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This study explores sex segregation in advertising creative departments globally. Using data from the 2013 Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies, the authors investigate the lack of gender diversity in creative departments in 50 countries across the world. The theoretical frames that anchor this work are the sociologically based multidimensional model of sex segregation and Csikszentmihalyi’s system’s theory of creativity. In the end, this study demonstrates powerful vertical and horizontal sex segregation. Further, for the first time, this study quantifies the underrepresentation of women in advertising creative departments, demonstrating a global average of only 20.3 percent female representation in advertising creative departments.

A large proportion of the global workforce is employed within careers where gender segregation is a dominant feature.i Occupational sex segregation is measured by the extent of disproportional representation of women and men in the division of labor as well as individual occupations.ii Further, cross-national studies of occupational structure suggest the existence of a substantial amount of occupational gender segregation in most industrialized countries. Such segregation is marked by gender inequality. Occupations dominated by men are characterized by “greater compensation, greater independence and control, better upward mobility, and greater authority than occupations dominated by women.”iii While many of the segregation studies focus on international-comparative investigations across the general labor workforce, this study seeks to pinpoint gender imbalance within a specific functional division of the global advertising industry, the creative department. As such, this study is the first to systematically explore the underrepresentation of creative women within the context of a quantitatively global comparison.

The dearth of women in advertising creative departments has sparked the attention of scholars, primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom.iv Yet, further research into the subject has been hampered by the lack of quantitative hard data, and the qualitative data are limited and geographically narrow.

Thus, the primary goal of this study is to provide updated and expanded quantitative evidence demonstrating the lack of gender diversity (sex segregation) in advertising creative departments at a global level. In the process, this study sheds light on the multidimensional segregation structure of creative departments.

Literature Review

Gender Segregation and Inequality

Overall, women make up about half of the advertising workforce. Yet, gender-based vertical and horizontal segregation is apparent within advertising agencies, especially in creative.v Although previous findings indicate that women have a fair presence in the overall advertising workforce,vi this may only be an illustration of “pseudo-feminization.”vii Under the effect of the sex segregation, women are excluded from senior positions or certain departments (e.g., the creative department) despite their fair participation rate in the agencies.

The conventional conceptualization of gender segregation is unidimensional. Earlier studies tended to look at the disproportional distribution of women as a “strong indicator” of gender inequality in the general workforce,viii with women being the disadvantaged. Yet, these studies showed a generally slow pace of improvement regarding gender segregation, which did not match the significant changes in women’s overall status over the past 40 years.ix Further, despite the gender-egalitarian tradition in Scandinavian countries, they too tend to show high levels of gender segregation.x Therefore, to understand the relationship between sex segregation and inequality, the unidimensional approach must be forfeited. Thus, this study uses a multidimensional segregation approach, addressing both vertical and horizontal segregation within the advertising creative departments.

Specifically, we use the term “overall sex segregation” to refer to the conventional notion of sex segregation. While employing the multidimensional model of sex segregation, results in a synergy between vertical and horizontal component dimensions (Figure 1).xi

Figure 1. Dimensions of Segregation
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Figure 1.

Dimensions of Segregationxii

Vertical segregation is often referred to as the unequal status hierarchy within a certain occupation or subsegment within that occupation. In the case of this study, the occupation is being a creative within a subsegment of advertising creative departments, as compared to agencies as a whole. Taken within the context of advertising creative departments, vertical segregation might be contextualized with the principle of male primacy, which holds that men are “more status worthy than women and accordingly more appropriate for positions of authority and domination.”xiii With this concept of vertical segregation in mind, the vertical segregation here is defined as the ratio of women in the managerial positions (Creative Director) in the advertising creative departments.

Horizontal segregation, referred to as the “glass wall” by Guy, xiv describes the horizontal barriers that preclude women or men from certain occupations based on gender dominance.xv While vertical segregation measures the extent of the occupational inequality, sociologists hold that within the general labor force, horizontal segregation is orthogonal to vertical segregation.xvi Sociologists argue that horizontal segregation is independent of vertical segregation and entails no relevant aspects of inequality; thus, an increase in overall segregation in the labor force is not necessarily an indication of worsening gender inequality.xvii In particular, Charles maintains that horizontal segregation is rooted in gender essentialism, which puts women in a prominent position in sectors that focus on service, nurturance, and social interaction.xviii It is important to note that such definitions of horizontal segregation, as defined by sociologists, often encompass the labor market as a whole. Our study focuses on one historically male-dominated occupation, advertising creative. As such, we explore horizontal segregation within and around advertising creative and not across the entire labor force.

Since prior studies have rejected the notion that creativity is gendered specific,xix we argue that inequality is manifested by horizontal segregation in creative departments, which serves to hinder women from entering and, more importantly, staying and thriving. Thus, in this study, horizontal segregation is quantified as the proportion of female creatives within the advertising creative departments. Using the multidimensional segregation model, we propose a single-occupation multidimensional model of sex segregation (Figure 2). In this structure, the vertical dashed line denotes vertical segregation, which keeps female creatives from rising through the ranks. The horizontal dashed line depicts horizontal segregation indicating both female creatives’ diminished access to entrance and the roadblocks to retention.

