Mad Men. Furious Women.
Far from dissipating over the last decade, misogyny in the ad industry has simply mutated into something insidious, invisible, lurking in the shadows. It’s time to fire up the floodlights.
(Throughout this piece, I’ve added in quotes from women who were brave enough to come forward and to share their stories with me. These quotes sit apart and are not woven into the narrative, but I think it’s critical that you can read their words and their experiences. All have asked to remain anonymous.)
When I was 18, I got my first job in an ad agency.
When I was 19, I was sexually assaulted by a client in an alleyway outside of my first big industry party. When he was done, he told me to stop being so hysterical. Out of fear and shame, I stayed silent.
When I was 20, I was hired by another ad agency. After I’d finished the interview, I heard the man who’d offered me the job go out into the office and say ‘hired a hot one, something decent to look at’, before they all started laughing.
When I was 24 I was sexually assaulted by a boss after he followed me into a toilet cubicle on a night out. The next morning, whilst sitting two metres away from me, he sent me an email to suggest we ‘forget about last night’ because he had a wife and kids, as if what had occurred was either consensual or mutual. It was neither. I told a few people but it was recommended that I not ‘kick up a fuss’ because ‘it wasn’t worth it’. That man went on to become a client at my next agency; I’d often hide and cry when he was in the building.
When I was 26 I found out that a male colleague was earning $20,000 more than I was. I raised it with the CEO he told me he ‘had a family’, then offered me a $2k raise and a list of additional responsibilities, which I was told would be ‘great for my CV’. I resigned.
When I was 28, I interviewed at an agency and was told in the meeting that they were disappointed that I didn’t possess a more ‘maternal energy’ as that was what they were looking for, for their team. They also suggested that I was ‘over confident’ and may want to ‘tone it down a bit’. I left in tears.
When I was 29, I got a job at a new agency and for my welcome drinks, they said they had somewhere special to take me. That ‘special place’ was a run-down seedy pub full of old men and barely adult strippers, wandering around in thongs rattling a pint glass, asking each punter for a pound to fund their next dance. I was disgusted. Throughout the night my new colleagues commented on the strippers bodies, as well as my own, suggesting we ‘compare tits’ and asking if my pubic hair ‘was shaped that way’ too. I laughed along, mortified and horrified, but desperate not to come across as a prude. I should have known that the daily working practices would unfold in a similar vein with overt misogyny and gaslighting making up a significant portion of my experience, which lasted only nine weeks before I ran for the hills. Subsequently, I erased any evidence that I’d ever worked there from my LinkedIn profile and CV. Many years later, other women from that same agency have contacted me to share their similar stories. The founder, unsurprisingly, continues to thrive and made tens of millions when they sold. The exact figure is known to many, because the day of the sale, he called for a celebration in the local pub, where he proceeded to show them all his bank balance.
When I was 30 I’d been freelancing at an agency for a week, when the CEO walked up to my desk with a lightbulb, he suggested I should try fitting it into my mouth, when I declined (with most of the agency watching) he laughed and said he was sure I’d gagged on worse. He’d go on to repeat this ‘prank’ and others like it, targeting only young women and enjoying the shocked reactions as he played to what he assumed was his adoring audience. In reality their nervous laughter stemmed not from amusement but from abhorrence.
When I was 32, I was subjected to over a year of psychological torment, working under a man whose self adulation required him to bully and belittle others, in order to maintain his perception of himself as sitting atop his golden pedestal. His cruelty and joy in crushing the confidence of those around him sent me into a year of therapy and also caused at least four others (that I’m aware of) to run aground. To this day, he is celebrated in industry publications, top ten lists and, despite his toxicity, continues to be heralded as a planning hero.
I’m now 36 and, having a built a profile on Twitter, my daily sojourns on the platform bring a healthy dose of reply guys and mansplaining, but also unsolicited advances, dick pics, rape threats, and occasionally, threats on my life too. And when I raise the issue, the response is often ‘why don’t you just get off of Twitter’, as if the only solution to the abuse directed at me is to punish myself - to run away, to cower in a corner, to abandon the audience I’ve built and the new business pipeline it’s created.
