The role of women in marketing and advertising has grown exponentially since I started over 25 years ago. But we still have a ways to go.
Although things have significantly improved, disparities still exist. What always stands out to me is the lack of representation in creative leadership. We have more women in the industry than ever—even more women in leadership than ever—but young creatives still have limited options for mentors who are women. Especially young women of color.
But it’s not all negative. There are steps we can take as leaders, as women in marketing, to continue to improve. And maybe my story will give you some hope, since the industry is a safe haven compared to when I got started!
Challenges I faced as a woman in marketing
Gender biases and stereotypes in the workplace
Even before I got into marketing, I had a taste of what many women in the creative space experience: I found I was expected to administrate, not create. I wanted to be a director in college, and my advisor at the time told me, point-blank: “You’re the wrong sex.”
So I didn’t become a director. I took on the world of advertising, abandoning Creative for Strategy (which I soon found requires just as much creativity).
When I started my career in marketing, the overt gender disparities came along for the ride.
Companies had regulations for women that didn’t apply to men. We had stricter dress codes (expected to wear pantyhose) and weren’t allowed at client meetings—since they were held in strip clubs.
Throughout my career, I continuously saw women relegated to client services—their creative contributions both underrepresented and under-appreciated.
Overcoming challenges and succeeding in Marketing
On both the agency and client side, I’d say there were a good 15 years in which I was almost always the only woman in the room. That was intimidating.
To succeed in the advertising industry, I have to act like a man, I told myself. I followed that logic I’d been taught at first—but soon I learned better. I discovered why women are good marketers.
When I leaned into my feminine energy, when I came with empathy and understanding, I got through to the many men in the room. When I leaned into my womanhood, the difference in my perspective became my strength.
Challenges women in marketing still face today
Gender bias is still a persistent problem—both in the workplace and in the output of advertising.
An obvious bias comes in the form of pay disparities. Even today, women in advertising make 16% less than men!
One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing biased campaigns from brands who claim they want to make an authentic connection. We see moms, for instance, one of two ways: either typecast as overwhelmed or the “Wonder Woman” mom. This pattern tells me: Not enough women are behind that creative.
Which leads me to the next challenge:
Lack of Representation in Leadership
Women in creative leadership, especially, remain underrepresented.
In 2008, only 3% of creative directors were women. Kat Gordon started the 3% movement to help get this up to 50%, and by 2017, 11% of creative directors were women. Today, the number has gone up to 29%—in part thanks to the movement of one woman who gathered other women and demanded change.
We’ve moved the needle overall, with women accounting for “53% of director-level or higher positions, and 59% of manager-level positions” (Source). But in other ways, representation is also where we have the most work to do…
While 52% of Chief Marketing Officers are women, only 13% of all CMOs have racially diverse backgrounds.Source: ANA Annual Diversity Report
Even though we have more women in leadership positions, women of color are being left behind. Of every 100 men who advance to a management role, 58 black women advance (compared to 80 White women, and 72 women overall).
I struggled with work-life balance my whole career, especially as it’s related to motherhood. And this challenge still exists—especially in larger agencies.
Motherhood was something that you didn’t talk a lot about with your clients. When I became a mother, choosing being a mom over work was seen as a weakness.
I’ll never forget being in the middle of a TV commercial production in 1999. Just 4 days before the shoot, I miscarried 16 weeks into my first pregnancy.
I was obviously very impacted by this, and my client called saying, “Just wanted to make sure that you’re going to be at the shoot on Monday.” And I was there. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I had to be there which was tough—but that’s what was expected of women.
We’ve made so much progress in respecting parenting both for mothers and fathers in the advertising world today. I definitely feel that, post-covid, we’ve been able to really look at helping our employees have a better work-life balance.
So many women in marketing feel that we don’t deserve the success we have. I continuously witness women who work themselves up the ranks always feeling inadequate or undeserving of their success. Leading an agency of majority (90%) women, I see how the impostor syndrome takes a toll on a lot of my leaders here.
Women of color often suffer from imposter syndrome even more—often operating without someone to look up to or a mentor who can understand them.
How can we combat this? I get into more below, but the gist is:
Support each other and hire other women—not just for administrative roles, but within creative leadership. And take the time to mentor the women who are already there.
How we can help women in marketing succeed today
Women have a vital role to play in marketing and advertising, and their contributions are essential for creating effective and inclusive marketing campaigns. So, how do leaders work toward mentoring multicultural women?
Fill roles with women directly involved in developing content
In 2023, we’re well aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the marketing industry. So, it’s simple: Ensure the people who develop your creative understand your target audience. All members of your target audience. In a diverse country like the U.S., that will inevitably include multicultural individuals.
The talent who develops content for brands should reflect the audience that the content is for.
Building a strong professional network is essential for young women in marketing—and mentorship is the first step.
I still have mentors today, and their influence stays with me.
Mentors help young women succeed, so we make sure to prioritize it at T3E. For instance, we have the Pupil Project yearly to identify up-and-coming stars that want to learn about the industry. A class of 4-8 people each year complete a joint project, also splitting up to shadow relevant employees depending on their career goals.
By sharing experiences and insights, we can inspire and empower women to pursue their career in marketing and overcome the challenges and biases they may face.
None of this is meant to be discouraging. As a woman who grew up in the business: You could succeed then, and you can succeed today. More of us care about hiring women of color and having an authentic voice behind creative than ever before. Now, it’s not just about having a seat at the table, it’s about pulling out the chair for someone else.
Even on a grander scale, I look at my 22-year-old daughter, Olivia, who is studying graphic design and media studies—and I see a whole different world available to her. That gives me hope. I’m optimistic for the future, because I’m hoping that in Olivia’s generation, a lot of the challenges that I’ve talked about today won’t be a barrier for her—and I’m very excited about that.
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