

by Madwoman

Jan 27 13

The world is made by men, for men …

by Madwoman
Dec 16 12

Sexist ads: how we’re still objectifying women in 2012

by Madwoman

Dec 11 12

Christmas ads aimed at women need to get more creative

by Madwoman


This article was featured in The Drum, December 2012

Advertising. Innovative, creative, imaginative? Not if you look at some of what they’ve put on the Christmas table this year. We seem to have gone back to the 60s where, as Betty Frieden pointed out in the ‘Feminine Mystique’, TV companies and advertisers were actively trying to define women as passive housewives who could be advertised to by simply reflecting a version of their lives back at them.

While the book was written 50 years ago, it seems advertisers and their agencies are still hoping that women will conform to the ideals they set out in their ads, because they believe it is this model of ‘femininity’ that best suits the need to sell product. But isn’t this at odds with how women actually experience life? For the majority of women, life is a fair bit different now, so why should they respond to ads that talk to them as if they’re 50s housewives?

Incidentally, in the actual 60s, women weren’t buying it. There was a distinct lack of interest in the new daytime TV shows produced at vehicles for advertising. The programmes, and the adverts were preoccupied with women’s domestic role in the home, which was at odds with the fact that since the war had allowed them to into the workplace by necessity, there were more women than ever ‘out there’, rather than stuck indoors watching TV.

Today, most women do actually have a life beyond caring for their family, whether that’s through choice or because they have to. But the Christmas ads tell us otherwise. Many show a world where being a ‘mum’ is the best, most important ‘job’ in the world. And while, it’s pretty obvious that bringing up children is not a role to be taken lightly, not many women actually do stay at home doing the ‘Most Important Job In The World’, because, err, you don’t get paid. If it was, as they so patronisingly tell us, so crucial, and if it was actually done by men as much as by women, no doubt it would command a salary. And a pretty high one at that when you look at what the mums in the Christmas ads have to do. And no doubt, there would be a bonus for all ‘workers’ who could also manage to wipe the Fairy Liquid from their hands and slip into some Ann Summers underwear of an evening and writhe about like a porn star, as in the ad.

In studying women and looking at how popular culture, including advertising, reacts to changes, I’ve noticed that many advertisers simply dig their heels in and refuse to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of women’s lives, particularly at Christmas. In their desire to keep women wanting to create the ‘perfect day’, they turn to their idea of the past for inspiration and serve us up a slice of nostalgia for a time that never actually existed except in the heads of admen (even Father Christmas as we know him, was invented by advertising).

While I realise that a lot of women who took part in the ‘best Christmas ads’ polls said they ‘liked’ some of the ads I’m criticising, I do wonder if this type of advertising actually does anything for the brands overall.  I believe there’s room to move beyond the clichés and create ads aimed at women that are interesting, new, different – creative even – instead of trying to be a fly-on-the-wall of a typical ‘housewife’. It’s not a particularly new or interesting way to talk to women, and I feel pretty sure women wouldn’t object to seeing some more creativity being employed in the ads made for them.


Nov 22 12

Why do little girls want to be princesses? Does Disney play a role in constructing gender norms?

by Madwoman

Nov 22 12

Misogyny in Media & Culture – a male perspective

by Madwoman

Nov 22 12

Male perspective on importance of gender awareness: Michael Kimmel: On Gender

by Madwoman

Oct 28 12

Why are there so few successful female creatives? The answers are all here.

by Madwoman

At last the answer to the question “Why are there so few successful female creatives?”

A new research report* confirms that advertising is an industry that’s institutionally sexist and, whether they’re conscience of it or not, they discriminate against female creatives and their ideas.

The report starts by pointing out that, “The advertising industry has a comparable representation of men and women, yet women are still underrepresented within the creative department. The UK is by far the worst with women making up just 15% of creative departments. Women also are scarce among advertising’s creative elite, including creative award winners, such as the One Show and D&AD.”

So, why is this? 

One important aspect of creativity is the ability to convince others that a campaign should be valued. The study showed that women in the creative department were faced with gender bias that prevented them from being able to influence the gatekeepers. In effect, it was harder for them to get their ideas ‘bought’ than their male colleagues, and as a consequence female creative were often not taken as serious players in the department.

Some women experienced paternalism from their creative directors, “We were two girls, and everyone called us ‘the girls.” Another female team felt their creative director, “overprotected us because he looked at us and saw girls, then he thought of his daughters.” 