This is just a snapshot of my experiences, the entirety would fill a ‘War And Peace’ length novel.
I tell you these stories not to be sensationalist and not to seek out your sympathies, but because I want you to understand. There are real, horrific and painful reasons why women in this industry are angry, broken, exhausted and often scared into silence.
When we raise our voices, we are not crying wolf.
We are crying for help.
“I was 26, at an agency party I left the main office to go to the loo. Barring my way was a senior producer. He leered at me and said he’d only move and let me in if I let him snort a line off of my breasts. I laughed. He didn’t.” - Anonymous.
“I was 30 and six months pregnant when they made me redundant. I’d just won a huge piece of new business and they replaced me with a man who’d been working on an account they’d just lost. Yet I was the one booted out.” - Anonymous.
“I worked at an agency that was openly hostile to women every single day. We hired a new receptionist and the leadership team (all men) suggested her name was too difficult to pronounce, so they gave her a sexual nickname instead, which they used behind her back and to her face. Whenever I would point stuff like this out as being hugely inappropriate they’d call me ‘the fembot’ and tell me to chill out.” - Anonymous.
During lockdown, whilst the physical walls closed in on us, for many women, the internal walls came crumbling down. In a state of loneliness, desperation and weariness, we began once again to share with one another, to seek solace and support, when the bad behaviour we were often subjected to in the office became magnified and even more marked.
Those who felt talked over in meeting rooms, were silenced entirely over zoom.
Those who had to push for their ideas to be valued and validated, were now openly sidelined and shut down.
Those who managed to avoid their abusers in person, were now forced to welcome them into their private spaces, as they stared back at them through video calls.
And those who had dared to speak up or to cry foul, found themselves pushed to the front of the queue awaiting the chopping block.
But though these tales of misconduct, injustice and exploitation flooded my inbox and DMs (as they did others), none of this was surprising and none of it was new - because though we like to believe that misogyny and the mistreatment of women is a thing of the past, it is not. Instead it has morphed and evolved into something insidious; no longer overt and no longer a common occurrence carried out in public for all to see.
Instead it’s moved behind the curtain where it operates in the shadows, in private messages, in whispered comments and in the deeply disturbing behaviour many of us experience individually, quietly, and about which, due to fear of reproach or reprisal, we rarely share openly.
And so, in this guise it marches on, invisible to the naked eye but still catastrophic for many women.
“A few months ago my agency did a big song and dance about how they were championing diversity and supporting women in the industry press. A few weeks ago, when coming back from maternity leave I asked if I could possibly work one of my five days a week from home moving forwards. I was let go.” - Anonymous.
“I was on a client trip miles away from home in Tokyo. At 4am I had my hotel room door nearly beaten off the wall by a drunk client demanding to be let in. It went on for an hour, whilst I cried and cried.” - Anonymous.
“I was 24 and an account exec. We went to a trade show in another country and took the clients to a strip club and then a ‘legal’ brothel. I didn’t go to the latter, but I remember giggling along in the former, convinced that playing the nice girl was just part of my job. Plastic smiles that conceal all the doubt and fear underneath.” - Anonymous.
Insidious misogyny differs in many ways from its overt counterpart, but its most important and devastating distinction is its lack of data and therefore the seemingly insurmountable challenge of making it both visible and tangible, because how can we fix something which we can’t see?
The numbers we’re used to examining, such as the number of women in agency leadership, the number of female creative directors, the number of female graduates entering the workforce - are all great when it comes to monitoring representation, which is critical, but they do not and cannot track the abuse which takes place behind the scenes.
Why? Because no one asks and no one tells.
In 2017, Victoria Brooks, the VP of Bloom (a network for women in advertising) created the ‘Booth Of Truth’ outside their inaugural conference in London. The booth was a small space for women to go, to write down their anonymous stories, which would then be shared and discussed in a session on the day called ‘Confessions Live’.
What followed was an outpouring of harrowing and horrific experiences with women sharing tales such as:
“I arrived in London for my new job and the CEO said: when are we going to fuck? When I rebuffed him, he said: why did you think I recruited you? For your excellent strategy?”
