Looking Behind the Ads

The shEqual Survey: In-depth analysis of advertising professionals’ perspectives on gender equality in the workplace

The voices of advertising professionals are critical in driving meaningful change towards gender equality in the industry.

Behind the Ads goes beyond the surface-level statistics to provide detailed analysis of the long answer responses in the shEqual survey. The survey findings highlight the real experiences of advertising professionals facing gender inequality in their workplaces.

We hope that this information serves as a call to action for industry leaders to listen to the voices of their employees and take action towards creating a more diverse and inclusive industry.

5 key issues for achieving gender equality in the Australian advertising industry

A shared understanding of gender equality

Responses to the survey revealed that across the sector, there is no single agreed-upon definition of what is meant by “gender equality”, and that this lack of common understanding is a barrier to progressing action on the issue.

Sexist workplace cultures

Sexist workplace cultures emerged from the survey responses as a major issue with many respondents observing sexist workplaces were linked to the creation of sexist advertising.

Unequal employment conditions and support

The absence of formal policies to promote gender equality, reduce pay inequity and support employees starting families allows for advertising workplaces to operate with gender imbalances.

Sexist advertising content is still being produced

Respondents pointed to the continued production of sexist advertising content as evidence that gender equality in Australian advertising has yet to be achieved.

The unclear role for men in driving change

Survey responses revealed that even among men who support greater gender equality, there is a real gap in terms of tools, expectations, and modelled behaviour to navigate gender equality issues.

About the shEqual Survey

The aim of the shEqual Survey was to explore the awareness and perceptions of gender issues from the perspective of those who work in and around Australia’s advertising industry.

This included asking for their thoughts on how gender issues can be remedied and examined issues of gender equality in the workplace and in advertising content.



58% female

41% male

1% not specified

81% ‘agency side’

19% ‘client side’


A shared understanding of gender equality

“We need a clearer narrative on what gender equality means. Is it equality in the classical sense - equal opportunity. Or is it equity - equal outcomes. This is where it gets complicated and messy and political, but it’s important to explore. I feel like the two things can become conflated, and prevent me from being part of the solution at times.”

Male 25-29 years, agency

What does gender equality mean to you?

46% say Equality of opportunity and access

27% say Equal pay or reward for the same work

26% say Equality of treatment

14% say Equal rights

9% say Equal respect

7% say Equal representation

Why meaning matters

It is not surprising that respondents hold a variety of views about what gender equality means. This topic is not openly discussed in advertising workplaces and when it is the discussions are ineffective.

Some of definitions of gender equality dismiss and minimise the issue and are a reflection of the masculine codes and atmospheres that exist in Australia’s advertising agencies.

Defining gender (in)equality

Gender inequality refers to the unequal treatment and opportunities that individuals experience based on their gender.

It stems from the unequal distribution of power, resources and responsibilities that exists in society between men, women, and other gender identities, and it's often interconnected with other forms of inequality.

What can workplaces do?

  • Provide training and development opportunities for all employees to build their understanding of gender equality and the impact of gender inequality in advertising and workplaces. Focus on training that provides practical tools and strategies, such as addressing unconscious bias or understanding barriers and resistance to change.

  • Foster a culture that values gender equality by promoting an environment of open dialogue, collaboration, and respect for gender equality. Allow employees to share their perspectives in a safe space and provide numbers like 1800 RESPECT for anyone that might need support.

  • Build a strong business case for gender equality within your agency. Conduct research, gather data, and present a compelling argument for why gender equality is critical to business success.

  • Partner with external organisations and advocate for gender equality in the advertising industry (including shEqual!) to share best practices, collaborate on initiatives, and learn from one another.


Sexist workplace cultures

“For as long as I’ve been in the industry, I’ve felt a power imbalance. The industry’s most senior people tend to be men who have been around for decades. They are stuck in their ways and often hire brains/individuals who look/think/act like them (i.e., themselves).

It’s not that women aren’t better – it’s that they start in their respective careers 5 steps behind and with a disadvantage. Privilege runs ripe if you are a male of a certain stature in the Ad Industry.”

Female 18-34 years, agency

Four ways sexism manifests in advertising workplaces

Gendered division of labour

There is a significant skew towards women in account management roles, and towards men in management and creative roles. This bias is impacting workplace cultures and advertising content.

“There is no accountability to [create more gender equal ads], and because sadly most of the creators of our advertising content are men who knowingly or not reflect their own beliefs and experiences into the communications they create.”

35-54 years, agency

“Because it is still a ‘boys’ club at the top. All of the holding groups have male CEOs, the media owners have male CEOs and whilst they all talk about gender equality it either feels very tokenistic or they take it too far.”