The study points out that paternalism and differential status leads to the creatives questioning their own abilities and to others in the agency questioning their abilities.

“If there’s a male in the room who is higher than us, they will turn to the male to make sure we’re not crazy and that we’re telling the truth.” 

The reports authors explain that “By describing the creatives as “the girls” and seeing them as people who need protection from the workplace, women were stripped of their professional identities and deprived of the respect typically given to creatives. This establishes a system of dominance where women’s voices were undervalued.”

I may be unfair, but is it sexist?

“Sexism is another tool used to establish the dominance of males.” Alvesson, 1998; Gregory, 2009

“The men were “all cracking very risqué jokes, which is fine, because I can hold my own. But then they became derogatory, saying ‘Let’s let the lady start, let’s see what the lady has.’ They just made it a lot more obvious I was different and it made me uncomfortable.”

The report highlights how “Sexist jokes were used to establish dominance, the woman’s gender was then highlighted to further cement status inequities.”

“Being reminded of one’s sex in a male-dominant situation tends to heighten men’s awareness of their high status andwomen’s awareness of their lower status.” Swan and Wyer, 1997 

Once male dominance is established, it restricts women’s ability to be taken seriously as agents of creativity.The research highlights the un-winnable situation women are in:

“Women are often involved in a catch-22 situation in which gender limited their ability to fight for their work without being alienated, however, they were unable to progress in their careers without fighting for their work.”

The locker room culture

“The boys’ club culture is pervaded by male homosociability, or male bonding and socialization.” Gregory, 2009

Because most creative directors are men, the creatives interviewed for the study felt it was “easier for men to get to the top because the system already has men at the top, and they can relate to each other better.”

The study concluded that “social interaction between men led to greater opportunities at the office, in the form of better assignments and a greater chance to influence current work”.

Women are not in on the jokes

The boys’ club culture was shown to “carry over into the skills thought to be necessary to create ads, such as a male sense of humour. Findings suggested that “homosociability had an impact on the way assignments were given and work was evaluated”.

There existed a belief that women did not have a sense of humor which  influenced the types of assignments given to men and women.” Gregory, 2009

The stereotype that men are funny and women are not is apparent in this response from a female copywriter.

“Every single office that I went into, whoever it was said, “You’re a girl,” and I said, “yeah.” And they said, “and you’re a writer,” and I said, “yeah.” And they said, “you’re a girl and you’re a writer,” and I said, “yeah, I am a girl and I am a writer.” Then they would ask, “Are you any good?” And I was like “uhhh, here’s my book.” I even had one guy, hewent through that whole thing then he was like, “Well, are you funny?” And I was like, “Well, I guess I am funny.” And he goes, “No, do you make your guy friends laugh?” I was like, “Yeah, I think…well…just look at my book.”

The exchange was interpreted to show how a sense of humor is defined based on the point of view of men, and it’s clear that gender is an important part of the creative identity within the agency. The study concluded that in the ad industry, “The typical copywriter is both male and funny”.

“I honestly feel that if I wrote a script, that my creative director would like the script more if the other male in the group read it. I just know that in my heart. They would be more open to it.” 

It’s clear that the inequality women felt with regard to their efforts and rewards versus those of their male colleagues had an effect on their ability to see a future in the industry. Faced with such discrimination, it’s no wonder women give up and leave the industry.

Creative departments are based on a ‘survival of the fittest model which favours masculine behavior

The study points out that:

Creative departments are highly competitive with creative teams competing against each other with the assumption that the best ideas will be selected. There is a clear status hierarchy in which star teams, those who have consistently produced excellent work, are allowed to work on the best assignments

This places great weight on visible markers of success, such as awards, and on access to the senior peers and challenging projects likely to guide a creative toward award-winning work

It is harder for women to break into and succeed in creative advertising since the creative department is shaped and judged within a masculine paradigm.

Willy waving and toilet humour

In the British advertising industry, the locker room culture is one of masculine power, competition, male bonding, and the sexualisation of women.” Gregory, 2009

The study highlighted that “Sexually-colored jokes are common, which serve to highlight men and women as sexual beings, thereby making sexuality more relevant to their identity formation within the agency”. This masculine bias makes it difficult for women to succeed as the measure for excellence is seen through a male gender lens.