Figure 2. Dimensions of Segregation within Advertising Creative Departments
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Figure 2.

Dimensions of Segregation within Advertising Creative Departments

Moreover, apart from sociologists’ assumption that vertical and horizontal barriers are independent and not correlated within the general labor market,xx when narrowing down the focus to a specific occupation or subsegment we see a reduction in opportunities from hiring to retention to promotion. Thus, it is logical to imply that as there are fewer women in creative departments, chances for retention and promotion diminish. Therefore, a positive dynamic between the two dimensions is predicted. Finally, a review of the literature on the lack of women in creative strongly supports vertical and horizontal segregation.

Vertical Sex Segregation in the Advertising Industry

Previous studies have demonstrated that the proportion of women in senior positions is crucial to supporting positive experiences for women in junior positions.xxi In fact, women in senior managerial roles are capable in influencing the organization’s policies and practices and in affecting the culture of the organization.xxii The lack of senior women often serves to highlight gender as a negative status indicator for women.xxiii

Unfortunately, vertical sex segregation is widespread within the organizational structure of the advertising industry.xxiv According to an Advertising Age salary survey, the advertising industry articulates fairly gender-balanced employment practices, with women representing 50.6 percent of all advertising employees.xxv Additionally, a 2007 report from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) tracking 360 advertising agencies demonstrated that women accounted for 56 percent of those employed within advertising agencies.xxvi However, women generally dominate the lower occupational positions across all departments. Further, and of significance, women occupy only 19.5 percent of all upper-management positions.xxvii In creative, the percent of women at the top is far less.xxviii At the same time, women are heavily represented in clerical positions, at 73.6 percent, and in services jobs, at 72.7 percent.xxix These numbers are almost identical to the findings of the EEOC report from five years earlier,xxx indicating stagnant opportunities for women within advertising agencies in the United States.

A similar picture emerges in the United Kingdom. Statistics from a 2005 Equal Opportunities Commission report identified men as holding 95 percent of chief executive positions within media companies.xxxi According to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the number of women working at the top, such as Chairperson, Chief Executive Officer, or Chief Creative Officer, has experienced only a modest increase between 2011, at 13.5 percent, and 2012, at 21.5 percent.xxxii These numbers are well below proportional representation of 35 percent, which will be discussed shortly.

The trend of underemployment of women can be documented in other European countries as well. In Spain, the Spanish Association of Advertising Agencies found that 90 percent of the managerial roles were held by men.xxxiii In Germany, only 10 percent of senior management positions are held by women.xxxiv Data collected by the Swedish Association of Communication Agencies (KOMM) demonstrate that women in Sweden make up nearly half of the advertising workforce, at 49 percent. While women in Sweden have greater representation in management, 36 percent in mid-management and 20 percent at the executive level,xxxv these numbers are still far below the percentage of female creatives employed in Sweden.

Vertical sex segregation can also be witnessed across the advertising industry in creative awards and judging panels. Female winners are scarce among the industry’s most recognizable creative awards, including Clios, Cannes Lions,xxxvi the One Show,xxxvii Communication Arts,xxxviii and Ad Week’s Best Spots.xxxix The same trend is visible within awards judging panels, where men have long dominated.xl Yet, we also know that creativity “is not gender specific.”xli Clearly, the advertising industry has an issue to address.

Horizontal Sex Segregation in the Advertising Industry

The academic literature on the underrepresentation of women in advertising creative departments confirms a masculine domination within creative departments across a number of countries.xlii However, official industry data are scarce. In fact it is virtually “absent and impossible to obtain.”xliii A frequently cited source is a 2002 Advertising Age survey. It found that men outnumbered women in advertising agencies by a ratio of 2.3 to 1.xliv In 2005 Advertising Age updated data with a report on agency employment across a six-year period from 2000 to 2005. It demonstrated a consistent trend of underrepresentation of women in creative in the United States: 31.3 percent in 2005, 31.9 percent in 2004, and 32.0 percent in 2003.xlv That report also revealed a concentration of women in media services: 70.1 percent in 2005, 74.2 percent in 2004, and 74.3 percent in 2003; and account services: 69.6 percent in 2005, 66.7 percent in 2004, and 67.1 percent in 2003.xlvi

Beyond the United States, Klein found that women comprised just 15 percent of creative positions in the United Kingdom and 30 percent in Sweden.xlvii In Britain, evidence suggests that some women leave creative, sometimes moving away to other departments within an agency, though this appears not to be common practice.xlviii More commonly, creative women leave the industry altogether. In the Spanish advertising sector, there is evidence of horizontal sex segregation, with markers of female employees unevenly distributed across agency departments, and a significantly fewer number in creative.xlix Further, some studies suggest that there are nearly equal numbers of women and men entering creative, but clearly many women do not remain.l Beyond statistics, a number of qualitative studies also sought to explain the lack of females in

Looking within the creative advertising space across time, the negative outcome of horizontal segregation in advertising creative departments appears to be impeding female creatives in their work and career progression. In her seminal work on proportional representation, Kanter points out that proportional representation has a powerful impact on one’s success. According to Kanter, with under 35 percent representation, one is viewed as a minority and can exert little influence on change within the group.lii Still worse, when a group represents less than 15 percent, a transformation from minority to tokens occurs. Token status is marked by three perceptual phenomena: visibility, polarization, and assimilation. Heightened token visibility generates performance pressures; polarization then leads to social and professional isolation, while the perceived need to assimilate creates stereotypical role entrapments.liii Clearly, the horizontal barrier, wall if you will, between women and the masculine creative environment is impeding female creatives’ performance and success.