Female 40-44 years, client/agency

Lack of diverse leadership

Throughout the shEqual Survey, respondents made it clear that they see leadership – within agencies and across the industry – as a crucial factor in addressing sexism in advertising workplaces and in the content they produce.

The lack of diversity and representation in leadership teams is a serious obstacle to producing more gender equal advertising content.

“The statistics don’t lie - especially at the top. When it is men making the decisions, however best intentioned they may ever be, it won’t always be the decision that benefits women.”

Male 18-34 years, agency

Pushback from clients

“I have been told to my face that people/clients do not want to take a risk on “unique” or “fresh” voices - rather they prefer to use similar talent they have always used, and have the “unique” or “fresh” voices doing grunt work that they can just piggy back off of and call their own.”

18-34 years, agency

The need to satisfy clients presents a specific industry challenge to achieving gender equality in both workplaces and content.

In terms of content, respondents spoke about the challenges of creating gender-equal advertising when it conflicts with a client’s worldview and demands.

“Agencies bend over backwards to please clients or to improve their public image. This is often at the expense of staff. Often women suffer.”

Female 18-34 years, agency

Hostile work environments

There are a number of factors that contribute to hostile work environments, these include:

  • Everyday instances of harassment and discrimination
  • Ineffective conversations within workplaces
  • Workplace cultures that make it challenging to speak up
  • Organisational structures make the pathway to action opaque and lonely
  • Men’s uncertainty about speaking up
  • Fear of formal or informal reprisals

What can workplaces do?

  • Develop and implement policies that address discrimination, bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment in the workplace. Be clear on definitions of inappropriate behaviour, procedures for reporting and investigating complaints, and consequences for perpetrators.

  • Provide induction and regular training to all employees on these policies to ensure that they understand their rights and responsibilities.

  • Establish clear and transparent reporting and response procedures for all incidents of discrimination, bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. Ensure that all employees know how to report incidents, and that they feel safe and supported in doing so.

  • Implement monitoring processes to ensure that policies and procedures are being followed, and that all incidents are being properly addressed. Review and evaluate processes regularly.

  • Remove non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that prevent employees from speaking out about incidents of discrimination, bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment - promote a workplace culture where employees feel safe.

  • Engage senior leaders to commit to a culture of respect and equality. Support them to model the behaviour they expect from their teams and hold them and others accountable for upholding the company’s policies and values.


Unequal employment conditions and support

“Women rule the industry up to the age where they leave to have kids. The biggest thing that can be done to change things and deliver greater equality is to make it easier for women to return to the workplace.”

Male 55-59 years, agency/client

Formal policies to support gender equality

Formal policies can be an important means of addressing gender inequality in the workplace, covering areas such as:

  • Supporting the training of (more) women for roles they are traditionally underrepresented in
  • Supporting the hiring of (more) women
  • Supporting the promotion of (more) women
  • Pay equity / transparency
  • Parental leave
  • Addressing instances of harassment or bullying
  • Reviewing gender representation in content
  • Education on gender equality


supportive of their employer providing training on gender equality


supportive of their employer reviewing work processes to ensure they are gender equitable


supportive of their employer reviewing content for potential gender equality issues

“Pay transparency is a big one - it’s in my contract that I can’t talk about how much I get paid.”

Female 25-29 years, agency/client

Pay inequity and transparency

Supportive of their employer undertaking a pay audit to identify any gender pay discrimination

94% of women

84% of men

Pay transparency would improve gender equality in advertising workplaces

83% of women

64% of men

Family friendly policies and practices

Bolstering family friendly work environments, for people of any gender, is imperative to ensure caring responsibilities can be more effectively balanced and considered alongside responsibilities in the workplace.

“After returning to work after having my second baby they gave my role away - yet expected me to mentor the person they promoted into my old position.”

Female 35-39 years, agency

What can workplaces do?

  • Develop and implement policies and practices that support employees with family caring responsibilities, including flexible work arrangements and paid parental leave for all employees.

  • Conduct a gender pay audit to identify and address discriminatory pay ensure that all employees are equally compensated for their work.

  • Senior leaders should create a culture that supports diversity and equality, and actively promote the advancement of underrepresented groups. They should regularly monitor and report on diversity metrics and set goals for improvement across the business.

  • Employers should establish clear career paths and provide training and mentoring programs to support employee growth and development for all employees.


Sexist advertising content is still being produced

“There’s also a male skew in production companies (especially directors) which affects gender/diversity under-representation in treatments. Only occasionally gender equality is called out by clients but it’d be nice if there wasn’t an inherent issue to look out for in the first place.”

Female 40-44 years, client

Entrenched creative practices

Entrenched creative practices and biased decision-making structures in advertising organisations and among clients was frequently pointed out as a key factor in the continued production of sexist advertising content.

