Here’s what global marketers are doing to tackle sexism in advertising

An illustration of a mother and daughter in a 1955 kitchen
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The chief marketers of some of the world's largest brands are getting together to tackle sexism and poor representations of diversity in advertising, and will undertake research to understand the impact of changes made to ad campaigns every two years.

Companies including Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, AT&T and Facebook are working with UN Women on an "Unstereotype Alliance," to tackle sexism in advertising, while the Association of National Advertisers in the U.S. is continuing its "#SeeHer" initiative, to improve the accuracy of how women are portrayed.

Speaking at an event this week held by The Female Quotient, part of the Cannes Lions advertising festival, chief marketing officers spoke of personal realizations about the lack of diversity in advertising.

Procter and Gamble's chief brand officer Marc Pritchard said he had an epiphany when he realized on a family holiday several years ago the impact business can have on popular culture and society.

P&G's Marc Pritchard at Cannes Lions in June 2016
Christian Alminana | Cannes Lions

Running P&G's CoverGirl makeup brand at the time, he realized that its models for its "Easy, Breezy, Beautiful" campaign were "too skinny, too monolithic in terms of being blonde haired and blue-eyed, and too white." The company then changed the campaign to feature rapper Queen Latifah and Ellen de Generes, to more accurately represent women.

"We can use our voices in advertising as a force for good and a force for growth. With equality comes growth, and just the simple fact that women are paid 20 percent less than men for the same job and you inject that into the market and that's $4.3 trillion worth of purchasing power," Pritchard said.

AT&T's chief brand officer Fiona Carter, who described herself as an activist feminist, gave the example of when she reviewed the casting for an advertising campaign soon after she joined the company in 2015.

"I realised that the casting… we had less than 50 percent women, they weren't in speaking roles, the positions of authority were white males and secondary positions were people of color or they were women. For me that was a personal moment when I realized I had the power and the responsibility to make a change."

AT&T's chief brand officer Fiona Carter, at an event in New York City on April 18, 2017
Ilya S. Savenok | Getty Images

Unilever undertook research in 2016 that looked at ads from a variety of businesses. It found that only 3 percent of advertising showed women in leadership roles, 2 percent were shown as intelligent and 1 percent had a sense of humor. It is now leading the Unstereotype Alliance with UN Women.

AT&T now uses the ANA's Gender Equality Measure (or GEM score) to test adverts before they air, and has found that advertising that scores higher has a better "brand consideration" and is felt to be more reputable among consumers, Carter said.

The Unstereotype Alliance aims "to tackle the widespread prevalence of stereotypes that are often perpetuated through advertising," according to a statement on Unilever's website. This Thursday will see the alliance's first meeting, at Cannes Lions.

Speaking at The Female Quotient event, Keith Weed, the chief marketing officer at Unilever, said: "Why would you only use half the talent in the world if you can use the whole talent in the world? You could get a lot of middle aged men and teach them to try and think differently or take a diverse group of people and leverage the diversity among them."

Companies including Unilever, P&G and Johnson & Johnson will also run research every other year for the next 10 years on gender equality, in 40 countries, Pritchard said. "What we need is action that is going to change attitudes…Our advertising and our media that we are on, to hold the industry accountable, so equal representation and equality is the norm."

Speaking ahead of Thursday's event, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women's executive director, said in an online statement: "Negative, diminished conceptions of women and girls are one of the greatest barriers for gender equality and we need to tackle and change those images wherever they appear.

"Advertising is a particularly powerful driver to change perceptions and impact social norms. UN Women is excited to partner with the foremost industry shapers in this Alliance to challenge and advance the ways women are represented in this field."

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