Demeaning images in advertising of women doing domestic chores or scantily clad act as stubborn obstacles to gender equality, the head of U.N. Women said Thursday, urging the global ad industry to become a weapon for good.

Advertising has the power to create positive portrayals of women and eliminate stereotypes, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of the United Nations’ agency on women, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke from France, where she is calling on advertising leaders who are attending the industry’s annual Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity to eliminate stereotypes and commit to gender equality.

“People are more likely to see adverts in their lives than read books,” she said. “It’s a waste if we are not using this opportunity for good.”

​Stereotypes everywhere

Stereotypes of women permeate the globe, she said, be it in nations such as Iceland with high gender equality or those with very little in the way of equal rights, like Yemen.

“Of the many things that we’ve tried to do to obtain gender equality, we are not getting the kind of traction and success that we are looking for, because of the underlying stereotypes and social norms in existence in society,” she said.

“Adverts create a role model that people look up to, even mimic and try to be like,” said the veteran South African politician.

“If they see men in powerful positions most of the time and do not see women and people who look like them … then they think this is not for them.”

Research illustrates issue

Research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media illustrates the issue, said Philip Thomas, chief executive of the annual advertising event in Cannes, who also participated in the interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One in 10 female characters in advertising is shown in sexually revealing clothing, six times the number of male characters, he said.

Of characters portrayed as intelligent, such as doctors or scientists, men are 62 percent more likely than women to play those roles, he said. Women are 48 percent more likely to be shown in the kitchen, he said.

Creative teams at advertising agencies are predominantly male, and just 11 percent of creative directors around the world are female, he said.

The industry can make an effort to mentor women, employ and promote more female creative teams and reward work that promotes positive images, he said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said she welcomed efforts such as one in Berlin, where the city’s ruling coalition has agreed on a ban on degrading or sexist advertising.

An expert committee will examine and prevent discriminatory advertising on both privately and publicly owned advertising billboards and hoardings.

Opposition parties in Berlin say such a ban infringes on free speech.

“When it’s so much that is against us, I think we are allowed sometimes to make some extreme measures even if there’s a controversy,” she said. “Let’s have the discussion.”

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