“My old CEO asked another member of staff if he had ‘been through me’.”
But most telling was one card that simply read:
“Any woman who dares to speak out will never work again.”
And herein lies the awful and agonising reality - we are utterly terrified of what will happen to us if we share our truth.
In 2016, The 3% Conference surveyed 600 women across the US for their ‘Elephant On Madison Avenue’ report. They found that over half of the respondents had been subjected to an unwanted sexual advance, 88% of which were from a colleague, 70% from a superior and 49% from a client. Only 1 in 3 filed a complaint.
In addition to overt harassment, the majority of women surveyed reported dealing with subtle conscious and unconscious bias on a regular basis.
In a first-of-its-kind 2018 survey in the UK by TimeTo, the ad industry body that was set up after #MeToo rocked the world, 41% of respondents said that they’d experienced sexual harassment and/or assault in their place of work (i.e ad agencies) but of those, 83% had not reported it.
And that’s because 82% claimed their harassers and abusers were senior to them, with bosses and managers as the most common perpetrators. In open-ended questions some respondents described the involvement of senior management in covering up sexual harassment cases, while others highlighted their role in encouraging staff to flirt with their clients or customers, or to put up with unwelcome attention in order to win or retain business.
And again, you may think this is a thing of the past, but 69% of those involved in the survey had experienced harassment within the last five years, while 28% had experienced it within the last 12 months.
Just six months ago, an ex-colleague shared with me that she’d been forced to attend a client party in New York alone by her boss, despite raising her concerns with him about that specific client’s behaviour towards her previously, sharing that she felt unsafe and uncomfortable around him. Her boss told her to ‘suck it up’ and that if she had to ‘take one for the team’, then so be it.
This is happening regularly and it’s happening now, but the culture of shame, silence and the utter lack of recourse forces women to suppress these stories, to keep their mouths shut and to try to carry on as best they can.
And as if this wasn’t tough enough to deal with and to carry around with us, we’re now being faced with a new breed of super gaslighters, adept at navigating public discourse to position themselves as allies of women, champions of diversity and the cultivators of positive change - when in reality they are the culprits, accomplices and the signers of the NDAs that have become the most pernicious and pervasive method with which to keep us quiet.
I called them ‘woke misogynists’ or ‘faux feminist fuck boys’; they talk a good game, they know all the right words, they wear the t-shirts and splash their new diversity initiatives across the pages of industry publications and creds decks, and yet behind closed doors, their facade falls away as they perpetuate pay gaps, punish pregnancies, hush up harassment claims and in some cases, commit acts of assault themselves.
Between us, the women who have been brave enough to share their stories with me over the last year can name at least eight very high profile men who fit this bill and who remain in positions of huge power and influence.
But hey, they’re self proclaimed feminists, right?
“I was 26 and working in the office when I was called by reception and told that the Executive Creative Director and founder of the agency would like to see me in Boardroom 1 (where I knew a huge pitch was taking place, which I had nothing to do with). I nervously entered the room where about 12 men in suits turned to face me. I asked if there was anything they needed - the ECD pointed at me and said “This gentleman, is why I’m in advertising!” The statement was followed by a hearty round of laughter from them all. I was stunned. I slunk out of the room embarrassed and confused as to what had just happened. I went back to my desk shaking. The whole experience lasted about 5 minutes but has stayed with me for over 10 years.” - Anonymous.
“Two years ago after a spreadsheet was circulated, I found out that there was a $30,000 pay gap between me and the only other planner at my level - a man of utterly equal age, experience, and responsibility. THIRTY THOUSAND DOLLARS!” - Anonymous.
“I shiver every time a new piece is published in the industry press by particular men who were my abusers. I have to relive the trauma they put me through.” - Anonymous.
"I was newly pregnant, feeling utterly rubbish as a result, as the first few months are usually rough. But rather than being understanding, I was told by my boss that he'd be letting me go as he'd been disappointed in my recent performance at work and I was no longer deemed good enough to remain a part of the team." - Anonymous.
Beyond the obvious issue, which is that all of this is disgusting, disgraceful and utterly unacceptable, let me tell you what this insidious, subtle and sustained misogyny is doing to women and the wider impact it’s having on the industry at large.