Women in creative departments face a double bind. On one hand they are looked to as representing ‘femininity’, yet to fit in with the norms of the creative department they have to be able to hold their own as one of the boys.

You have to be once of the boys to be accepted

All the women interviewed in the study stressed the importance of acting like one of the guys, being a tomboy, or doing bloke-ish work. They joked around with them, became outgoing discussed topics the guys enjoyed.

But, unbelievably, this very assimilation that the women strived for was shown to have a destructive effect on their career prospects, because “making ‘dick jokes and all that”, goes against the ideals of femininity created in a stereotypically masculine creative department.

“Women can and do participate in the crude dialogue, becoming one of the guys. However, when they do this, they risk violating the norms of their own gender.” West and Zimmerman, 1987 

According to Grow and Broyles, a similar situation occurs when women try to be aggressive, a characteristic vital to success in the creative department.

“When men are aggressive, People will say, yeah he’s tough but he’s got a good book and does a good job. Whereas a woman does that and she’s a bitch and no one wants to work with her and she gets labelled difficult.” 

The women who took part in the study reported that it was difficult for women to see a path to success in a field dominated by men. They felt they were unfairly kept from reaching the upper levels of the creative department:

“I think probably lack of recognition and lack of money. The guys get it a lot faster, they get the promotions faster, they get the money faster. And it’s not because the women aren’t doing great work. It’s just that it’s not being handed to them.”

A clear indication of the damage done lack of access to success can be seen in this response to why women leave the industry:

“Maybe they get burnt out early by not beingrecognized soon enough, you know, thinking ‘God, I’ve worked my ass off and I haven’t gotten anywhere.”


Achieving status and success within the creative department is developed based on masculine values, so women have to choose one of the following two strategies to succeed:

1. Behave as one of the guys, being aggressive and participating in the sexualized jocularity of the department and creating work based on male ideas of what’s ‘good’

2. Act based on the feminine prototype, doing deference while losing some status and identity as a professional and struggling to get their female gendered ideas ‘bought’

Men do not face such conflicts because masculinity is the dominant role for their gender and their profession.

These gender differences have been constructed over time and maintained through male homosociability, paternalism, and sexism.

The gender status hierarchy present in creative departments affects the type of work that was deemed creative. Men’s brands were likely to be seen as more buzz-worthy assignments and a male sense of humor and overall perspective were privileged values of creativity. And women have to adjust their creative style to suit their male creative directors, even on female-driven accounts.

Status hierarchies prevent women’s voices from influencing what is judged to be creative.

Corporations hire multi-cultural agencies to more effectively speak to a minority demographic, but they do not seem to see gender in the same light.

“Women influence 85% of consumer spending, but young, white males make 75% of the ads. The matter isn’t as simple as putting a team of females on a women’s brand assignment, because the system in place in the agency today isn’t set up to accommodate advertising that speaks in the female voice, and it certainly isn’t set up to reward that kind of work.” Jordan, 2009

The research concludes by observing: “Marketers and advertising agencies alike must tap the resources and inputs of women. Inthe words of Bill Gates, “Any country where half their population is not allowed to reach their full potential is not going to be competitive.”


*This article is based entirely on: Kasey Windels, Wei-Na Lee, (2012) “The construction of gender and creativity in advertising creative departments”, Gender in Management: An International Journal, Vol. 27 Iss: 8, pp.502 – 519



Oct 28 12

New research shows advertising industry is institutionally sexist

by Madwoman

Advertising really is stuck in the Mad Men era

A recent study* into the structure and culture of advertising creative departments shows that it’s difficult for female creatives to succeed unless they effectively learn to think like men. This is detrimental and even damaging to a brand because the advertising created at best does not engage female consumers and at worst irritates them or makes them angry. Either way, it does not build the best relationship between brand and consumer.

The research points out that, because what is deemed as ‘creative’ is based on the views and values of mostly male gatekeepers, namely creative heads, creative directors, advertising ‘greats’ of the past and clients.

Because women are seen as lower status in creative departments, they are devalued and unable to influence what work gets made unless they can demonstrate their work matches up to the masculine ideal of what is creatively ‘good’.

The research concluded that the locker room culture has led to briefs for female brands being seen as less valuable. Agencies and clients appeared to want creative, clever, and bold advertising for male products, but being content with dull, unchallenging advertising when it came to women’s brands.

