Year after year, we decry the lack of women in leadership positions. Yet every August, we find ourselves conducting the same “Where are we?” discussion.
I believe it is vital to address the need for male involvement in accelerating change and taking accountability.
The South African advertising industry, estimated to be worth over R40 billion, holds its own creatively, on a global scale. But the reality is that it still operates as a boy’s club. Male allies must step up to help break down barriers and foster an all-inclusive culture that empowers women and ensures gender equality at every level.
Despite years of discussions about equality, representation, and diversity, men continue to dominate leadership positions in the broader marketing and communications sector.
While women constitute approximately 60% of the industry workforce, their presence in key leadership roles – especially in creative, IT, and strategy departments – remains significantly lower. Let’s not even start the conversation about the persistent wage gap.
So, here’s what I expect from men: stop merely talking and start taking tangible actions. Yes, women must continue to fight – but, to bring about real change, this battle requires full commitment from all parties.
Discrimination and a lack of diversity affect everyone, and it narrows our industry’s vision, reducing its relevance in a world where women make up more than half the population and significantly impact purchasing decisions.
However, the issue goes beyond statistics and business relevance. When gender equality is portrayed as solely a women’s struggle, it creates an “us and them” scenario; a battle of the sexes.
Stereotypes such as the “bitch boss lady” or demeaning jokes about women perpetuate a harmful culture that hinders progress. Men who deny the reality of gender inequality often feel threatened by the notion of equality, believing that promotions should be solely based on merit.
While this is a valid aspiration, we must first level the playing field. Men should acknowledge the privilege they have enjoyed for generations and recognise the subtle and not-so-subtle systemic prejudices that perpetuate gender disparities in society and the workplace. Silence is not support; it is enabling the problem.
Safe spaces are non-negotiable
Silence is not the only problem though. Merely paying lip service to the issue without taking meaningful action when and where possible, is even more detrimental. Lip service allows us to deceive ourselves and others into thinking that progress is happening when, in reality, it is stagnating.
Lip service wastes valuable time and squanders the talents, knowledge, and experiences of countless women. I urge men to act, to stand beside women, and fight as fiercely for the rights of all people, which are one and the same.
Now, let’s confront an uncomfortable issue: that of sexual harassment. As we advocate for more women in decision-making roles, we must also create a safe and respectful environment that empowers all individuals and eliminates harassment. Addressing this issue head-on is non-negotiable.
Sexual harassment undermines the very principles of equality and inclusivity we strive for, perpetuating power imbalances that affect women disproportionately.
The PwC Executive Directors Report 2022 on female representation in the broader South African corporate landscape serves as a poignant reminder of the need for change.
While progress has been slow, the focus on achieving gender equality at leadership levels is more crucial than ever. International developments show that women’s rights are under threat, and achieving equal representation in influential positions is vital to protect women’s voices and rights.
Oh, the benefits of equality!
Moreover, research indicates that having women in leadership roles correlates with increased focus on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. Female directors are more likely to recognise the link between ESG and strategy, as well as the connection between climate change and company strategy.
This shows that getting the gender balance right at the leadership level is not only essential for equality but also for creating a sustainable future.
At the 2022 Effie Awards South Africa Summit, Dr Alistair Mokoena delivered an informative keynote address emphasising the importance of effective marketing to drive shared inclusive sustainable growth in organisations.
Mokoena noted that Sustainable Development Goals and the 3Ps (People, Planet, Profit) should inform everything we do. If we, as an industry, are committed to chasing equality and sustainable development goals, Mokoena’s keynote should be one of the strategic objectives we all adhere to.
His insights highlight the critical link between effective marketing and achieving shared inclusive sustainable growth within organisations, and it serves as a reminder of the role we must all play in aligning our industry with the principles of sustainability and responsible business practices – and, of course, the inclusion of women at the highest levels.
Tone up the differences
It is evident that the lack of female representation at the leadership level is not unique to our sector. The broader corporate landscape faces similar challenges. While women form a significant portion of the workforce, their presence in leadership positions, especially in technology and digital disciplines, remains disappointingly low.
And all of these issues often play out socially, in the work our sector creates. Multiple advertising execution debacles have plagued our industry, and they are glaring examples of how tone-deaf campaigns can arise due to a lack of diverse voices in the decision-making process.
Driven by inclusivity and representation, campaigns created by diverse teams resonate better with target audiences. The recent SheSays study reveals that women are often under-represented in true decision-making roles, leading to an increased risk of producing “tone-deaf” work. Again, why are we still facing this situation in our sector after so many years of trying to address it?
To bring about change, we must take advantage of every opportunity. We must, as an industry be seen as being completely open and welcoming, developing candidates that understand our work, and the impact it has on society and our clients.
We commit to the annals of history the perennial view and reality (through solid and actionable objectives) within the ad industry that women hesitate to join or remain within it because they are wary of the testosterone-dominated culture and the glaring gender pay gap.
In conclusion, it’s time for men to actively participate in the fight for gender equality in the advertising industry and beyond. Silence and inaction only perpetuate the problems we seek to overcome.
We need to create an all-inclusive culture, driven by buy-in from the entire industry, to ensure that gender equality becomes a reality.
With committed efforts, we can break down the barriers and usher in a future where women’s voices are heard, respected, and represented at every level of our industry and society.
Let’s take responsibility and make the necessary changes to pave the way for a more equal, diverse, and successful advertising industry in South Africa.
Mathe Okaba is CEO Association for Communication and Advertising.