(WOMENSENEWS)–Gender-equity advocates applauded last month when the WPP Group, a London-based communications company, announced that Ann Fudge had been hired as chairman and chief executive of its multinational advertising division Young and Rubicam Inc. Fudge, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a former division president at Kraft, is not only one of a few African American and one of a handful of women to break into the uppermost ranks of the mainstream advertising sector, she is the first black woman to make it all the way to the top ofa big-10 advertising firm.
“Anytime a woman gets a top spot, she becomes a role model for women, for young women and even girls,” said Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a nonprofit women’s business organization.
But as people cheered Fudge’s appointment, many observers noted that significant changes were still needed before the industry could be considered an equal-opportunity employer. Not only has the industry been slow to promote women and minorities on both the business and the creative side, wage disparities still exist throughout almost every level, from chief executive at large firms to account executives at small agencies.
“You don’t see a tremendous amount of women at the high levels of advertising, the same way you don’t see a tremendous number of women at the high levels in any industry,” said Kipp Cheng, a spokesman for the American Association of Advertising Agencies, a trade group based in New York.
A 2002 study by Advertising Age, an industry trade publication in New York, indicated that of 4,145 employees in 228 agencies surveyed, men occupied 53.8 percent of the posts and dominated–by a ratio of 2.77 to 1–the top five positions (chief executive, chief financial officer, chief technology officer, creative director and associate creative director). In the six lowest positions, women outweighed men 1.12 to 1.
A ‘Reactive’ Industry
One industry insider, who requested anonymity, said the disparity between the number of men and women at the top levels of advertising reflects the industry’s “reactive” nature. In other words, as long as men continue to dominate the upper echelons of big business, advertisers are not likely to break ranks.
“As long as there isn’t a tremendous amount of movement on the client side, there won’t be much change on the agency side,” the industry insider said. “The agencies are very reactive.”
On the wage front, the disparity between men and women also lingers, particularly in strategic management positions. Average base pay for female chief executives at firms with gross income of between $15.1 million and $45 million totaled $225,000 a year while for their male counterparts it was $265,000, according to the Advertising Age study. Female creative directors earned an average $113,000, while male creative directors, by contrast, earned a heftier $153,000.
In 7 out of 11 job categories, the pay differential did narrow in 2002, and pay parity was nearly achieved for associate creative directors, among whom women earned 97.6 percent of what men earned. Among copywriters, women earned 96.5 percent and among art directors women earned 92.7 percent. In these jobs, men outnumber women 2.3 to 1.
(The survey did not offer information on wage disparities at the largest U.S. advertisers, such as New York’s Young and Rubicam Inc.–ranked ninth in 2002, with global revenue of $442 million.)
Women’s Gains Erode Along With Overall Economy
Industry watchers noted that over the past few years, as the economy has slipped, some of the gains women made within the industry have also eroded. During the late-1990s boom, some agencies allowed two people to split the responsibilities of a given job. But since the downturn, such job-sharing arrangements–which can help women to balance the demands of a family with their desire to stay at work–have largely dried up.
“At one point there were work shares, but I’ve not heard of that of late,” said Liz Schroeder, executive director of Advertising Women of New York, a women’s association in the advertising industry. “The industry is very depressed and there are mega-mergers all the time, so no concessions are being made.”
While wage and hiring disparities have obvious consequences for women working in the advertising field, their impact trickles all the way down to the advertisements we see, particularly because men still dominate the creative positions, said Mary Lou Quinlan, a former chief executive of N.W. Ayer Advertising of New York and author of “Just Ask a Woman: Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How They Buy.”
“The ‘hurray’ is that we keep getting more terrific women in positions of influence, but they still aren’t the ones developing the advertisements,” said Quinlan, noting that the higher ups on the creative side spend a lot of time traveling for shoots. “If you go to an awards ceremony for the people who create the ads, you’ll see a sea of suits.”
Male Viewpoint Prevails in Ads
The downside of this, particularly for advertisers’ clients, Quinlan said, is that most commercials are made from a male point of view and in some cases may fail to resonate with female customers. For example, Quinlan pointed to a television ad for an allergy medication that portrayed the mother of a 20-something man as a frumpy old woman.
“That’s just not what women look like,” Quinlan chuckled.
Ultimately, such stereotypes and cliches may prove costly. Studies show that women make or influence 85 percent of all household purchases and will control 60 percent of the country’s wealth by 2010. Other studies show that minority-buying power is also on the rise.
If advertising agencies fail to hire and promote the types of employees who can generate ads that speak directly to the groups doing the buying, the promotions are not likely to succeed–which may be one of the reasons Young and Rubicam selected Ann Fudge to take the company into the 21st century.
“Advertising firms need people who understand the customer,” Quinlan said. “When firms start hiring African American women, it’s a truly powerful signal that the customer is different today.”
Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance journalist based in New York.
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