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A rising chorus of voices in the advertising world is asking an uncomfortable question: "Where are all the Donna Drapers?"

That was the question that Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference, took to the stage in Boulder, Colo., last Thursday evening. The event was created in San Francisco last year to address a persistent issue in the advertising industry: the tiny minority of female creative directors. Last week's gathering is the first in a series of events linked to the conference – including one being planned in Toronto this spring or summer.

Women's difficulty rising to leadership roles is somewhat particular to the creative departments: media planning and buying, account services, and other areas of the industry tend to be more balanced.

The title of the conference is based on a regularly quoted statistic that only three per cent of worldwide creative directors are women. This can be difficult to confirm precisely, given that tracking this specific is not always done. However, the disparity is undeniable.

Take the most high-profile event in advertising in the United States every year: the Super Bowl. An analysis of the people behind what can be career-defining commercials in that broadcast found that in 2010 and 2011, 94 per cent of the creative directors of Big Game ads were men. (The study also covers a significant racial imbalance in those ranks, which bears further examination as well.)

The One Club, which hands out coveted pencil-shaped awards each year, has sized up industry greats from creative departments since 1961 for induction into its Creative Hall of Fame. The five inductees in 2013 are all men. Of the 53 total – which include such notable names as Leo Burnett, Jay Chiat and David Ogilvy – six are women.

And industry watchers could not help but notice that in 2009, when Advertising Age used a Mad Men-style illustration to depict the leaders of the top ten agencies on its "A-list," the gathering of mostly men looked very Don Draper-era indeed . The sole woman in the portrait, Deutsch Inc. North America CEO Linda Sawyer, recently wrote a blog discussing the fact that "the C suite remains oddly absent of women."

Here in Canada, there are some notable exceptions, including creative directors Christina Yu at Red Urban, Denise Rosetto at DDB Canada and Karen Howe at One, among others, as well as the whip-smart CEO and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett Canada, Judy John.

However, according to legendary Canadian creative director Janet Kestin – who is now co-founder and partner of Swim, a business focused on creative leadership training – the number of women in creative leadership roles in advertising has changed "shockingly little" in the past 25 years.

The idea of the conference is not to complain, Ms. Gordon says, or to exclude men – who are included among the speakers and panelists at every event – it is to discuss what is keeping women from advancing, and try to find a solution.

"It's important that the women in the field don't leave, and that younger women are brought up more quickly and mentored," she said. Ms. Gordon believes this is particularly important for marketers, as women control the vast majority of household spending, and see their economic clout rising.

"To connect well to female consumers, you're going to need greater representation of women crafting the ad messages," she said. "We're tired of seeing ourselves through the traditional filter." And not having that balance can affect the filter of the messages consumers see every day.

"Having a broader perspective brought to everything – age, gender, race, everything – it's just better," said Janet Kestin, who, with Swim partner Nancy Vonk, was one half of the legendary creative-director team at Ogilvy that was behind Cannes Lion-winning ads for Dove. (The best-known ad, Evolution, was conceived by a male creative team – Mike Kirkland and Tim Piper – she notes.) "If you're getting women walking away, you're losing half the talent in your industry."

And walk away they do. It's not just because, as in the working world in general, women still make less than men on average. Women in their 20s and early 30s are highly visible at agencies, but as with many jobs, the childbearing years coincide with a critical time for career development. That's even more difficult to juggle in a creative position where it's seen as a virtue to be slaving over ideas until 2 or 3 a.m.

At an event in Toronto in 2005, the worldwide creative director for the giant advertising holding company WPP, Neil French, said that the paucity of female creative directors could be explained by the fact that they are "crap" at the job, according to reports at the time. Mr. French referred to the time women spend nursing their newborns, and claimed that "women don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to." After an uproar, Mr. French resigned, but said that his comments had been taken out of context.

"Certain other industries are doing way better at it. Medicine, which should be worse … there are a lot of practices where they're creating support systems [for working mothers]," Ms. Kestin said. "We're so, as an industry, so beholden to time sheets, and hours billed, as a demonstration of the value provided. To me, that's a wrongheaded way to think about it now. The world's changed."

Recruiting consultants say that many agencies are actively searching for female candidates for creative director positions. The greater problem seems to be that they don't reach that career point.

If they do, it's often because they have a spouse with a far less demanding job, said Karen Mallia, associate professor of advertising at the University of South Carolina, who studies this issue.

"It rewards people who are career primary. But does it have to be that way?" Prof Mallia asked. She is a former creative director and copywriter herself, who worked at agencies such as Ogilvy and TBWA/Chiat/Day.

"There is no one singular issue. But there are factors that have to do with the intensity of the job – that it's very consuming – and these corporate cultural things that either don't allow flexibility or undermine it."

Ms. Kestin agrees.

"The role of women isn't a women's issue," she says. "It's a human issue. Everybody needs to be part of it for things to change."