Creative System’s Perspectives

Csikszentmihalyi’s system’s perspective on creativity suggests that the creative process “can be observed only at the intersection where individuals, domains, and fields interact.”liv To produce creativity, three components are required: 1) a capable creator (individual); 2) accessible symbolic culture systems (domain); and 3) responsive social system (field). Within the system’s model, cultural rules and practices are transmitted from the domain (popular culture) to the individual (the creative), who creates a creative idea or meme that is selected and approved by the field (the creative department) and then applied to the domain (popular culture).

The individual creator serves to create or to change memes,lv symbolic units that carry cultural ideas, through the implementation of creativity, which is controlled by the gatekeepers within the field. In the case of advertising, Creative Directors are the creative gatekeepers. Changes initiated by the individual are not adopted within the domain “unless they are sanctioned by some group entitled to make decisions as to what should or should not be included.”lvi Further, from a structural system’s perspective, the creative process is not solely determined by a single creator. Rather, it is a product of a systematic model.lvii However, in creative departments, which are clouded by a masculine culture, men dominate gatekeeper roles. Thus, masculine norms tend to frame advertising creativity. Under such a construct, women experience great difficulty in having their voices heard.lviii Subsequently, female creatives are often denied participation in noteworthy accounts and thus denied upward mobility.lix

Vanden Bergh and Stuhlfaut stress that the “players” are free to move between spheres.lx Yet, the system’s model also puts emphasis on the bidirectional flow between the field (clients, agencies, and creative departments) and the individual (creatives), as creative ideas bounce between the gatekeepers and creators moving toward final approval. While being part of the domain (popular culture), both the field and the individual receive and reflect memes, which reside in an overall symbolic system. Memes in turn circulate among a system of interrelated domains, which transmit various social and cultural markers back to the individual creators. In this sense, all three spheres join in selecting and defining what comes to be known as creativity. Finally, the cultural domain is saturated with gender stereotypes; together with the field, which is filled with constructions based on the norms of masculinity, this severely constrains female creatives’ participation.

Since gender and creativity are both socially constructed, disproportional underrepresentation in the creative departments hinders women’s participation in the process of creative production.lxi According to Kanter, proportional representation at a 35 percent benchmark is necessary to “diminishes the salience of the minority and alleviates self-consciousness.”lxii In gender-skewed creative departments, which are dominated by masculinity, the failure to achieve the 35 percent proportional representation benchmark constrains women’s performance and ultimately their creative output.lxiii In other words, the underrepresentation of females in advertising creative compromises the creative process and ultimately creativity itself.


Sampling Source

Data were pulled from the comprehensive industry database, Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies, more commonly known as the Advertising Red Books (hereinafter Red Books). Red Books is a competitive intelligence tool for agencies and advertisers that compiles data profiles on advertising agencies including their client base, annual billings, number of employees (including roles), and branch offices. “For over 100 years, the advertising and media industry has continually relied on Red Books for up-to-date data and insights surrounding all players in the agency and advertiser industry.”lxiv The advantage of using Red Books as the data source is that its protocol is consistent across time and countries. Red Books has used automated updating of contact information powered by LexisNexis since 2002.lxv Additional data collection and/or verification also include: phone calls, self updates, web mining, public record mining, and news monitoring. The Red Books database and profiles include contact information for more than 200,000 individuals across more than 15,000 agencies in more than 124 countries.lxvi

However, Red Books is not without shortcomings. First, it relies heavily on automatic software for updating, which frequently results in double entries. Second, the software is made to recognize mainly Western languages. Third, it also adopts self-updating, which may affect data reliability. Fourth, the Red Books database is mainly focused on industrial countries. A detail frequency table of agency count per country is shown in Table 1. Despite its shortcomings, Red Books is the most detailed international resource for the advertising industry and remains the most creditable industry source.

Table 1. Frequency of Agency per Country
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Table 1.

Frequency of Agency per Country

Selection Procedures

For the current study, the authors conducted a five-step process between February and July 2013.

  1. 1. Agencies in countries with a 2012 estimated Gross Domestic Productlxvii greater than $100 billion U.S. were selected.

  2. 2. Countries with fewer than five agencies listed (i.e., Kuwait and Qatar) were excluded from the study to avoid skewing the results.

  3. 3. Agencies with fewer than 10 employees were removed from the pool, also to avoid skewing the results. Utilizing steps one through three, the initial 1,980 agencies were trimmed down to 1,915 from 50 countries.

