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More than half of women working in advertising have been the targets of sexual harassment, according to a new study from the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A's).

The troubling statistic comes from a survey of 375 ad women in the United States, one-third of whom are in senior management positions and 43 per cent in middle management. The survey defined harassment as unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks. It comes at a time when high-profile cases have reignited the debate over discrimination in the ad world.

In March, the global chief executive officer of ad agency J. Walter Thompson, Gustavo Martinez, resigned after the agency's global communications officer filed a lawsuit claiming he had made comments disparaging women, Jews and African-Americans, and that he joked about rape in the office.

Maurice Lévy, CEO of a rival ad agency holding company, Publicis Groupe, came under fire for commenting at an industry conference that the lawsuit was not an indication of a problem in the industry and was "a one-man mistake." Following criticism, he acknowledged that "there is a lot of work left to be done" on the issue of diversity in the industry.

Just two weeks ago, Publicis was forced to distance itself from the global chairman of its ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, Kevin Roberts, after he said in an interview with Business Insider that the debate over gender discrimination in advertising is "over," and that gender-equality advocate Cindy Gallop was "making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile." Mr. Roberts was put on leave and resigned last week.

When Mr. Roberts's comments became public, the 4A's was already examining the survey results, but decided to expedite their release.

"We want to make sure that anybody out there who is still in denial … when somebody says this is an isolated incident, I can tell them that it isn't," said 4A's CEO, Nancy Hill. "People tell me stories all the time, but we can't just have anecdotal evidence."

One-third of the women surveyed said there were "at least a few times" when they were not promoted or were denied coveted assignments because of discrimination. A further 42 per cent said discrimination had caused them to be excluded from decisions that they should have been involved in making.

More than half of respondents said they felt vulnerable to discrimination at work because of their gender: 39 per cent said they felt somewhat vulnerable, while 15 per cent felt very vulnerable.

The research is part of a year-long initiative that the 4A's announced in March to study women's experiences in the industry. The research is part of a broader study that also solicited perspectives from men; further results will be published soon.

Just 11.5 per cent of creative directors in the industry are women, according to the 3% Conference (which was named for the far lower statistic when it was founded in 2012). While that number has grown, it's still nowhere near parity. According to research from British-based consultancy Creative Equals, 88 per cent of young female creatives said they felt they did not have role models in the industry and 70 per cent said they had never worked with a creative director or executive creative director who is a woman.

"Most of the people who are in positions of authority in this industry are white men," Ms. Hill said. "Because of that, they don't always recognize [bad behaviour] in their male peers, because it's not something that happens to them."

The 4A's is pushing for ad agency CEOs to examine the diversity of their management ranks in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

"We need to create environments that are safe for everybody, so that you feel comfortable going to work every day," Ms. Hill said. "… In order to eliminate this cancer, it has to start at the top."