Mathe Okaba. Picture: Supplied
Mathe Okaba. Picture: Supplied

In its bluntest assessment yet of gender inequality in the advertising sector, the Association for Communication & Advertising (ACA) says the glass ceiling for women remains firmly intact and the industry is dominated by "the persistent problem of the old boys’ club".

This follows a wide-ranging industry survey by the local arm of SheSays, a global network for women in creative industries.

ACA CEO Mathe Okaba tells the FM the study "highlights a truth we all know too well", revealing that while women make up just over 60% of the ad industry workforce, their share of leadership positions — particularly in the technology and digital disciplines — is much lower. Okaba is particularly concerned about how few black women are advancing.

"If we consider transformation in its truest sense — and that means changing the industry in its entirety to be more representative of the buying population — there has been some progress but not improvement.

"It’s simply not enough. We need to nurture and develop talent, and create an enabling environment for women leaders to come to the fore."

Around the world, the ad industry has always been known for its robust male culture, both in staff composition and in tone. Okaba says it is no different in SA, but these days there does at least appear to be a desire to move forward.

"The industry does want to create change but it’s turning that desire into action that requires constant guidance. It’s about engendering trust in female-headed and -founded creative agencies as a start, and then providing enabling environments which allow them to stand alongside any agency, delivering effective and creatively brilliant work," she says.

"You can legislate to change certain aspects of an industry. You can self-regulate it. You can educate and guide. And you can benchmark and set targets. But changing culture is a process of education, engagement and guidance. It’s about buy-in from the entire industry, leading by example to help inculcate a new culture, one that’s all-inclusive."

A perennial problem for the ad industry is that women hesitate to join it because they are wary of the testosterone-dominated culture and the glaring gender pay gap.

On this issue Okaba is vague. "As an industry body, we’re continually considering all the relevant aspects of transformation within our industry. We have a number of committees composed of leading industry professionals." Among these is the ACA’s transformation committee, which Okaba says is expected to make announcements soon.

A long-held and accurate industry view is that gender bias negatively affects the tone and relevance of advertising. Greater oversight by women at a senior level might have nipped the race debacle of the Unilever/Clicks ad for Tresemmé hair products in the bud.

Okaba says: "There is no doubt that when creating campaigns for a particular target market, it is inclusivity and representation on the team that wins the day. As the SheSays study shows, women are only represented in the industry outside of true decision-making roles." This increases the risk that "tone-deaf" work is produced.

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