Advertising for Women: A Digital Look Into Gender Equality for International Women’s Day 2023

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, puts the spotlight on the historical exclusion of women from the digital sector.

We talked to some of the industry’s most prominent female leaders to hear their reflections on what still needs to be done, as we mark yet another IWD where gender equality remains a goal for the future, rather than a reality of the present.

Taking responsibility to encourage young talent

Lucia Mastromauro, Managing Director, UK, Acceleration, urges the industry to take more responsibility at an early stage: “More investment is needed to provide girls early on with the tools to navigate an increasingly technology-led economy. This means emphasis on mathematics, physics and problem-solving skills in the curriculum, certainly, but building this foundation shouldn’t be the role of schools alone. The tech industry also needs to take collective responsibility for empowering females, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to enjoy careers in technology and all of the opportunities it affords.

“The intersectionality of gender and digital exclusion brings to the table deeper issues than often discussed. Tech businesses with leaders who fortunately have not experienced digital exclusion themselves, would benefit from gaining a broader perspective to be able to contribute to solutions. A great approach would be to enlist women with first-hand experience to consult and advise on how they create career opportunities for women and support them in their development.”

Representation provides urgent validation

But the problem doesn’t only lie in attracting females to the industry. Nicola Mason, Vice President of People at Adverity, explains why role models are important at every stage of employment: “We need to start looking at more than representation. With one in four top tech positions held by female leaders, progress is both moving in the right direction and has some way to go. While it’s vital to keep removing entry barriers, ensuring women can thrive after they get through the door is equally critical.

“Women continue to bear the brunt of minimal paternity provisions and receive little support during life events, such as the dealing with infertility and menopause. Although the move towards flexible working has helped provide more space to balance their professional and private lives, many still find they are forced out of the sector by a lack of adequate time out, pay, and support.”

Sue Azari, Ecommerce Industry Lead, AppsFlyer agrees that role models matter:  “I’m a firm believer in “what you can’t see, you can’t be” – so when I started my career, the lack of diversity at senior levels was challenging. The increase of female CEOs – such as in the retail industry, which has grown 11% since 2021 – is positive, but it’s still only the beginning. Businesses need to reflect their social and cultural environment to align brand values, messaging, and purpose with consumer needs. Capturing this diversity is how we level the playing field and address bias, especially in the tech industry.”

Jennifer Clements, Global Publishing Director, SmartFrame Technologies adds that it’s not just senior role models that are important: “Companies that reflect society are best placed to serve their needs. Women in senior positions in tech companies are hardly new, as Marissa Meyer, Sheryl Sandberg, Susan Wojcicki and Angela Ahrendts prove. But the reality is that women work across all departments, from sales and marketing through to product, quality assurance and development. While it’s important to highlight the many successful female CEOs, this is not necessarily the aspiration of every woman in the industry. Many are innovating in other areas that have traditionally been male-dominated and while these positions may not be as prominent, they’re arguably just as important. We need to draw attention to these women too if we’re to strike a better gender balance across these companies as a whole.”

Stefanie Briec, Director, Head of Demand Sales UK & INTL, AudienceXpress at FreeWheel adds: “Men and women need professional networks to succeed, research shows, but the kinds of connections they require are different. Women in the advertising industry especially need networks and opportunities tailored by women, for women – a core goal of the Employee Resource Group for Women in Media & Advertising at Comcast.

“To promote parity in our sector, we must ensure women have access to impactful coaching and to successful mentors who have walked in their shoes. These close connections can support women in advertising to build and leverage their networks, as well as ultimately fly higher in their careers.”

Rigid work structures can force women into difficult choices

Alison Harding, Vice President Data Solutions EMEA, Lotame highlights the need for more flexibility: “Two high-profile female leaders, Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon, recently stepped back to reassess the personal toll of their careers and — not surprisingly — were criticised for it. But it’s not just women on the international stage that are struggling to balance home and work life — many working women are.

“With 45% of women in the UK saying they’d work more hours if they were given more flexibility, it’s great that big firms like Sainsbury’s are adopting new working patterns. However, if the UK is to achieve its ambitions of being a tech hub and address the sector’s talent crisis, the tech industry can’t afford to continue excluding women who are ready and willing to work but cannot fit within standard working hours.”

Emma Lacey, SVP EMEA, Zefr reflects on her own experience: “The tech industry has been at the forefront of modernising parental leave policies, which is all well and good, but parenthood doesn’t stop when your maternity leave ends. Many companies still make it near impossible to juggle work responsibilities and family priorities as kids grow up — it’s time for the industry to take the next step.

“As a mum of young children, one of the things I value most in the workplace is being trusted to juggle work and home responsibilities. In my opinion nothing beats people working together in person; but I also think we shouldn’t discriminate against parents needing some flexibility to be able to do the school run or to attend their kid’s sports day. Being able to choose my working location and flex my hours, allows me to be both more present for my family and more productive for my company.”

Greater diversity is good for business

Lauren Wetzel, Chief Operating Officer, InfoSum explains how increased diversity is actually beneficial for companies: “As the UN points out, bringing more diversity into technology leads to creative solutions and greater potential for innovations. This applies in both individual organizations and the wider world – diversity is the greatest strength of business and society as a whole.

“People from different groups and backgrounds bring a variety of outlooks and experiences to a team. Companies perform better when they hear from both a diverse employee base and a diverse leadership team. We must take the time to listen and learn from those around us.  Having a diverse team is not just good citizenship, it’s good for business.”

Emma Jowett, VP of Sales, Northern Europe at  Integral Ad Science notes that consumers will take action if they’re not happy with what they see: “According to IAS research, 77% of UK consumers believe brands should reflect modern culture in their advertising and be engaged in social conversations. They’re not afraid to take their spend elsewhere if they don’t believe brands are reflecting their values – 46% say they would boycott a brand that doesn’t take diversity and inclusion seriously.

“But diversity goes beyond just representation in advertising. If brands are to truly embrace equality, they need to ensure their advertising spend is going towards publishers whose content promotes diversity, equality and inclusion. Not only is this valued by 84% of UK consumers, but it helps to create a fairer internet and support quality journalism.”

Jocelyn Lo, Global Director of Brand and Communications, Seedtag  calls the industry out for its inertia in addressing the gender gap: “At Seedtag — where half our company, including management positions, are female —we’re making strides to build a more inclusive company. Sadly this is not representative of the wider tech industry with women making up only a third of the global technology sector’s workforce, dropping to a quarter for technical roles. We should all be concerned that the digital world — which we all have a stake in — is being built by half the population most of the time. How many innovations are we missing out on by excluding women?

“IWD’s ‘DigitALL’ theme is a wakeup call for tech companies to not only address the under-representation of women in businesses but also ensure that they are heard, respected, and valued. Creating diversity in the industry can bring in many different strengths, experiences, and values leading to a more powerful learning experience for all. Representation matters!”

Gender inequality in the tech sector is evident, an issue that requires more investment, more support, and more action. The industry must overhaul its outdated structure that has for too long overlooked – or worse, penalised – female talent and potential. Sadly, International Women’s Day is simply a yearly reminder of the progress still to accomplish.