  4. 4. Within the remaining agencies, individuals were segmented by creative function: Creative Director, Art Director, and Copywriter (hereinafter CD, AD, and CW, respectively). This initial data set resulted in 3,062 individuals.

  5. 5. A gender-screening process was then conducted. Beyond the obvious gender names (i.e., David, Michael, Nancy, or Susan), the remaining pool of names had their gender verified by one of two methods. The name was verified by either a native-speaking research assistant or a Facebook and LinkedIn search was done to identify the individual’s gender. Any individuals with unconfirmed gender were removed. The final data set for this study included 3,041 CDs, ADs, and CWs from 50 countries.

Analytic Process

Gender representation data and distribution by job title were examined by country and geographic region: Europe, Asia Pacific, North America, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Processing was done using SPSS crosstabs and Pearson correlation analysis to test statistical significance.

The results were then contextualized using sex segregation theory. To clarify, horizontal sex segregation within a country was measured by the percentage of female creatives within all of the agencies within a country. The smaller the percentage, the greater the horizontal segregation. Vertical segregation was measured by the percent of female CDs among the whole population of CDs within a country. The higher the percentage, the more women occupied top positions within creative departments. Thus, high percentages indicate a lower level of vertical segregation. Finally, the results were discussed in terms of systemic impact.


The overall results represent 50 countries: Europe (23 countries), Asia Pacific (13 countries, including Australia and New Zealand), North America (United States and Canada), Latin America (seven countries including Mexico), and finally Africa and the Middle East (five countries).


Across all 50 countries, there are 1,915 agencies with 3,041 creative practitioners. Of those, women account for only 20.3 percent of all creatives (Table 2). A relationship between gender and higher positions (CDs) in the creative department can also be seen (X21 = 14.8, p<.001).

Table 2. Global Gender Distribution
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Table 2.

Global Gender Distribution

Table 3 lists country rankings by total female creatives by percentages and reflects horizontal segregation. Table 4 lists country rankings by female CD percentages and reflects vertical segregation. There appears a relationship between horizontal and vertical segregation as a Pearson correlation analysis between female creative percentages in the creative department and the female CD percentages among all CDs found a moderate positive relationship between the two variables (r=.35, p<.05).

Table 3. Horizontal Segregation: Country Rankings by Percentages of Female Creatives
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Table 3.

Horizontal Segregation: Country Rankings by Percentages of Female Creatives

Table 4. Vertical Segregation: Countries Ranking by Female CD’s Percentages
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Table 4.

Vertical Segregation: Countries Ranking by Female CD’s Percentages


The 23 European countries represented demonstrate a clear male majority at 80.5 percent, with females at 19.5 percent. Men occupy 88.3 percent of CD positions, while women occupy just 11.7 percent of CD positions (Table 5). The relationship between gender and director roles (CDs) thus remains significant (X21 = 10.6, p<.005).

Table 5. Europe Gender Distribution
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Table 5.

Europe Gender Distribution

Reviewing Europe country by country, the majority of the European countries, including Scandinavian countries, clearly display male dominance in creative departments. Knowing that the European average for creative women is 19.5 percent, it is worth noting outliers. Greece (58.3 percent) and Ukraine (41.2 percent), neither of which can be easily explained, show an extraordinary high number of women. Secondary outliers are Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Romania, which show more than 30 percent female creatives. Finally, it is worth noting that Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, and Norway all show less than 10 agencies.

Asia and Pacific

The Asia-pacific region is also a masculine domain. All three creative positions are overrepresented by men (Table 6). Women make up only 22.2 percent of all creatives, while men make up 77.8 percent. The data show that female CDs account for only 14.4 percent of all CDs. The relationship between gender and higher job rankings is significant (X21=5.1, p<.05).

Table 6. Asia Pacific Gender Distribution
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Table 6.

Asia Pacific Gender Distribution

Interestingly, the Asia Pacific numbers are almost identical to Europe. Consistent with Europe, CD positions for women are scarce, except for China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Of note, the proportion of creative women in the Asia Pacific region at 22.2 percent is slightly larger than the world’s average (20.3 percent). Despite China’s large population, Chinese advertising agencies are underrepresented in the Red Books database, resulting in only 13 agencies. That said, they score 100 percent for female CDs, as does the Philippines. It is noteworthy that all Chinese agencies listed in the Red Books are subsidiaries of multinational agencies and members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. This may explain why there are no male CDs and may further suggest that female CDs report to male CDs abroad. On a national level, the Philippines has one of the highest percentage of female creative practitioners at 41.7 percent and 100 percent of the CDs are female. South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam are second with just under 29 percent female participation in creative departments; half of CDs in Vietnam are female. South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam have fewer than 10 agencies listed. Further, it appears that subsidiaries of multinationals are common across Asia. Asian outliers clearly need further exploration.

North America

For this study, North America consists of the United States and Canada. Due to greater cultural matching, Mexico is included in Latin America. The United States has the largest numbers of agencies, perhaps because it is home to Red Books. Yet, overall, the figures are very similar to other parts of the world. That said, women in the United States enjoy a bit more representation, comprising 27.7 percent of the total creative staff (Table 7).

