The ugly truth about advertising's gender bias, and how to change it

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Photo: Thinkstock/jozefmicic
Photo: Thinkstock/jozefmicic

Execs from JWT, J&J, and DanoneWeave react to the results of a new JWT/Geena Davis Institute study.

"Women are getting younger, and they’re getting dumber."

That’s a main takeaway, said Geena Davis Institute CEO Madeline Di Nonno, of a study her organization just released about gender in advertising, assessing the past 12 years of Cannes Lions winners and shortlists for their treatment of women. Conducted in partnership with J. Walter Thompson, "The Truth About Gender Bias in Ads in 2017" used machine learning to analyze gender representation, screen time and speaking time across more than 2,000 English-language ads. 

At an Advertising Week panel Monday, Di Nonno revealed the study’s full results: Men were onscreen four times as often as women and spoke seven times as much, were nearly three times as likely to be presented as funny, and were usually engaged in outdoor activity, driving or sports (women, unsurprisingly, showed up most often in domestic settings).

As for that "younger and dumber" thing? The spots featured women averaging in their 20s but men in their late 30s, gave women one-third the volume of dialogue of men (with a vocabulary dominated by monosyllabic words), and portrayed women as clearly intelligent 61 percent of the time, versus 89 percent for men. "The study revealed a level of unconscious bias we didn’t think possible," Di Nonno said. 

The ensuing discussion explored how to identify and undo that unconscious bias. The panel was moderated by JWT CEO Lynn Power and featured Johnson & Johnson marketing president Lynn Bass, beauty and fashion consultant Karen Adam and DanoneWave marketing VP Jeffrey Rothman, who said that men "have to first and foremost recognize our role in the problem, and that this is something we’ve created. And to think it doesn’t affect you is completely wrong."

Bass said men must go further. "In my career, I’ve learned that men have to be the sponsors who pull women up, who provide a backbone of support, because they’re the seats around the table."

With so few women acting as stakeholders in campaigns, the panelists agreed, it’s no surprise that the content that teams produce often promotes bias. Bass highlighted the fact that so few firms use gender representation as a metric in assessing their hiring and marketing outcomes as one area for potential improvement—a simple step like requiring at least one woman be interviewed for a position would be an easy change, for instance. She also noted that global firms like hers have to mirror their "big for good" philanthropy efforts in their internal policies: J&J partners with Feed the Children to end child hunger, and they also have a generous parental leave policy for employees. "We have a big platform to garner advocacy and create a movement to eradicate stereotypes," she said. 

Adam, who most recently worked with beauty startup Supergoop!, explained that listening to employees is a crucial tactic in combating stereotypes. "The team I worked with at SuperGoop! doesn’t want to be marketed to in the traditional sense, and although they were all 22-29-year-olds, it applies to every age group: women want to be represented and heard authentically," she told Campaign US. "Plus, this generation has grown up in a completely different world, with perhaps other biases, but gender is just not an issue." If brands want to reach these consumers, she said, traditional advertising that promotes traditional gender roles is the worst possible tactic.

The panelists also noted that today’s unusual political climate presents an opportunity for brands to lead social change in a meaningful way, perhaps to an unprecedented degree. "People don’t trust the government and big authorities to lead by example," said Bass. "We know advertising creates stereotypes that shape culture, and it’s our responsibility to change culture to empower women."