Articles - 12th November 2019

Fearless: The problems for female freelancers in advertising

Words by Leila Kozma
Illustration by Thomas Howes

SSGA (State Street Global Advisors) commissioned McCann in 2017 to produce a PR stunt calling attention to their new scheme promoting gender equality in leadership positions.

The resulting statue needs little introduction: the Fearless Girl became the most successful piece of marketing communication to be launched in the past few years. Hailed as an emblem of female empowerment, the sculpture was awarded four Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions 2018, a Graphite Pencil at the D&AD 2018, a Clio Award and a number of others.

The four feet tall, bronze sculpture depicts a staggeringly confident, jaw-droppingly bold young girl. Arranging her narrow shoulders and thin limbs in a fierce pose, the figure calls on women to dare to dream big. Stood in the middle of New York’s Wall Street, the Fearless Girl offers a hopeful sight for those unable to blend into the homogeneous crowd of suit-clad office bankers and high-profile financiers.

In July 2019, the Fearless Girl garnered renewed attention. As a court case revealed, the sculpture has more to do with gender equality than its creators originally intended it to be.

The copyrights of the piece are owned by SSGA. McCann earned praise for the conception, production and promotion of the piece. One name was missing from the credit lists: the artist who made the statue. As an outspoken feminist, a sculptor trying to make a living in the obstinately hierarchical world of contemporary art, Kristen Visbal was surprised to discover that neither SSGA nor McCann were willing to recognize her contributions. The creator of a work synonymous with gender equality wasn’t given credit. Talk about awkward.

After two years of negotiations, Visbal sued SSGA for their refusal to recognize her as the creator of the piece, demanding legal ownership over the copyrights. Visbal won, but her story remains a painful reminder of the Janus-faced mentality prevailing in the advertising industry up until this day.

11% of the 31.000 entries submitted to Cannes Lions came from agencies that employed the same ratio of men and women across all levels of the hierarchy. There were no submissions with a women-only credit list.

Despite an upsurge of feminist-minded campaigns, ad shops struggle to introduce hiring practices, mentorship schemes and welfare packages geared towards gender equality. There are exceptions. Marie Portas-led retail consultancy, Portas is famous for its outspokenly feminine ethos, where employees work in a horizontal, non-hierarchical setup. A large percentage of advertising firms show a less progressive attitude, and in many places the infamous old boy’s club mentality still prevails.

This should come as a surprise for a field where relevance is the main cultural currency. An unspoken prerequisite for working in advertising is a liberal, open-minded orientation and an insistence on strongly-wired personal ethics. Jobs ads often call for the ‘right cultural fit’, ‘a nice person’, someone with a ‘shared set of values.’ Yet, as a Guardian article published by Rachel Cooke reveals, NDAs or non-disclosure agreements are still commonly used. These bind female employees to stay silent in the event of misconduct.

As the June 2019 statistics by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports shows, women make up 47% of the workforce in advertising, a ratio that’s been the same since 2016. Although this is about half of the people employed in the field, power isn’t distributed equally. Only 3% of women make it to leadership positions, affording them a say in the running of the business.

According to a 2018 survey by HoneyBook, 54% of US-based freelance creatives have experienced sexual harassment. Confronted with the choice of losing a project or enduring repeated abuse, only 34% said that they would be confident to walk away. A large percentage of respondents admitted that they were unaware of the fact that they could have filed a report–which shows how neglected this issue currently is.

As the 2019 Big Won study found, 8 of the 100 most award-winning creative chiefs were women. Assessing data from 2018, the research has shown that only 39 out of the 300 most-successful chief creative officers, executive creative directors and creative directors were women. The highest-ranking feminist campaigns were made by men.