“What is very clear is that the advertising industry is not open to new forms of creativity meant for a female audience or endowed with a female voice or point of view.”

In order to be successful and further their careers, creatives must first and foremost create work that pleases their creative directors, account managers, planners, and clients. These mostly male gatekeepers evaluate and validate ideas against the agency’s masculine values.

In short, whatever sex they are, creatives learn to develop the type of work that is validated and rewarded by the masculine biased system they work in.

Because advertising sits at the intersection of art and science, and decision-making is filled with ambiguity. It’s hard to predict which advertising campaigns will succeed in the marketplace.

And if female creatives do try to come up with advertising based on their own values and ideas of what’s creative, these ideas are rejected because the gatekeepers cannot see beyond their own male gender lens.

“ When judging creativity, ideas suggested by women are less likely to be accepted and implemented than those suggested by men.” (Millward and Freeman, 2002).

In effect, creative solutions will automatically be designed to appeal to men, not women. Even if the brand or product is aimed at a female audience.

“There is an “implied maleness or style in the type of humour, language and behavior displayed in advertisements” Gregory, 2009, p. 339

“The boys’ club culture in the creative department affects the types of assignments that are coveted and the type of work that is seen as exceptional. Women felt they had to think like a man in order to deliver work that their creative directors would appreciate” Jordan, 2009

“Guy creative directors are more likely to buy ideas that they would think, ‘Oh, I wish I would have thought of that idea.’ I think in that sense, you definitely try to come up with more guy-ish work.” Female creative

Here’s an example from the study, where a female team explains how difficult it is to get their voice heard:

“We brought some ideas to the table that we thought were funny, but still spoke to women.” Because the spots were not based on a male sense of humor, “They couldn’t relate to the spots in any way, so that to them was not funny or relatable. Even though they were not the target.”

In short, female creatives learn to preference the male voice in advertising campaigns, even campaigns meant for women, because, like the men, they did not feel women’s voices achieved the same status.

No one wants to work on the women’s stuff
Because working on briefs for anything aimed at women are seen as lower status in agencies, these briefs will be given to the female creatives. But there is resistance from women as they understand how detrimental to their career such marginalisation is.

There was a sense in the study that all women, including the consumer, were devalued by clients and creative directors.

“Most senior-level clients are men, and many hold the same prejudices against women as creative.” Gregory, 2009

This could be seen in the devaluing of campaigns targeted toward women by both clients and creative directors.

It’s almost as if they think women consumers aren’t intelligent enough or want great creative.” Female creative

“I’ve worked on men’s deodorant and women’s deodorant. And the women’s deodorant gets no love, no money, no respect.” Female creative

In the study, clients were shown as wanting creative, clever, and bold advertising for male products, but were often content with “trite advertising” when it came to women’s brands. What is very clear is that the advertising industry is not open to new forms of creativity meant for a female audience or endowed with a female voice or point of view.

• More value is placed on ads for men, written in a masculine voice, and created by men
• Women’s ideas were often devalued, as were advertisements meant to speak to women’s perspectives

If agencies don’t change and clients don’t demand it, brands will fail to connect with female consumers

“This is a major issue for clients in a time when women influence 85% of expenditures for consumer goods” Greer, 1999, Chura 2009


What’s the answer?

There is no easy solution. Institutionalised gender bias is notoriously difficult to change as it’s those running the institutions will continue replicating the ideals and values that have kept them successful in the past. In effect, male creative leaders will continue to perpetuate the model that has made them what they are.

Only when there is a critical mass of female representation in senior creative roles will the situation begin to shift. But by giving women creative control, the men at the top risk being undermined by the new ideas and ways of thinking they will bring. It has suited them well to prioritise masculinity; it’s enabled them to earn high salaries and enjoy  high status and respect within their industry.

So, the situation is unlikely to change unless something is done to actively push women to the front. In our view, this means clients have to specifically ask for women to take the creative lead. Only then will agencies have to bring more women into their creative departments and start actually listening to what they say.


*This article is based on a study by Kasey Windels, Wei-Na Lee, (2012) “The construction of gender and creativity in advertising creative departments”, Gender in Management: An International Journal, Vol. 27 Iss: 8, pp.502 – 519

Oct 28 12

Why are ads aimed at women so dreadful?

by Madwoman