You can’t be what you can’t see: why the advertising industry needs to step up and help fix the digital gender gap

There are around 303 million fewer women online than men.

Laura Jones

Strategy Partner Joint


Despite women making up half the population on the planet, in all regions of the world, more men than women are using the Internet.  This divide is referred to as the ‘digital gender gap’ and equates to around 303 million fewer women online than men - that’s a cohort nearly the size of population of the United States of America - who have no access to the internet.

In 2020 the digital gender gap cost $126 billion in lost GDP globally and $24bn in lost tax revenues. This means we are hampering the economy and fueling gender inequality as we restrict women’s access to the opportunities that the internet provides.

This divide is referred to as the ‘digital gender gap’ and equates to around 303 million fewer women online than men - that’s a cohort nearly the size of population of the United States of America - who have no access to the internet

Laura Jones, Strategy Partner at Joint

Why should businesses care?

The digital gender gap stunts women’s involvement and growth, not just in the technology and digital sectors, but in all sectors. Digital literacy has now become almost as important as traditional literacy, with over 90% of jobs worldwide having a digital component and most jobs soon requiring sophisticated digital skills. From simply being online to progressing in a career, it puts women at a severe disadvantage.

However, industries that provide the right digital upskilling opportunities and mentoring programmes will ultimately be able to bring more women into the industry and keep them progressing to the top. This will not only result in better creative solutions and promote gender equality, but will also have a positive impact on sales and revenue. Women control $31.8 trillion of worldwide spending and 85% of consumer purchasing decisions, so with women developing these products and services there is greater potential for innovations that meet women’s needs.

What can agencies do to close it?

It starts with recruitment.  78% of the creative and design workforce in the UK is male, yet research suggests that 7 out of 10 students taking design at A-Level are women, and data from HESSA suggests that 65% of students who enrolled in creative arts and design courses in 2018/19 were women too. 

If we recruit directly from higher education pools, more women are instantly available to balance the workforce. We then need to focus on training, retaining and promoting more women in every business.

Agencies also need to consider how they are advertising their jobs. A recent study from LinkedIn showed that women apply for 20% fewer roles than men because they will only apply for the role if they feel they meet 100% of the criteria. In contrast, most men said they will apply if they meet 60% of the criteria.

Language typically used in job adverts tends to lend itself to a male audience, making them subconsciously more likely to apply than women. These findings inspired the Gender Decoder - a tool that analyses job adverts and highlights whether it’s written in “male coded language” or “female coded language”.

Agencies also need to prioritise flexible working, parental policies, and focus on empowering returners. There is a high volume of extremely skilled, valuable women who are looking to return to work after a career break, usually after having children. However, due to their career gap break, candidates can sometimes be dismissed by recruiters. By being explicit that returners are welcome and developing best-in-class returner programs that support, not single out, returners, the industry can increase the percentage of highly skilled women returning or applying for the jobs.

How we represent women

The advertising industry also needs to focus on positive, accurate representation of women and technology, not just regurgitate the same old stereotypes. This isn’t just about who we feature, it’s about what they are depicted doing. If technology adverts feature women struggling to use tech, or using it to simply do online shopping or online dating, this doesn’t accurately represent women who use tech.

The influence of positive representation can be seen by the ‘Scully effect,’ in which the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media determined that 65% of the women familiar with the Dana Scully character of the X Files TV show who were young at the time when they were watching it, actually pursued careers in STEM (2018). Similar representations in media and advertising could have a positive impact on closing the digital gender gap.

What work has been done so far

There are many examples of brilliant work brands have done to combat the digital gender gap. The leading non-profit, Girls Who Code, won gold at Cannes Lions 2022 for their work with Doja Cat and the release of DojaCode, an interactive experience that inspired a new generation of young women to direct aspects of a music video, using code. WeCapital’s ‘Data Tienda’ is another shining example - converting shopkeeper’s paper records to official online credit histories for women helping them secure microloans for businesses and promoting greater financial inclusion and economic opportunity.   

But there is always more that can be done. We need to seize the opportunity to foster women’s and girls’ full participation and inclusion in the digital economy, while at the same time addressing stereotypes and social norms that lead to discrimination against women. Only then can we build a more inclusive, digital world.

Guest Author

Laura Jones

Strategy Partner Joint


Laura Jones is Strategy Partner at Joint.

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