Because while we continue to bury our heads in the sand, pretending that everything’s just hunky dory, a crisis is unfolding, we are running out of time and I, along with thousands of other women, have run out of patience.
“I was 28 and working on-site at my client’s company. One client made me hugely uncomfortable, following me around, asking me to go for walks with him, even finding me on Facebook and messaging me there late at night. He got my number from someone on my team and asked me on a date, though we were both married. I declined after agonising for hours how best to respond so that I wouldn’t lose my job. His response to me? “Ok, but don’t make it weird.” When I told my agency leadership, it was suggested that I not make a big deal out of it so we didn’t rock the boat with this very important brand. I worked there for another year and had to see this client every day.” - Anonymous.
This pattern of dehumanising women and dismantling their spirits has consequences. Not just those that end up in courts, pay outs and exposés, but those that are akin to ‘death by 1,000 cuts’. It splinters our energy, breaks down our bodies and forces many of us to take a path that feels unavoidable - that of having to give up and bow out entirely.
You’ll hear many women tell you that just existing in an agency environment is exhausting and when they say that, they’re not always referring to the long hours and weekends, instead they’re often referencing the energy it takes to walk the tightrope of acceptance each and every day.
In her 2016 qualitative deep dive for The 3% Conference, strategist and researcher Megan Averell spoke to 20 women across the US. They were up and down the ranks, from junior level to executive level, representing all roles within the agency world.
What she heard was both shocking and unsurprising.
The overarching theme was that of how challenging it is to navigate the pervasive ‘bro culture’ which remains the dominant dogma in agencies today; the desperate need to ‘fit in’ or else risk being booted out, with women feeling that they MUST participate or else be penalised, but that to do so created deep personal conflicts and emotional dissonance.
The energy it takes to play along, to pretend it’s all just ‘banter’, whilst also watching your every move and every word, in case you come across as too meek, too brash, too abrasive, too confident, not confident enough, too sensitive or just ‘too much’ requires superhuman strength.
And while we’re using up a huge chunk of our mental and emotional capacity on this stuff, day-in and day-out, we’re also expected to work at pace, to deadline, to dream up ideas, strategies, manage challenging clients and not fall over. But we are being robbed of the chance to do all of this with our full capacity and capability, to truly inspire and be inspired, to be on our A game, when we’re also lugging around this ridiculously heavy burden of having to self censor, editing ourselves consciously and unconsciously, just to be able to coexist in these spaces.
The 3% Conferences ‘Elephant On Madison Avenue’ research found that 68% of women had been told they were ‘too aggressive’ and 64% were told they were ‘too emotional’.
For Black women, the burden is altogether heavier and more bone crushing because the experience of misogyny for them is overlaid with the experience of racism.
Research suggests that Black women experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse in the workplace – including humiliation, name-calling and insults. In 2010, queer Black feminist Moya Bailey coined the term misogynoir to describe this unique and ubiquitous form of sexism and racism, combined.
“I was 26 when I was hired to help further an agency’s ‘gender diversity’ efforts. Whilst there I was systematically bullied, belittled & silenced. My review included words and phrases such as ‘rigid’, ‘inflexible’, ‘needs to be treated with kid gloves’ and ‘overly sensitive’ because I had dared to do my job and suggest changes were needed. I suffered burn out, extreme anxiety and was signed off for a long period of time after what I can only describe as a over a year of gaslighting and bullying.” - Anonymous.
“A senior male colleague decided he couldn't tell me and another young female colleague apart, so he deliberately called us by the same name as a way to humiliate and undermine us. No one stopped him.” - Anonymous.
In order to survive, many women find themselves falling into roles where they have to take on the shape of “non-threatening, logistical support for men in power”.
According to Megan’s research, these were the Work Wife (the one who takes care of logistics so men can bring home the bacon), the Work Mistress (the sassy and playful, hard-as-nails young co-worker that men have fun with away from home), and the Work Mother (the one who whips projects into shape and takes care of men simultaneously).
I’m willing to bet that many of these will feel uncomfortably familiar to you if you sit with them for a few minutes, because their accuracy is undeniable.
