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New report calls on advertising industry senior leaders to embrace gender equality and lead by example

Media release

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Behind the Ads report Looking Behind the Ads web resource

The shEqual project led by Women’s Health Victoria has today released the Behind the Ads report which identifies significant barriers faced by women and other marginalised groups working in the advertising industry, as well as solutions senior leaders can take to greatly improve gender equality outcomes.

Behind the Ads: Advertising Professionals’ Perspectives on Gender Equality in the Workplace has uncovered firsthand accounts of how gender inequality plays out in workplaces in the advertising industry, the devastating effects it can have on women’s careers and wellbeing – and the risks of speaking out.

Respondents to the survey on which the report is based, spoke of widespread sexism in their workplace cultures, where gendered division of labour and male dominated leadership teams that create, reinforce and protect gender inequality are rife. Overall, less than two in five respondents agreed that the advertising industry prioritises gender equality in advertising content, or as a workplace issue.

Dianne Hill, CEO of Women’s Health Victoria, said that considering the conversations taking place around Australia about safety in the workplace, increasing community expectations and significant legislative change following the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work Report – now is the time for senior leaders in the advertising industry to demonstrate their leadership and commit to improving gender equality within their organisations.

“shEqual – Australia’s movement for advertising equality – is working with the advertising industry so the ads we see every day are representative, real and empowering, rather than harmful and perpetuating gender stereotypes and norms. Our in-depth analysis, based on industry feedback, demonstrates the underlying culture must also change if advertising equality is to be achieved, as culture and content cannot be separated,” Ms Hill said.

“We are calling on leaders in advertising to embrace this opportunity to promote gender equality in their workplaces, by addressing the five key issues identified in our report.”

The five key issues identified in the Behind the Ads report are:

1. [The need for] A shared understanding of gender equality
2. Sexist workplace cultures
3. Unequal employment conditions and support
4. Sexist advertising content is still being produced
5. The unclear role for men in driving change

The key issues have been identified by researchers from Empirica Research and RMIT, who have provided further gender-informed analysis of shEqual’s survey in Behind the Ads of people working in the advertising industry. The original research conducted in 2021 surveyed 598 people across the industry and canvassed awareness and perceptions of gender equality in their workplaces and in the content they commission, create, and distribute.

Lauren Gurrieri, Associate Professor, RMIT University and co-author of the report, said “This research highlights the range of gendered inequalities that persist in Australian advertising workplaces, that in turn fuel the problematic gendered portrayals that continue to be produced in advertising content.

One issue cannot be addressed without attending to the other. Action is urgently needed to drive change in the industry given advertising’s powerful cultural role in shaping gender norms and relations.”

Lauren Zappa, Manager Gender Equity and Capacity Building, who oversees the shEqual project at Women’s Health Victoria, said respondents gave thought-provoking feedback and insights for employers to consider and act on.

“There’s a powerful opportunity here for senior leaders in the industry to listen to the voices and ideas of those employees who are most impacted by gender inequality,” Ms Zappa said.

“What was quite striking was the number of people who welcomed the opportunity to take part in the survey considering workplace cultures in the advertising industry make it difficult to speak up about gender inequality.

“Our survey found 46% of female respondents who had hesitated to speak up about gender equality issues in the workplace felt worried about negative consequences from doing so (compared with 17% of male respondents in the same position).

“It is also important to note at Women’s Health Victoria we take an intersectional lens approach to feminism and in doing so we acknowledge the barriers to inclusion impact people differently based on their race, class, ability, sexuality, and other characteristics. We all have a role to play in creating a culturally safe environment and a more level playing field.

When it comes to solutions, Behind the Ads identifies a range of actions to improve industry-wide engagement with gender equality. These include:

  • Implement practical policies that address discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Create a transparent procedure for reporting discriminatory or sexist behaviour in the workplace
  • Managers, C-suite executives and creative directors make a public commitment to equality
  • Provide gender equality training for all employees so everyone can make a commitment to safer workplaces and gender equal ads
  • Provide training and resources that gives men confidence to be allies – actively supporting gender equity at work and in life.