Table 7. North America Gender Distribution
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Table 7.

North America Gender Distribution

It appears that there are slightly more female CDs (25.2 percent) in the United States than in the rest of the world (14.6 percent). There are 28.1 percent female CWs in the United States and 23.3 percent in Canada. As for ADs, there are 31.8 percent in the United States and slightly more, 35.7 percent, in Canada. Generally, the numbers are similar for CWs and ADs in North America. However, American female CDs make up more than double their Canadian counterparts, 25.2 percent to 11.8 percent. While female creative percentages in North American are above the global average of 20.3 percent, and in fact demonstrate the highest geographic representation, they still do not reach proportional representation, which is attained at 35 percent. Overall in the North America region, the relationship between gender and CD positions appears not to be significant (X21=1.0, ns).

Latin America

In contrast to North America, Latin America is marked with the highest horizontal segregation in the world (Table 8) with fewer than 5 percent of females in the creative pool. Women are significantly underrepresented in all creative positions and there is no relationship between gender and higher job rankings (X21=.4, ns).

Table 8. Latin America Gender Distribution
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Table 8.

Latin America Gender Distribution

These findings appear to be driven by the extremely low number of women, especially in Argentina and Venezuela. Both have no female creatives listed in Red Books. Venezuela has only five agencies listed, and all are multinationals. Argentina has a larger pool with 24 agencies, yet still lists no women are listed as members of their creative teams. Among all these countries, Brazil, with only 12 women within a pool of 152 creatives, has the largest female participation rate at 7.9 percent.

Africa and Middle East

Red Books database lists only two African countries (Egypt and South Africa) and three from the Middle East (Israel, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates). Table 9 shows that the region has female representation similar to that of the global number, at roughly 20 percent.

Table 9. Africa and Middle East Gender Distribution
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Table 9.

Africa and Middle East Gender Distribution

The relationship between gender and director roles is significant (X21 = 4.6, p<.05). Only six agencies are listed for Egypt, and none of them has any female creatives. South Africa has the highest number of female creative; 25 out of 95 creatives are women. Of those, 21 are CWs and four are ADs. Even though the gender ratio of ADs is larger than the rest of the world, female CDs account for only 3.8 percent of creative management. In fact, female CDs can be found only in Saudi Arabia.

Global Distribution

An illustration of the distribution of female creatives across 50 countries can be seen in Figure 3, where the darker color indicates the highest percentage of female participation. North America, Australia, and New Zealand show slightly higher percentages, though still lower than 30 percent. Thus, even where scores are the highest in the world, female creatives rarely reach proportional representation. Noteworthy percentages of female creatives can be seen in seven countries in Europe. Yet, despite these scattered top-scorers, reaching more than 30 percent, Europe remains a masculine domain with female representation hovering at around 20 percent. Asian countries are marked by moderate female percentages with Thailand, South Korea, and Vietnam at just below 29 percent female participation. South Africa demonstrates moderate female representation at 26.3 percent. Egypt is another country without a single female creative listed. Yet, in other Middle Eastern countries, the representation rate goes from 23.3 percent (United Arab Emirates) to 11.8 percent (Israel). Among Latin America countries, female representation remains extraordinarily low, none greater than 10 percent, with Argentina and Venezuela indicating no female creatives.

Fig. 3. Percentage of Creative Women in Advertising Creative Departments by Country (screenshot of the StatPlanet visualizations software illustration)
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Fig. 3.

Percentage of Creative Women in Advertising Creative Departments by Country (screenshot of the StatPlanet visualizations software illustration)

Consistent with the above trend, North America, with 23.7 percent, and Oceania, with 15.2 percent, show moderate female CD’s percentages, whereas the top-scorers (≥50 percent) are all Asian and European countries (Philippines, China, Poland, Vietnam, and Sweden). However, it is worth noting again that roughly 90 percent of the agencies listed in Third World countries are local branches of multinational giants, which most likely affects their scores. The rest of Europe has a scattered record of female CDs: rates from 33.3 percent in the Czech Republic to 0 percent in Belgium and a handful of others. In many countries across the world, it is common to see no female CDs whatsoever. Specifically, in five of the 13 Asian countries (Indonesia and others), there are no female CDs. Four of the seven Latin American countries (Argentina among others) also have no female CDs. Within African and the Middle East, only Saudi Arabia has female CDs, leaving four of the five countries (Israel and South Africa and others) having none. Among the top ten countries with the lowest female participation rate, seven have zero female CDs. This appears to indicate strong vertical and horizontal segregation, and a systemic global creative culture, as shall be discussed.