Most respondents admitted that gender equality in advertising has become somewhat more representative and diverse over time, but there were diverging views about the advertising industry’s place in this change.

Suspicious motives

There is a suspicion within the industry that advertisers are only doing as much as they have to in order to appease the public, without necessarily embracing the shift themselves.

To support the view that gender equality is not prioritised in advertising content in Australia, people would often bring up the persistence of stereotypes and reductive gendered tropes. This was raised more commonly by female than male respondents.

“Equality is prioritised in public-facing ways. I might be cynical but it feels like everybody wants to do what is required to create an image of being forward-thinking and progressive whilst in reality it is often a largely self-serving exercise.”

Male 18-34 years, agency

“Just look around - we keep seeing the same old tropes in advertising again and again- the sexy woman, the dumb dad, the competent family woman, the eye-rolling teenage daughter…”

Female 35-54 years, agency

85% agreed

“better representation of all genders makes better ads”.

What can workplaces do?

  • Develop and implement policies and practices that ensure a gender lens is applied during content creation. Aim for content that is free from harmful stereotypes and instead uses authentic and progressive portrayals that represent the diversity of Australia’s society.

  • Provide training for employees on the impact of sexist advertising and encourage a culture of critical analysis and reflection around content being produced.

  • Establish practices that support calling out sexist advertising and not working with clients with a poor record on gender equality.

  • Implement policies and practices that support diverse hiring across creative pitch and casting teams.

  • Senior leaders should provide a clear vision for the agency’s commitment to progressive portrayals of gender. This includes developing campaigns that promote positive gender stereotypes and challenge harmful gender norms.

  • Establish partnerships with organisations and initiatives (like shEqual!) that promote gender equality in advertising, to support continuous learning and progress.


The unclear role for men in driving change

“Making men part of the conversation. Having loud and proud advocates who are male. Helping everyone better understand how to speak up no matter your level of seniority or having safe ways to do it for junior members.”

Female 35-39 years, agency

Diverging perspectives

Overall, men were less convinced of the power and influence of advertising, particularly in terms of downstream impacts such as the link between gender stereotypes and violence against women.

They were also less certain of advertising workplace culture influencing the content it produces (58% seeing a “very” or “extremely” strong influence compared with 72% of female respondents).

This reinforces longstanding calls for unconscious bias training in the advertising workplace to ensure all are attuned to such issues and understand their arising consequences.

“As a middle-aged white male in a senior position, it means that I’m seen as part of the problem. I get that I am in a powerful position to advocate on these issues, but the mixed – often vitriolic – reaction against men (from men and women) means that someone of my gender speaking out can polarize and exacerbate the problem.

I’ve been told and read that it was men’s role to shut up and listen. I’ve been told and read that it’s our responsibility to stand up and be heard. From what I’ve seen when men speak up, I’ve decided listening is the best approach from me at this stage.”

Male 45-49 years, agency/client

A consistent theme throughout responses was a desire expressed by female respondents for men in the industry to do more to help normalise conversations around gender equality issues – to take some of the load off the impacted women already speaking up, and to raise the general standard of conversation and education around gender equality across the sector.

Men will play a significant role in dismantling the masculine codes and behaviours, for example, disrupting teams that are like-minded, male-dominated and ‘pink ghettos’. These teams characterise advertising workplace cultures and the inequalities that persist within.

“As a man, I feel conflicted about speaking up as I want to speak up on gender issues if I feel strongly about something tangible that I could make a difference with, but I also question whether doing so is problematic in itself – am I taking the place of a person who is directly affected, and therefore it should come from them and not me?”

Male 35-39 years, agency

What can workplaces do?

  • Provide training and resources to support men to engage in conversations around gender equality. This can include workshops and training sessions focused on understanding the impact of gender bias and the role men can play in promoting equality, as well as providing resources for self-education.

  • Encourage men to become allies in the workplace and support the development of male allies’ networks. These networks can provide a platform for men to support each other in promoting gender equality and provide a space for open and honest conversations around gender issues.

  • Foster leadership support for male allies and ensure that senior leaders are actively promoting gender equality and setting an example for other employees to follow.

  • Encourage men to take action in support of gender equality, by providing opportunities for men to get involved in initiatives or projects focused on addressing bias or promoting gender equality in the workplace.

The next take

shEqual recognises the advertising industry’s power to change the narrative and ensure that the ads we see every day are representative, real and empowering, rather than harmful to those who view them. But achieving gender equality starts behind the ads, in the workplaces that commission and create them.

Read the full report to hear real experiences of gender inequality in the ad industry.

Download Behind the Ads