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Opinion and Insight

Why the Ad Industry Needs to Face Up to the Fact that Life Ain’t Fair

LBB Editorial, 3 months ago

LBB’s Laura Swinton on the meritocracy delusion that’s holding the industry back

Why the Ad Industry Needs to Face Up to the Fact that Life Ain’t Fair

“There won’t be equality until there are as many mediocre women directors as there are mediocre men.” This quote from Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong caught my eye this week. And it made me chuckle. Much of the debate around senior women in the ad industry over the last month or so – their lack of vertical ambition and so on – has imagined those hard-to-reach upper echelons are only open to hungry, brilliant and dedicated models of competence. I mean, we all know that’s not strictly the case, right? 

It was a pointed reminder that the old Ginger Rogers adage about having to do everything Fred Astaire did but in heels and backwards still has, well, legs.

It was also – speaking more broadly – a darkly amusing antidote to the delusions of meritocracy that exist in the creative industries. That delusion is a pretty tricky thing to combat – psychologists call it the ‘just-world fallacy’ and it’s pervasive. People tend to view the world as a place where people, by and large, get what they deserve. It might sound a little kindergarten, but it’s persistent. After all, the alternative – a completely oblivious universe that couldn’t give a shit about being fair, can’t give a shit about anything really – is a bit much for our monkey brains to deal with.

And so we comfort ourselves. Those who have done well are just better people. Those who don’t do well – the poor, victims of crime – probably did something to deserve it. 

The situation gets a little more complicated (and a lot more hypocritical) when we think about ourselves. If I succeed, says my little ape mind, it’s because I worked jolly hard and was jolly clever. It’s not because of anything else – my upbringing, supportive teachers, the luck of being born the right person in the right place at the right time, a systemic unfairness that makes things just that bit easier for a person like me.  

But if I fail. Well. It wasn’t my fault. It was somebody else’s.

Just-world thinking explains, I’ve long thought, a lot of our fuck ups as a species. And in the context of the ad industry gender and diversity conversation, I think everyone needs to remind themselves about these unconscious biases. It’s easy for someone high up the food chain to claim to operate on a meritocracy when they take all the credit for their own success and can’t see the luck and systematic inequalities that bumped them up the ladder a rung or two. Or if other people, let’s say, women don’t make it as far or high, it must be their own fault (*cough* circular ambition *cough*).

There’s even evidence that people who test highly for just-world thinking are more likely to oppose affirmative action. (For a really great overview of the just-world fallacy, check out this piece by Oliver Burkeman) 

Getting back to Gillian Armstrong’s interview, one of the systematic inequalities that she sees as hampering the growth of women feature film directors in her own country is the local advertising industry. The Australian industry she says is a ‘boy’s club’, and the fresh faced young male directors tend to get the support and training and commercial work that paves the way for a career in movies. (I’d argue that’s not strictly an Australian phenomenon… but either way, if you’ve got an opinion about this we’d love to hear from you, email liam[at]lbbonline.com).

There is, however, a sliver of hope for the creative industries. It relies on these ‘creative industries’ being as progressive and daring and as risk-taking as they like to proclaim. Small-c conservatives are far more likely to harbour just-world thinking. And this is an industry full of boundary-smashing, progressive innovators, so maybe we’ve got nothing to worry about.

Right?