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Does your marketing pass the gender bias test?

There’s a conversation happening in our culture about women’s representation and advocacy, and it’s gotten louder over the past year in particular. But according to research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, we’ve got a long way to go before women achieve equal representation in our own little corner of the media: advertising.   

The Institute’s report, titled Unpacking Gender Bias in Advertising, studied ten years of Cannes Lions-winning advertising—and revealed that, unfortunately, very little has changed in the past decade. Using its artificial intelligence system, GDIQ, the Institute scanned thousands of commercials to analyze the number and quality of female and male roles.

The findings:

  • Ads feature twice as many male characters as female characters.
  • 25% of ads feature men exclusively, whereas only 5% of ads contain only women.
  • 18% of ads have exclusively male voices, while less than 3% of ads feature only female voices. Interestingly, the research also found that about 75% of voiceovers today are done by men, even though ads with female voiceovers are at least slightly more effective on average, based on scores by the research firm ABX for such things as purchase interest.
  • Men get three times more dialogue than women.
  • Women are three times more likely to have the camera show only their body parts and not their faces.
  • Men are twice as likely to be shown as managers or professionals.
  • Only one in five women is shown as having a job.
  • Women’s dialogue is significantly simpler than men’s, according to Flesch-Kincaid readability tests.
  • Men are significantly more likely to have humorous lines. 

The reasons behind these troubling statistics are varied, from a dearth of female creative directors in advertising firms (women make up only 11% of CDs) to clients’ storied resistance to change. So the question is, once we recognize that bias exists, how do we begin to change it (“we” being the people on both the creative and the client side of the equation)? The U.K., in a bold move, has banned gender stereotypes in advertising, asserting that “a tougher line is needed on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which can potentially cause harm, including ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.” Although it could be argued that there’s a certain amount of subjectivity involved in these judgment calls, this seems like a promising step.

When reviewing your own advertising, consider the following red flags:

The woman in your ad is in her 20s.
In the GDI study, women were mostly in their 20s, while men were represented in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The woman in your ad is the “straight man.”
That’s the term for the person whose job is to perform the unfunny lines so that someone else can say the punchline. Men are almost twice as likely as women to have humorous lines.

The woman in your ad is in the kitchen.
The research showed that women are 48% more likely to be shown in the kitchen, while men are 50% more likely to be shown at a sporting event.

The woman in your ad is wearing sexually revealing clothing.
One out of ten female characters is shown in revealing clothing—six times more often than male characters.

The woman in your ad is not presented in a professional context.
Only one in four women is shown with a job, compared to one in three men.

Are these dealbreakers? Not necessarily. There’s nothing inherently wrong with putting a young, attractive woman or a funny, professional man in your ad. But when you notice the patterns in your choices and make a conscious choice to break out of biases, your bottom line benefits. After all, it’s interesting to see stereotypes getting crushed, and interesting = more eyeballs = higher sales. Plus, women make the majority of purchasing decisions, so it’s smart to have them on your side. And let’s not forget the fact that overcoming bias is simply the right thing to do. Those of us who work in advertising can, and should, make room for good to factor into the equation.