Vertical Segregation

We begin this discussion by again illuminating that vertical segregation is measured by the percent of female CDs among the whole population of CDs within a country, region, or globally. The findings demonstrate a severe underrepresentation of women in creative management, with women making up only 14.6 percent of all CDs globally. The relationship between gender and CD roles on a global scale (X21 = 14.8, p<.001), as well as in three regions (Europe, Asia Pacific, Africa and Middle East), suggest that vertical segregation is solidly entrenched. Despite these dismal numbers, some countries rise above the average, such as the United States at 25.2 percent. Yet, few rise above proportional representation of 35 percent. This includes almost every developed country, with the exception of what appears to be outliers, such as China and the Philippines both at 100 percent. This might be explained by both the lack of agencies listed in Red Books, and the fact they are multinationals, as well as cultures that are typified by a female workforce.lxviii

Considering the dismal global average of 14.6 percent female CDs, it is fair to say that there is a dire lack of female CDs. They are, in fact, a far cry from the benchmark of 35 percent. Even more striking, the global average of 14.6 percent typifies female CDs as having token status (less than 15 percent). Further, many countries considered global creative leaders exemplify female CDs token status. Consider Canada with 11.8 percent female CDs, Japan with 9.1 percent, the United Kingdom with 8.1 percent, and Brazil with 7.4 percent. It appears that creative leadership is gripped by masculine domination. This is not productive for multinational clients seeking voices that resonate with the majority of their consumers who are, in fact, largely female. Nor is it productive for women as they seek to climb the creative ranks. Rather, the data confirm “pseudo-feminization”lxix with women being severely and it appears, systematically, excluded from senior creative positions.

Horizontal and Overall Segregation

We also begin this discussion of horizontal sex segregation by clarifying that horizontal segregation within a country is measured by the percentage of female creatives within all of the agencies within a country. Thus, the smaller the percentage, the greater the horizontal segregation. Strong horizontal segregation in advertising creative departments is evident in the data, with the ratio of women to men in the global creative workforce close to 1:4 or 20.3 percent. Further, with the exception of a few outliers (Greece, the Philippines, Ukraine, Poland, and Italy), it is a rare country that passes the proportional representation benchmark of 35 percent. In fact, not a single country that would be considered a major international advertising force reaches the 35 percent criteria. This suggests that creative women will rarely reach impactful positions in creative departments across the globe. Further, 16 countries fall below the 15 percent “token”lxx threshold. Two of the countries that have only a token number of female creatives, the United Kingdom at 13.9 percent and France at 14.4 percent, are also home to major global multinational advertising agencies. Clearly there is a systemic trend, which does not support the idea that female players are free to move within the creative system, as Vanden Bergh and Stuhlfaut’s supposition suggests.lxxi Finally, the negative consequences of tokenism for women in creative cannot be understated.

Individual country results are consistent with previous findings. Yet, these findings demonstrate slightly lower numbers overall. Previous finding show the percentages of females in creative were 19.4 percent in Spain,lxxii 15 percent in the United Kingdom,lxxiii 30 percent in Sweden,lxxiv and 31.3 percent in the United States.lxxv In our study, the percentages were found to be 18.9 percent in Spain, 13.9 percent in the United Kingdom, 20.7 percent in Sweden, and 27.7 percent in the United States. Despite the differences in sample source, procedures, and timing of these studies, the similarities suggest that the phenomenon of underrepresentation of women may well be stable and persistent within advertising creative departments globally. Country by country, the “glass wall” appears to mitigate women’s ability to flourish in creative.

Although horizontal segregation does not imply inequality at a broader social level, it should be a significant concern for those leading creative departments where severely skewed gender proportion could result in compromising female success in creative. Within the skewed constructs, horizontal and vertical segregation can work together to exacerbate inequality. The findings of this study suggest the interplay between the two dimensions is significant and the effect is moderate (r=.35, p<.05). Data suggest that horizontal barriers preclude women from establishing deep roots within advertising creative departments across the world. This lack of rootedness has particularly negative consequences for upward mobility as Still’s modellxxvi would have predicted. Also of significance is the fact that we know women influence 80 to 85 percent of all consumption decisions.lxxvii Thus, the dramatic lack of women participating in advertising creative potentially compromises advertising’s overall success. For as the advertising industry expands globally, it stalwartly appears to carry with it strong and often damaging gender stereotypes. In the end, these findings suggest powerful systemic markers, which keep creative women from reaching their full potential.

The System’s Model of Creative Culture

This study, for the first time, demonstrates sex segregation in creative departments is a systemic global trend. The authors suggest that this trend expands across the world as multinationals extend their reach. Further, this trend is sustained by a masculine cultural environment that prevents women from reaching proportional representation and thus sustains the systemic gender-bound structure of advertising creative departments. Finally, this trend carries with it gender stereotypes, which saturate both the domain and field, and severely constrain females’ participation within the field, specifically within advertising creative departments.