As Crooke’s article reveals, the power disparity is organized alongside gendered lines. Citing an interview with Ali Hanan, a former creative at Ogilvy and the chief executive of Creative Equals, Crooke notes that women are less likely to be invited to the pitching table, the meetings that play a crucial role in the creative outputs of the agency. This points toward an unhealthy working environment where bogus misconceptions still rule. More importantly, small decisions like these do add up. If a creative doesn’t get credit on a campaign, their career will progress slower. Without a solid track record of exceptional contributions, they are won’t be offered a promotion. In the long run, this will impact their odds of being nominated for an award. In other words, women might enjoy equal access to the creative industry, but their career path is vastly different to that of their male counterparts. Without exemplary figures breaking the mold, change won’t be possible.

“If women don’t have a seat at the table, they’re on the menu!” remarks Christelle Delarue in an interview with an online journal celebrating creativity, the Little Black Book. The founder of Les Lionnes, a non-profit championing gender equality in advertising made the rounds with two, equally provocative projects this summer. First, the group visited 70, Paris-based advertising agencies, with the intent of plastering their walls with anonymous confessions about sexual harassment. The direct action was shut down by the police prematurely just as they arrived to their sixth stop. Next, Les Lionnes organized an event coinciding with Cannes, titled Off International Festival of Creativity. Like Cannes, the competition evaluated the best advertisements to come out in the past year. However, their iteration had a different aim: to celebrate the works created by agencies that have achieved gender equality.

Their findings were nothing short of blasphemous. As Les Lionnes revealed, 11% of the 31.000 entries submitted to Cannes Lions came from agencies that employed the same ratio of men and women across all levels of the hierarchy. There were no submissions with a women-only credit list.

One of the oldest incentives tackling gender disparity was founded as early as 1923. WACL or Women In Advertising In Communications brings together 265 of the most influential figures of the field, offering seminars, workshops, mentorship programmes and an annual conference, the WACL Gather. The 2019 edition took an interdisciplinary approach, interrogating how various forms of oppression should be tackled. For a century-old public body, the conference marked a particularly progressive step. While gender bias is more and more acknowledged, feminism offers limited tools to represent minoritarian struggles and tackle discrimination. To briefly return to the statistics compiled by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports – the charts provide no information on the class composition of the workforce. Neither do they disclose information on disabilities or age. These factors remain ignored, while gendered discrimination is gaining increased traction in the cultural conversation.

“It shouldn’t be a brave thing to say you grew up on a council estate,” cites Campaign editor Nicola Kemp a remark made by Kerry Hudson in her report on the 2018 BloomFest. Organized by Bloom, an initiative that earned renown for its Booth of Truth pop-up series inviting women to submit anonymous confessions about workplace harassment, the festival is dedicated to engendering new discussions about diversity in advertising. While the 2018 iteration had a strong feminist focus, it also brought attention to the hostility felt towards discussing classed discrimination. “Class is the last taboo,” emphasized Hudson at the event.

“The tendency is for people to go into their camps (…). The sisterhood, the brotherhood. What we need to do now is engage feminist men.” Victoria Brooks

As Cooke notes, the feminist imperative can yield to backlashes as well. Citing Victoria Brooks, the journalist argues that the #timeto movement led some male seniors to refuse mentoring women altogether. Too worried about the potential outcomes of a badly-thought-out remark, employees began to stick together even more, not less. Gender bias might not be the only phenomenon impeding a young creative from flourishing- the shared fear of engaging in biased thinking can have the same effect.

According to a 2018 survey by HoneyBook, 54% of US-based freelance creatives have experienced sexual harassment. Confronted with the choice of losing a project or enduring repeated abuse, only 34% said that they would be confident to walk away.

As Kemp prompts, the upsurge of interest in a feminist agenda can lead to tokenism. Citing Danielle Beechey, the journalist urges companies to avoid hiring workforce from a minority with the sole purpose of assigning them work about the life of the minority. To achieve diversity and a richer creative landscape, employers should thrive to grant the same weight to people with different perspectives.

Feminist initiatives do vital work, and their contributions are much needed in the advertising industry. However, an overt focus on the movement may divert the attention away from other struggles, and risk disregarding minorities facing much harsher conditions when joining the industry. It was time the resources invested in forging equal opportunities were distributed more evenly, and schemes representing lower-class, disabled or BAME subjects gained the same attention as their feminist counterparts.

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