For many women I spoke to, the daily requirement to fragment their energy, edit themselves and to deflect or doggedly continue in the face of abuse led not only to emotional breakdowns but to physical ones too, with some signed off on long-term medical leave, some hospitalised and some ending up with chronic conditions.
This isn’t hypochondria.
The experience of sexism like this can lead to huge amounts of stress, which has a significant impact on women’s health. In fact, research shows that it’s strongly associated with depression, poor mental functioning, poor life satisfaction, poor self-rated health and reports of limiting longstanding illnesses.
So when a woman in your agency tells you she feels stressed and rundown, don’t you dare fob her off as being ‘too emotional’ or ‘overreacting’.
This is real and it’s dangerous.
But for those of us lucky enough not to suffer physical symptoms, the mental ones just keep adding up; because our experiences are akin to burning coals inside of us, each time a new one is added, the fire in our bellies grows stronger.
Our pain and our rage and our frustration is cumulative, multiplying and intensifying as each new slight is enacted against us - whether we’ve experienced a serious assault or just the daily barrage of being ‘too’ something or ‘not enough’ something else, of being disliked when we try to negotiate our pay, of being interrupted when we speak—something that happens twice as frequently to women as men - of being perceived as nags if we ask for something more than once, of creating contempt for ourselves if we’re seen as too self-promotional.
It all adds up.
And so when you see us on Twitter getting frustrated because of yet another all male ‘must follow’ list and we are forced to once again remind the industry that we do indeed exist and that we do indeed have talent and that we do indeed have something to say - we are not reacting to that incident in isolation.
When we see an all male panel at an industry event and we dare to question the organiser, to suggest that maybe a female face or two wouldn’t go amiss, we are not getting up in arms about that one conference and that one line-up.
When a mansplainer rears his annoying AF head and numerous women emerge to rightfully tell him to sit down and to mind his own business, they are not full of rage because one idiot decided that it was another opportunity to remind the ladies of his superior intellect and machismo, while he sits in his mothers basement, chugging his mountain dew.
No. Because for us, these incidents are not isolated, they are incremental.
Each one of us has those burning coals. For some there are more than others.
And when we react, we do so with the pain and exhaustion and frustration that a lifetime of these affronts has created within us, alongside a lifetime of us having to do the work to correct and to defend.
Think about that next time you create your lists, your panels, your top 10’s, your ‘books to read’, because it’s about time you bothered to consider women and their voices and their work, without us having to raise our hands and to raise hell to remind you, because we are so, so tired.
“This year a Strategy Director who was six months pregnant was made redundant. She was replaced on the account where she’d just made a landmark piece of work, by a man who had been working on a piece of business that was lost - but it was HER that was made redundant.” - Anonymous.
“The women in my agency don’t last long after they join because they quickly realise they have no future here. They’re constantly deputised, overlooked and gaslit.” - Anonymous.
“I was 24 and working at a small agency. One night, our biggest client invited us to join their table at a black tie award ceremony. Halfway through dinner, our client leaned over and said to me and two Account Managers (we were all women in our early 20s), "If you sleep with me I'll make sure your boss promotes you." He didn't have to lay a hand on us -- it was clear that he didn't just have power over us in that moment, but power over our boss (the agency Managing Director) and our careers too. We complained the next day to our MD but absolutely nothing happened; they stayed our biggest and most important client and we were forced to continue to interact with him.” - Anonymous.
And so, after all of this, is it any wonder that in the upper echelons of the agency world, women are few and far between?
Many will suggest that it’s because we don’t want to be there or that we’ve gone off to have babies and to an extent, that’s true.
One woman I spoke to said this:
“Women in this industry are perishable goods. We have a sell-by date and it’s 35. It’s the age when we stand up and say ‘no more’ and also the age that we tend to get booted out or we give up.”
She’s not wrong.
Megan’s research also found the same thing in that the issue of trying to fit within agency culture seemed to not only impact women’s ability to rise within ad agencies, but also their desire to. Many had just had enough.
