Inside ‘manspace’: Researcher paints damning picture of creative agency ‘boys’ clubs’ which subordinate women

Women remain subordinates to men, are sometimes reduced to tears and have to “man up” in order to compete in the “boys club” environment that is prevalent in creative agencies, an in-depth analysis by a researcher has found.


Paul Priday spent six months embedded in Ogilvy in Shanghai, McCann in Delhi and Sydney agencies M&C Saatchi and McCann, scrutinising the working environment and analysing the behvaiour of staff.

His findings paint a less than favourable picture of life in creative agencies.

He concludes: “Despite change being the lifeblood of the advertising industry, gender relations continue to protect the status of men through the organised subordination of women.”

Priday undertook the research in 2013 and 2014 while working on his PhD thesis ‘Obsession with Brilliance: Masculinities and Creativity In Transnational Advertising Agencies‘ for the Department of Gender & Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.

He interviewed eight men and four woman at Ogilvy Shanghai and nine men and six woman at McCann in Delhi. The thesis was submitted in June 2016. In the study, most names – but not all – have been altered to protect identities.

During his time in Shanghai, Delhi and Sydney, Priday said: “It becomes clear that the creative department is a hierarchical men’s club that through masculine cultural capital sanctions masculine privilege”.

He describes each agency as a “manspace”, and said conversations in each location illustrated the belief – among men and women – that the advertising industry, and the offices from which creative departments operate, are geared towards men.

Women, Priday says in the 240-page document, are more likely to be account executives, charged with looking after, supporting and humoring their male colleagues and wheeled out in front of clients when needed.

Priday concluded women are still viewed as “decorative” and illustrated the point by quoting “Anuska”, a female senior account director at McCann in Delhi, who said: “Who is going to say no to a pretty face? So you can use it to your advantage.”

Priday also spoke to “Garija”, the executive assistant to the general manager in the same agency, who said some women are upset at the way they are sometimes treated.

“She tells me girls will come to her in tears upset by male attitudes to women in the agency”, he writes.

At Ogilvy in Shanghai, “Allison” – who Priday says is “one of the few creative directors in China” – suggests the industry is all about men.

“All over the world whenever we have one of those creative gatherings, or meetings or forums or whatever, you know strangely, you just see men. I mean literally most of them are men. I mean we have photo sessions and it’s always men, men, men, men, men.

Priday also turns to the views of Ritishal, a female creative at McCann in Delhi who identified “blatant gender bias and prejudice”.

“I have heard some creative directors who don’t hire women….there’s this guy, Nakul, who doesn’t like to hire girls so I hear. [He’s] a creative director here in this office.

Ritishal adds that male creatives behave “as if they know it all” which she said is illustrated by the way they walk and act.

“It’s a strange walk, almost vulgar, self important and pompous,” Ritishal is quoted as saying. “They get into loud music and they speak loudly. Foul language is a mark of virility. Advertising has an effect on men of total desensitisation.”

Illustration by Jacu Amansec

The study likens creative departments to surfing which Priday describes as “homosocial boys clubs with their own initiation rights and codes of behaviour”.

He detailed the battle of female creatives operating in such an environment with some struggling to gain recognition and playing second fiddle to their male colleagues.

Ritishal explains how female creatives often have to justify the entry of their work into awards festivals where work from men is favoured

To compensate for the ‘manspace’ envionment, women must “man-up”, the study says, with woman in Delhi explaining they must become ‘sheranee’, the Hindu word for tigress “in order to acquire the strength to face the male opposition and protect their ideas and opinions”.

Women in the agency are “delighted” when they hear he has discovered the term “and agree enthusiastically”, while men dismiss it as “apocryphal”.

Another interviewee, “Yashika”, a female creative director at McCann in Delhi, tells Priday

A lot of women who have done well and gone to be very senior actually….are respected and have managed to get ahead because they have adopted a more male attitude. And they are respected but not always liked. Aggression is a value that is admired, definitely in men, definitely amongst Indian men. Women? Sometimes, sometimes not.

A female trainee at McCann, “Khanna” adds that men “do their whole bro thing” and are afforded privileges that women do not have.

“They have this brotherhood thing going on that she feels ‘cliquey and clubby’,” Priday writes. “Khanna comments how this privileges men and describes how women often have to make appointments to see their male supervisors whereas ‘guys walk in any time’,”.

The thesis also found that men take rejection of an idea much harder than women and need to be comforted when their work is not lauded.


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