The fact is that 90 percent of the advertising agencies listed in Third World countries are branch offices for multinational agencies, all of which have broad footprints across the international marketplace. Then consider that the system’s model of advertising creative,lxxviii as seen through the lens of Vanden Bergh and Stuhlfaut, suggests that the field (the creative department) serves as gatekeeper for the output of creativity. Pairing this with the results of this study, which demonstrates that men dominate CD positions and are thus creative gatekeepers, it is more than plausible that multinationals are systematically shipping the “boy’s club”lxxix overseas. While some argue that the system’s model has a free flow of players within the system,lxxx others argue that masculinity in the field controls the production of creativity preventing women’s voices from being heard.lxxxi

This study strongly supports that there is a powerful masculine domination of advertising creative department across the globe, which is articulated by robust horizontal “walls” and nearly impenetrable vertical “ceilings.” These globally transferable horizontal “walls” and vertical “ceilings” continue to impede creative women’s inward (hiring) and upward (promotion and retention) mobility.

Outliers, Limitations, and Future Opportunities

Outliers present themselves as either nonrepresentation or overrepresentation. To contextualize outliers, we need to remember that this study has demonstrated that the global average of female creative participation is 20.3 percent. It has also shown that the average of creative women across Europe is 19.5 percent. Thus, Greece with 58.3 percent female creatives and Ukraine with 41.2 percent are strong outliers, neither of which can be easily explained. Secondary outliers are Poland with 38.1 percent female creatives, Italy with 35.2 percent, Romania with 33.3 percent, and Portugal with 31.8. All articulate high female creative participation, which appears incongruous and thus call for further investigation. Additionally, overrepresentation of female CDs is demonstrated by two outliers, China and the Philippines, each listing female CDs at 100 percent. Compared to the global data presented here, these numbers appear significantly skewed. Further CDs in Poland, Vietnam, and Sweden also had high proportional representation at >50 percent. Finally, it is worth nothing that dropping these outliers would have driven the number of women in creative even lower. Keeping them in the study highlights the need for deeper explorations into of the drivers behind these outliers, which will be addressed in future opportunities.

Some of these finding may be explained as aberrations. For instance, data from KOMM suggest that the number of Swedish female CDs is closer to 28 percent.lxxxii This is further supported by the fact that three other Scandinavian countries show high horizontal readings with Denmark at 17.6 percent female creatives, Finland at 20.7 percent, and Norway at 0 percent. Further, they all have extremely high vertical levels, with no female CDs at all. This may be due to the small sample size. However, high horizontal dimensions accompanied by a moderate vertical dimension could result in overall segregation, yet still demonstrate gender equality. Nonetheless, these numbers beg the question, To what extent do creative departments in gender-egalitarian countries share the benefit of gender equality? Additionally, considering gender in a cultural context might help explain some of the high numbers of female creatives in Asian countries. Culturally it would be expected that higher numbers of women would be found in the workforce. However, the extremes in this study suggest the something beyond cultural norms. Finally, polarized results of either 100 percent or 0 percent are likely due, at least in part, to insufficient records in the Red Books database. In fact, it could be argued that there are few creatives, overall, listed per agency in Red Books. Thus we cannot be sure if the creatives listed within Red Books are representative of creatives as a whole.

As with all studies, this study has some specific limitations. First, Red Books relies primarily on self-reporting and the data are heavily concentrated in industrialized countries. Further, the current study looks only at data across a specific segment of time. Future studies could revisit the dataset annually, forming a longitudinal study accessing trends in sex segregation within advertising creative departments globally. Additionally, more studies could be developed to explore gender issues in countries that are not well represented by Red Books or which presented skewed or polarized data and thus are categorized as outliers.


This study exploring the multidimensional model of sex segregation in advertising, within the creative system’s framework, quantifies the lack of women in advertising creative generally, as well as the lack of women creative management globally. Across every region of the world, strong horizontal and vertical sex segregation have been demonstrated. Although horizontal segregation is considered without gender inequality by sociologists, these findings suggest otherwise. In fact, horizontal and vertical segregation are positively related in creative departments across the world. Additionally, the finding within vertical segregation correlations confirm that gender is interacting with CD positions in creative departments.

This study demonstrates that women make up only 20.3 percent of all advertising creatives across the world. Women also make up only 14.6 percent of all CDs globally. Without any doubt, advertising creative is constrained by a stunning lack of gender diversity. The flow between domain (popular culture) and individual (creative) is undoubtedly overshadowed by gender bias and stereotypes, which are affirmed and often perpetuated by the field (creative departments). Further, it appears that the advertising creative system, alive with gender bias, is being transferred systematically across the world as multinational agencies gobble up the global marketplace.

Considering the findings in terms of sex segregation and the creative system’s framework, the impact of sex segregation within creative departments (the field) has a dramatic and, we would argue, negative impact. We know that creativity is not maintained solely by its creator (the individual). We also know that CDs within the field exert huge pressure on creatives (the individual) to succumb to the systematic norms, which are inherently colored by a masculine ethos. Further, and contrary to Vanden Bergh and Stuhlfaut’s mono-dimensional flow of field-to-domain-to-person, this study suggests a multidirectional flow that has impeded proportional representationlxxxiii for women at all levels of creative across nearly every country on the globe. This is especially true in highly sex-segregated countries where creative women are too often tokens and where perceptions of gender stereotypes are easily reinforced by a gendered-bound advertising creative system—a system that has been shipped across the world for consumption and replication. Until women reach the 35 percent benchmark, which will bring proportional representation,lxxxiv creative departments across the world will remain mired in gendered constraints, affecting both creatives and clients. The underrepresentation of women in advertising creative departments compromises not just the creative process. The lack of women in advertising creative departments compromises creativity itself. Thus, in the end, this is not a gender problem. This is a business problem, a problem that advertising agencies ignore at their own peril.