Jane Evans is the co-founder of Uninvisibility, she’s written a fantastic book on the lack of midlife women in the industry and is driving a wider movement to change it, but not necessarily by funnelling them back into the agencies who kicked them to the curb in the first place, slamming the door in their faces.
Instead, she’s building out her own offering and recruiting an army of kick ass women to join her.
“Midlife women don’t exist. Not in the research companies. Not in marketing departments. Not in agencies. And not in the production companies. But we are here. Brilliant women with stellar careers, cupboards filled with awards and egos that have been satisfied. We want to shout our message from the rooftops and work with those who can make a better future for all of us.”
That’s the dream.
But the reality right now is that we have a talent drain when it comes to women.
The younger ones are burning out and dropping out, whilst the older ones (old in agency-land is apparently mid-30’s) are either being booted out or saying ‘fuck this shit’.
When women don’t feel safe or valued, or when they are forced to endure abuse as the cost of their participation, they have no choice but to disengage.
“You don't feel safe to continue speaking, so you don't speak at all.” - Anonymous.
And when women see that even the most influential, powerful and successful role models are forced to run this gauntlet daily and wade through the shit that’s continuously thrown their way, they question whether this path is one they should or could continue on.
Once again, Megan hits the nail on the head in her research:
“After all these years and all the gains we have made as women, we still can’t believe we can be ‘insiders’ in ad agencies. These bro cultures are so prominent, and so self-reinforcing, as to make women feel like perpetual outsiders, who must either change themselves to conform, or suffer the consequences of being ‘out’”
Put another way, in her book, ‘Backlash- The Undeclared War Against American Women’, author Susan Faludi suggests that efforts against equality “are encoded and internalised, diffuse and chameleonic.”
As Cindy Gallop once said - “[This] manages women out, destroys ambitions, derails careers, crushes dreams. But no one will go on the record. The powerful men run everything, and they [the victims] are scared shitless.”
And so we run.
Not because we don’t love the work, the creativity, the constant flow of ideas, the inspiration, the curiosity, the wins…
But because, for the sake of our own wellbeing - for our mental, physical and emotional health - we cannot stay.
And that is a shame not only for us, but for advertising. Because the loss of those minds, of their thinking, of their potential, of the impact they could have had is just devastating.
For an industry crying out for talent, we excel at killing it.
“The Boy’s Club still rules. They can dress it up in glitter and faux fucking feminism all they want, but nobody dares actually correct the conditions that make women an endangered species in this business.” - Anonymous.
I wish I could wrap this up in a neat bow for you, share a few key actionable steps we can take or big boxes we can tick, but I can’t. The reality of this situation is much more complex and overwhelming than that.
As Megan said after her research back in 2016 - “Addressing outright discrimination is paramount, addressing lack of representation is also a big step in the right direction— but without addressing ad agency culture, I now believe day-to-day life in ad agencies is unlikely to meaningfully change for women.”
I feel the same.
The work of The 3% Conference, Creative Equals, TimeTo, WACL and other industry bodies will continue and we need to give it our full support.
We can and should also continue to speak up and speak out, because we deserve to be in these spaces, we deserve to have our ideas heard, we deserve to be listened to, validated, celebrated and rewarded, without facing abuse which aims to diminish our ability, prowess and expertise.
And if we shout, not just as individuals, but as a collective, we are louder and harder to turn away from; it’s easy to dismiss one woman who calls out injustice, an army of women, not so much.
But even then, I’m not sure it’s enough.
Because women across the board are exhausted and angry. Very, very angry.
Their rage has been building and burning for years; behind the forced smiles and bright eyes, we are ablaze, seething with caged resentment and frustration. And the energy it takes to keep it locked inside us is no longer energy we want to spend in that way - we’ve been silenced, suppressed and shut down for too long.
Every single woman I’ve spoken to has a story from their time in the industry.
Each story is a match.
One-by-one, spark-by-spark, the flames are rising and the fire is getting hotter.
And between us, with our pain and our rage, there just may come a moment when enough is enough and collectively, we decide to burn it all down.
For me personally, that time is already here.
The perpetrators of my trauma thought I wouldn’t come for them, that my silence was assured and that they were home free. But they were mistaken. I was merely biding my time...and now theirs is up.