University of South Carolina

Having it all

By Liz McCarthy,, 803-777-2848

Karen Mallia has lived her research. It wasn’t something she read about or studied in textbooks. 

At 38 the advertising creative director had a serious choice to make – stay in the business she loved and sacrifice time with her family or well, get creative. Mallia had been working in the creative side of advertising in New York for almost 20 years. 

She had put in the late hours in the office that is so often required in the field. But as a new mother, she faced that daunting decision so many working women have to confront. Mallia discovered her chosen career path isn’t as friendly to working moms as other careers. 

Advertising creative directors have told stories about women driving from the hospital with newborn baby in tow, stopping to meet the nanny and continuing back to the office, always at the mercy of a field that is known for its “mad men.” 

“We know from anecdotal evidence, even if we’ve just watched ‘Mad Men,’ that there’s a boys club culture in a creative department, which is quite different from the rest of the agency,” said Mallia, now an associate professor in the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies. “There’s a certain protocol and unique cultural codes to the creative profession. It’s decidedly not like working in a bank.” 

Mallia chose her family, freelancing in the New York market for a few years before turning to academia. Then she found her research passion – why are so many women leaving the creative side of advertising? 

“Curiosity and passion drove me,” she said. “Why would I spend years researching something I have no strong feeling about? It’s engrossing because it affected me personally and because it’s such a mystery.”  

Women make up 69 percent of the students in undergraduate advertising majors, almost 73 percent in graduate programs, and over half of those in specialized portfolio programs. Yet they make up just 28 percent of the total creative workforce in advertising agencies, and just 3 to 4 percent of creative director or management positions. The representation of women is much greater in every other agency department.

So why are so many ambitious, talented women checking out? Is it gender bias or children, or is something bigger at play? 

Mallia found more than just an “old golf club,” as she called it, an industry stacked to reward the male career model. She discovered the factors driving women to exit creative careers are much more complex and complicated – hitting on the nature of the job, hiring and work practices, personality factors, group dynamics, award competitions and account assignments to name a few. 

And because advertising is naturally more cutthroat and consuming, typical workforce issues – such as work-family balance -- are escalated. Mallia’s research has had an impact, drawing attention from an industry that’s typically unconcerned with academia, she said. Her work fueled and helped frame the first industry conference for women creative directors: The 3% Conference. 

“The idea of women in advertising still being under-represented 50 years after the issue was raised is hitting a nerve,” Mallia said. “Especially when over 80 percent of all purchase decisions in this country are controlled by women.” 

In academia, and her research, Mallia has found a career that lets her better balance her work and home life — and contribute professional service as well.

“Teaching creative strategy is everything I love about the business and none of the stuff I don’t,” she said. “I have the excitement of the creative challenge and the problem-solving I love in every class project. I curate my students’ work and nurture talent -- so I’m still a creative director. Plus it’s amazingly gratifying to share my talent and my students’ with nonprofits through service-learning.” 

This story originally appeared in USC Times. Read the full issue online here

News and Internal Communications

Posted: 03/15/13 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 03/15/13 @ 4:38 PM | Permalink