Jean M. Grow

Jean M. Grow is an Associate Professor and Director of the University Fine Arts Program at Marquette University, Milwaukee Wisconsin. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Jean’s research explores the under-representation of women in advertising creative departments globally. She has numerous scholarly publications and recently coauthored the 3rd edition of Advertising Creative: Strategy, Copy and Design (Sage, 2013). Jean engages with professional and academic audiences across the world. She was a Visiting Professor in 2013 at the University of Modena at Reggio Emilia, Italy. In 2012 she presented on self-branding at the youngSIETAR congress in Slovenia. She also spoke at the 3% Conference, in San Francisco, an advertising industry conference exploring the lack of women in creative. In 2011 Jean lectured on brand strategy in Rome and Barcelona, and taught a Global Brand Tracking class in London and Barcelona.

Prior to joining the academy Jean worked as an artists’ representative. Her clients included: Coca Cola and Kellogg’s as well as DDB, Draftfcb, and Leo Burnett, to name a few. She continues to consult with clients from Nike to the National Hemophilia Foundation.

Tao Deng

Tao Deng is a research assistant and graduate student at Marquette University. He earned his Master of Social Sciences in Media Management from Hong Kong Baptist University. Mr. Deng has worked in a major English newspaper in South China helping to expand their readership. He has also served as Project Manager for a medium advertising agency in Hong Kong, his clients included multinationals such as Burger King and Cardinal Health. Tao continues industry affiliations working as a freelance editor. Based on the professional background, Mr. Deng’s research interests focus on cross-cultural advertising and consumer behavior.

Contact details
Twitter: @jeangrow
Johnston Hall 510 / P.O. Box 1881, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881
Contact details
Diederich College of Communication, Marquette University,
Johnston Hall 522, 1250 W. Wisconsin Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53233.


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i. Blackburn et al.; Charles, “Deciphering Sex Segregation,” 267; Charles and Grusky; Jarman, Blackburn, and Racko, “The Dimensions of Occupational Gender Segregation.”

iv. Broyles and Grow, “Creative Women”; Gregory, “Inside the Locker Room”; Grow, Roca, and Broyles, “Vanishing Acts”; Grow and Broyles, “Unspoken Rules”; Mallia, “Rare Birds”; Mallia and Windels, “Will Changing Media Change the World?”; Windels, “What’s in a Number?”; Windels and Wei-Na, “The Construction of Gender,”502.

vi. EEOC; Endicott and Morrison; IPA; Gregory, “Inside the Locker Room.”

x. Ibid.

xii. Ibid.

xvii. Ibid.

xix. Grow and Broyles, “Unspoken Rules.”

xxi. Ely, “Gender Differences.”

xxii. Ely, “Gender Differences”; Rosener, “Ways Women Lead.”

xxiii. Ridgeway, “Gender Differences in Task Groups.”

xxvi. EEOC.

xxix. EEOC.

xxx. Ibid.

xxxii. IPA, “Agency Census 2012.”

xxxv. Swedish Association of Communication Agencies (KOMM).

xxxvi. Grow and Broyles, “Unspoken Rules.”

xxxvii. Weisberg and Robbs, “A Study of the Underrepresentation of Women.”

xli. Grow and Broyles, “Unspoken Rules.”

xlii. Broyles and Grow, “Creative Women,”4–6; Grow, Roca, and Broyles, “Vanishing Acts”; Klein; Mallia, “Rare Birds”; Mallia and Windels, “Will Changing Media Change the World?; Windels and Wei-Na, “The Construction of Gender,” 502.

xliii. Mallia, “Why Not ‘the Best?’”

xliv. EEOC.

xlv. Advertising Age.

xlvi. Ibid.

xlvii. Klein.

xlviii. Ibid.

li. Grow and Broyles, “Unspoken Rules”; Grow, Roca, and Broyles, “Vanishing Acts”; Windels and Wei-Na, “The Construction of Gender,” 502.

lii. Kanter.

liii. Ibid.

lv. Dawkins.

lvii. Csikszentmihalyi, “Society, Culture, Person”; Csikszentmihalyi, “A Systems Perspective,” 334.

lxiii. Ibid.

lxiv. WhatRunsWhere.

lxvi. Red Books.

lxvii. CIA.

lxviii. The World Bank.

lxx. Kanter.

lxxiii. Klein.

lxxiv. Ibid.

lxxv. Advertising Age.

lxxvi. Still, “Glass Ceilings.”

lxxviii. Csikszentmihalyi, “Society, Culture, Person”; Csikszentmihalyi, “A Systems Perspective,” 317.

lxxxi. Windels and Wei-Na, “The Construction of Gender.”

lxxxii. Swedish Association of Communication Agencies (KOMM).

lxxxiii. Kanter.

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