The portrayal of women in advertising can cause controversy, and damage to both the brand and women's self-esteem.

Recent years have seen critics quick to slam misrepresentation of women in the sector, as a growing generation strive to be critical of messages influencing perception of identity.

But what exactly does it means to be a woman in today’s world? And what should you know as a brand or designer wanting to reach the female demographic?

Ad agency J. Walter Thompson’s (JWT) Innovation Group attempts to explore the needs, aspirations and motivations of the future female consumer in a lengthy, 200-page report named Women, Next.

The report draws insight into the female mind for advertisers, whilst extrapolating on already-known trends, such as the increased strength of women as consumers and the desire for complete independence. 

If you’re planning a female-targeted advertisement campaign, it’s worth knowing what millennial and Generation Z (born mid 1990s to early 2000s) women uphold as important, and what they want to hear.

(Insights in the report are supported by data from a July 2016 study conducted by JWT’s research unit SONAR that surveyed 1300 female consumers.)

We’ve picked out the eight most noteworthy points of the report, so you don’t have to.

The normalisation of being single and without children

Women are more than ever before demanding the normalisation of choosing to live unattached or not wanting to have children. The report states 27 is the current median age for a woman to marry, and one in five adults aged 25 and older has never been married. This gives room for women to sort their own lives before committing to sharing a life with someone else.

Among women without children, 84 percent of Generation X women say they are happy without children, and 86 percent say if they ultimately don’t have children, they’re okay with that.

Equal job & entrepreneurship opportunities 

Women are the largest emerging market in the world – females are expected to control close to 75 percent of all discretionary spending worldwide by 2028, according to research from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

And these women are educated and driven. The percentage of young women aspiring to reach senior levels of management during their careers is at its highest since the Baby Boomer generation, and globally women outnumber men in university attendance. 

There’s also been a rise in female entrepreneurs. There aren't as many barriers to start a company with the internet. In the US, women have started a business at a rate five times faster than the national average since the recession.

However, there's still a lot of room for improvement. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report in 2015 showed women’s average earnings only equal men’s average earnings from 2006. Women earn a global average of US$11,000 in comparison to men’s $21,000. 

Authenticity, diversity and inclusivity surrounding body image

Teen Vogue's Beach Body Inspiration

Advertisers are seeing an increased need from females to see models that represent all body sizes, ethnicities and sexual orientation. 

The definition of beauty has become far-reaching with the rise of social media. Instagram girls are influencing how desirable an aesthetic is, and brands like Marc Jacobs are scouring Instagram for models.

Women want beauty brands that make them feel better about themselves, not worse. Brands are experimenting with ‘smart’ beauty products to help women stay healthy, such as L’Oreal’s My UV Patch, which consumers with personalised skincare coaching through a mobile app.

Beauty brands are honing in on the power of body-positive campaigns – such as Teen Vogue’s Beach Body Inspiration, and Dove’s My Beauty My Say (Dove is a JWT client).

The report says women appreciate when brands use bold and powerful language that speaks to core truths about their bodies, rather than titillation or innuendo.

Taking it a step further are brands like New Zealand’s Lonely lingerie line, which rolled out a completely untouched campaign, and Naja, which released seven different shades of 'nude' undergarments.

However there may still be a long road ahead for advertisers in the beauty sector. Younger generations have noticed a shift towards more inclusive perceptions of female beauty in recent years, but feel a disconnection between beauty companies trying to reach women of all body types, and advertisements they consume everyday. According to Women, Next, only 35 percent of millenials see themselves represented in beauty and fashion magazines.

The power of social media platforms

Generation Z makes up just over a quarter of the global population, and 95 percent of these digital native teens are online daily, across a multitude of social media platforms.

Some fashion brands, such as Clique Media Group’s Obsessee, are doing away with brand websites altogether, but instead projecting their brand across social media platforms. Hence, smartphone empowerment is a way for advertisers to not only reach consumers, but also gain much deeper insight into their lives. 

In the period from 2012 to 2016, the number of internet users globally has been expected to double to five billion people, and most new users are accessing the web on their smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center.

Advertisers should be aware of the opportunity digital spaces present for creating communities and a sense of empowerment among like-minded women. International groups of women have already come together online over their interest in a common goal, interest or hobby.

Although this generation may be more reachable than ever, they’ve grown up in a world where voicing your opinion is as easy as sending off a Tweet or a Facebook post. They also have no shortage of internet role models, have a strong penchant for self-expression, and have learnt to cast a critical eye over advertising. 

Gender as a fluid concept

Younger women are beginning to see gender as a fluid concept, in which traditional boxes of male and female don’t apply.

Fifty-six percent of Generation Z respondents to a SONAR survey commissioned by The Innovation Group said they knew someone who identified using gender-neutral pronouns. 

Publications are emerging that address sexual identity an queer culture, such as multimedia site The Front, UK feminist magazine Ladybeard that plays with the concept of gender construction, and New York's queercentric Posture magazine.

The "Next Billion"

 The Next Billion is a phrase coined by global strategy consulting team Booz & Company in a 2012 report. It refers to the billion women who are not yet part of the workforce, but are projected to enter the global economy over the coming decade.

Nations such as Indonesia and Laos, where women make up a smaller population of the workforce currently, are expecting a big economic power increase from women. Women, Next questions whether businesses and brands can keep up with this economic asset.

The global emerging female market

The final chapter in the report states the importance of thinking of women as consumers in a global sense.

With the rise of female development in countries such as Asia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia and Iran, comes a new wave of women as fully-fledged consumers.

For example, if women were empowered to contribute on an equal basis with men in India, this would add as much as $2.9 trillion to the Indian economy by 2025, according to research from the McKinsey Institute. 

And in Latin America, which has long been culturally conservative, for the first time more than half of the women of working age are employed, according to the International Labor Organization.

The Muslim female market is larger than the combined spend of Japan and Italy on fashion. Young Muslim women who want to express their individuality while still observing religious requirements spent $266 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013.

This growing international market is more easily accessible for brands and designers with the internet. 

The rise of female solo travellers

Millenials and Generation Z women value experience over products and are using their discretionary income to do so. Female solo travellers are a rapidly growing population, pushing the tourism market to meet their needs.

According to TripAdvisor’s Women’s Travel Survey, 74 percent of women globally planned to travel alone in 2015. Traditional "women's interests" are being tested – it’s no longer just about celebrities, sex and gossip.

The full JWT Women, Next report can be purchased here