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Industry Leaders - Do You Really Know How Sexist and Bullying Your Agency Culture Is?


Women feel “put down”, “bullied” and “abused” by abhorrent behaviour they face every day, but with no senior support or power to change anything themselves

Industry Leaders - Do You Really Know How Sexist and Bullying Your Agency Culture Is?
Andrew Lewis, (name changed to protect the anonymity of the women interviewed), a male executive in a media business, asks the women facing this barrage of negativity, micro-aggressions and horrendous ‘top 5’ e-mails what they think of the industry right now and what they could do to change it. 

With the continued disappearance and investigation of senior men, huge gender pay gaps and more women speaking up about mistreatment, it’s not an understatement to say this may have already been the worst year in the media industry’s history.

When the only high point is the Erin Johnson situation reaching a resolution - you know it’s a bad year.

And apparently there is also a thing where when you leave a business you rate the top five women. And some people think that isn’t enough, so they rate the bottom five.

When I read this story I just felt sick and it made me want to leave the industry completely - just get up and walk out. 15 years of working with people capable of this. And I’m a semi-senior white male - safe in my career progression and unlikely to face sexual harassment as part of my daily routine.

So god knows how it made women feel - particularly the women who face these inequalities most regularly, who’s career progression is still in front of them and who are at the coalface of some distinctly abhorrent behaviour. But sadly, have the least power to change or fight it. 

So, I asked them. Quite a lot of them. From all areas of the industry and all levels of seniority, and their answers were heartbreaking, touching, defiant, humbling, but most of all, honest. 

And it is clear to me now that most senior males (myself included) just do not understand the severity of the issue or the dire need for action, because women are facing a barrage of abhorrent behaviour, apparently on a daily basis. 

One respondent said: “One of my colleagues asked the most important question of all: everyone talks about the big, sexual harassment and bullying issues but what about the relentless countless issues that women endure from the people they work with everyday?”

This was echoed by another, who said: “Have they not realised the millions of micro-aggressions women and minorities are suffering from all the time?”

Another added: “I am tired and heartbroken listening to young talented people telling me how they have been put down and dismissed, at the very best, and been abused verbally and bullied, at the worst, by people that they work with that are meant to be on their side, on the same team.” 

But this is where it begins to fall down for these women because there was unanimous agreement that senior people in the industry are not doing enough to change things - and that while people are still talking about bringing answers, there are still too few actual solutions being implemented. 

If no one understands the issue, and they don’t actually want to fix it, where does that leave us?

“I encounter the same thing over and over: the people who attend the events, take the training, etc. usually aren’t the people that need it, the people who need to be in the room are outside, carrying on as before,” said one woman.
Another added: “The whole situation makes me feel like too many men and women, especially in senior positions, still haven’t understood the role they need to play. I thought the awareness phase was over and that we were moving into the action phase. I was wrong.” 

Sadly, it leaves us in a position where almost all respondents said that they had seriously thought about leaving the industry.

However, it seems that despite everything being thrown at them, the women in this industry are strong, determined and simply not prepared just to give up and take an easy way out. Thankfully there appears to be a real desire by everyone to help build for the betterment of everyone else. “Being bloody minded I don’t want to feel edged out of my own industry!” said one senior woman. 

But, while they might fight for themselves, the majority said they would not suggest this industry to a young person looking for their first career. So, what is the point in all these initiatives to get more women into the industry, when the women already working in it wouldn’t advise them to join?

One woman said: “I wish I had seen what the industry is really like when I graduated. I was so excited to start my career. The reality is not what I expected. Maybe I have been unfortunate and my experiences are unique, but I'm afraid I do not think this is the case. In five years at three prestigious agencies I have found out I was being paid the same as a colleague I was line managing, been inappropriately propositioned by a married exec. partner during a late night pitch and been told I was too young to get a pay rise despite hitting all of my agreed appraisal development objectives.”

One of the biggest areas of concern throughout this whole process is the lack of answers to these problems, so I asked these women what they would do to bring better equality to the industry. 

Here is the top list:  

- Actively create and manage a female mentor system within organisations – which also means that an organisation has to have visible women in senior management.

- Transparent and regular pay reviews, and promotions - young women often get overlooked for pay rises as they don't threaten/nag, etc., and they're made to feel grateful for what little they get.

- One woman - at least - on every interview panel, no more recruitment in own image.

- A transparent and flexible approach to working - and informing both young men and women on parental policy/leave.

- Career planning (three year and five year plans) and annual 360 evaluations.

- Regular anonymous surveys to get ideas and feedback from real people.

- A shift in value and actions from the people at the top and the people in power to make employees feel that what matters for real are the people, and the work. E.g. backing your people not your clients.

- Start talking about things that matter INTERNALLY not just to the press - things like intersectionality, inclusions, culture and togetherness.

- Create discussion forums where people can share their stories and senior people can listen. Only by listening will people understand what needs to be changed.


How did the recent story about the #top5bottom5 e-mail make you feel?

“Grubby. And disappointed but not surprised, which is even more disappointing! I was made to feel a little more hopeful by the widespread disapproval though, often with these things you hear excuses and justifications, I didn’t this time. Paul’s apology was accepted but his actions weren’t defended by anyone.”

“It made me feel so incredulous. How can someone still publicly display so much disrespect for his colleagues, especially with everything that is going on and being said right now? Was he living under a rock for the past couple of years?”

Is the industry collectively doing enough to support you or help you progress in your career?

“Definitely not. I am woefully underpaid.”

“Absolutely not. We all know that a woman’s career rarely recovers from having children. Where are the progressive parental leave programs which make it easier for mums and dads to share the load and for women to ease back into the workplace. I think that our industry is terrible at helping people plan their careers. I wonder how many agencies offer true career planning advice.”

“Pay and progression are still huge issues, the latent idea that women are a ‘risky bet’ - that and pregnancy as a so-called career killer still holds us back. While a lot of events and initiatives are fantastic, the audiences are largely female, so there’s a danger we’re talking to ourselves.”

Has advertising changed for the better or worse in your experience in the past year?

“I don’t think anything has changed. I don’t think our industry has the right protocols and people in place to structurally change the way it has been for so long. I know so many senior men going through ‘coaching’ and ‘training’ and leave them feeling like a punishment, being the victims of a newly over-sensitive industry. Also, I am worried that all the talking is 1) giving the impression that we’ve dealt with the problem and 2) giving people fatigue of the topic (which would be a huge problem).”

“It sometimes feels like the industry is forever on the cusp of change without actually embracing it. With regards to ‘collectively’, I think there is still a bit of a divide between the initiatives that are run and the actual culture.”

Have you ever thought about leaving advertising? What made you think this and why didn’t you?

“Yes, I am planning to move in-house into a marketing role.”

“I am thinking about it now. And it feels like every step up will be a fight or someone will tell you you got the job because you were a woman. I’ve heard many men joking that now is not a good time for them in our industry, that they will never be ECD, or CEO or whatever big title because it has to be a woman now... and I can’t help but think that they really don’t get it!”

“Yes! But then nowhere is perfect and I want to help change things.”

“Yes. All the time. Advertising is at a crossroads. It must change In order to stay relevant (and profitable) in the digital age. I’m more apt to leave due to its inability to adapt than its proclivity for gender inequality.”
view more - Trends and Insight
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