Adland called out for misogyny, sexual assault and grooming

This article discusses misogyny, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. If you or someone you care about needs support, please contact 1800 RESPECT at 1800 737 732. In an emergency, call 000.

The Australian advertising industry has again been called out for its sexist attitudes and behaviour towards women.

ShEqual, an initiative led by Women’s Health Victoria, has released a damning report on the culture of misogyny and sexual harassment within the advertising industry, following an online survey in October 2021 which resulted in 598 responses, with sufficient data.

Most respondents in the survey were currently working within advertising and in agencies. Respondents were more likely to identify female over male, with most aged 30-49 years and women aged 25-39 made up a third of respondents. Respondents were mostly located in Sydney or Melbourne.

A breakdown of the survey’s demographics [click to enlarge]

In the ‘Perceptions of Gender Equality in Australian Advertising’ report, someone who was identified only as male 30-34 years, agency/client, said: “The industry somehow went through ‘me too’ without a single scalp. I have worked in agencies where the leaders (who are still leaders) routinely harass, make comments and even implement hiring policies based on looks. They joke about it, they are predatory and they downright criminal in their conduct. But the industry doesn’t hold them to account; the press don’t cover it and it is up to the women to raise the flag; not the men. There are people in charge of agencies who get named champions of change… but go into business with men who are found to be grooming juniors.”

Another respondent in the survey relayed a story that involved a colleague being sexually assaulted by her boss because of a workplace bet to see who would “fuck her first”.

Other examples given by respondents of discrimination included being demoted after taking parental leave, being introduced to clients as the “token female”, and male counterparts of similar role and experience being paid more.

Amongst several key findings in the report, respondents felt that the current policies in place to respond to sexual harassment in the workplace were tokenistic and superficial, women were found to be more likely to fear or experience negative consequences from speaking up, while some men didn’t feel it was their place to do so, and that while there is a perception that gender equality is improving in the advertising industry, experiences of sexism and gender discrimination remain common.

One respondent from the survey, identified as female 35-39 years agency/client, said: “The Australian industry does a lot of ‘talking’ but no action. Take the UK and their requirements for all agencies to provide annual reports on their gender pay gaps – why has this not been championed here? … All up, having worked globally and come back to Australia recently, I’m appalled at how behind we are, and how the men in this industry are flaunting their ‘equality stance’ when I know for a fact they are some of the worst offenders.”

Accusations of misogyny are nothing new in adland, as UK-based Zoe Scaman published an article titled ‘Mad Men. Furious Women.’ back in July, calling for serial predators in adland to be on notice. Scaman has spent time working in Australia, having worked at both Naked Communications and UM.

Back in 2017, Mumbrella spoke to several women with stories of sexual harassment anonymously, with stories of women being constantly belittled and harassed.

In 2016, well-known figure in the industry Cindy Gallop called out the industry during a Mumbrella360 panel: “I’ve had numerous emails from women in the Australian ad industry as well as women in the industry around the world telling me appalling stories that they are too scared to say out loud to the ad industry here, to the media, and those stories involved sexual harassment, abuse and retaliation, and the impossibility of pursuing the creative careers they love and want as passionately as every single one of you men did.”

The report found a disparity in how the consequences of speaking up were perceived by men and women, with 17% of men worried about negative consequences, compared to 46% of women.

The differences between male vs female responses [click to enlarge]

Male respondents expressed concern that speaking up on behalf on gender equality could lead to accusations of “white-knighting”.

A male 40-44 years, agency, stated: “I’m a middle aged, white man. Sometimes I feel like… taking action might be seen as knight in shining armour/hero complex saving the girl in need which in itself is sexist and contributes to gender inequality.”

However, the report also found that women wish for men to be more actively involved, with 82% stating that they would be very or extremely encouraged by others speaking up.

“If men stopped objectifying and taking advantage of young women. If comments stopped being made about our bodies or asking how ‘wild’ we get after a few drinks. If men stopped staring at us, cutting us off and creating spaces where only hetero-cis-male related conversations could take place. This would be a great start,” responded a female 25-29 years, agency/client.

In terms of achieving gender equality, 59% of the respondents said that they had participated in a workplace discussion about gender equality. However, 35% of female respondents found these discussions helpful whereas 56% of males found them helpful.

One major barrier for female respondents were attitudes towards taking parental leave and mothering.

A female 35-39 years old, agency, said: “When I had my first baby, my boss responded with ‘I didn’t think you were the [mothering] type’. 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…”

The issue of pay discrimination was also highlighted in the survey results. While both male and female respondents (84% and 94%) said they would strongly or somewhat support their employer undertaking a pay audit to identify any gender pay discrimination, only 16% and 39% of male respondents strongly or somewhat agreed that men are paid more than women in the industry. Comparatively, 59% of female respondents strongly agreed and 27% somewhat agreed.

In terms of who is responsible for addressing gender equality in advertising, the survey found that 83% of respondents said agency management should have a lot of responsibility but only 36% felt they are doing enough.

Respondents’ answers on who is responsible for gender equality action [click to enlarge]

Amongst the answers suggested included a pay audit to identify gender pay discriminations, supported by 83% of female respondents and 68% of male respondents.

[Click to enlarge]

One respondent, female 45-49 years, agency, said: “The Australian Advertising industry has talked about this for so long it’s hard to believe anything will ever change. The leaders respond to four things – money, clients (reviews, winning, or losing clients), awards, publicity (name and shame). Make any change directly linked to that and you might see a difference.”

Another respondent, identified as female 35-39 years, agency, argued for greater transparency: “Men who discriminate against women don’t lose their jobs. Don’t get called out for it – even by their female colleagues in management. That culture of protecting those at the top, even when they do the wrong thing, happens in agencies, in industry publications, with recruiters, etc. Accountability and transparency are huge issues that won’t be solved until the self-serving stop protecting those who let gender inequality flourish.”

Women’s Health Victoria intends to undertake further analysis of the survey results, to be published in 2022.

The full report is available on the ShEqual website.

The report comes after the Jenkins report by the Australian Human Rights Commission was released last week on a similar culture of sexual harassment within the Australian Parliament.

Last year in December, ShEqual launched a campaign that called for brands to stop making ads that promote gender inequality and a culture of violence against women, with The Shannon Company.


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