There's A Problem With Sexual Harassment/Discrimination/Bias In The Agency World? YOU DO NOT FUCKING SAY! SHUT YOUR FUCKING FACE!

Each morning, I start my workday by reading Digiday, AdAge, and perusing my newsfeed on LinkedIn. And each day there seems to be a new round of articles about sexual harassment, sexual bias, and sexual discrimination in the advertising agency world. (Here's one. Here's another.)

And this is no surprise to me. Whatsoever.

I've been out of university for coming up on 19 years in May.  In that time, I've had a few different careers, but about 15 years ago I landed in the digital marketing world.

Digital marketing - specifically search engine optimization (SEO) and paid digital advertising (SEM, pay-per-click, display, programmatic, paid social ads) is something I took to quickly. And easily. It was all about getting shit done, which I am great at. 

  • Need that report tomorrow? You'll have it by the end of today.
  • Thinking about reworking how we do keyword research based on new tactics? I would have that ideated and a template built in a week... Before you even actually asked.
  • Timesheets? Reviews of my peers? Copy editing based on brand guidelines? That shit I rocked.

My field is ever-changing. New tactics, new platforms, new algorithms... they pop up all of the time. What I knew yesterday may not matter today. The "adapt or die!" mentality served me well.

Within three years of starting, I was at the director level. Three years after that, I was a VP. And a year after that, I was an executive at one of the largest agencies globally.

A fast rise required many things:

  • Getting shit done and being reliable. (Duh!)
  • Getting results. (For clients and for agency revenue.)
  • And navigating the bullshit that would always be around. 

For the record, I've never been sexually harassed in the workplace. But I for fucking sure have dealt with sexual discrimination and bias.

And I was a super see-you-next-Tuesday in each instance when I had to deal with them.

As I should be. As anyone should be, male or female, when they see it or when it happens to them.

Some of my experiences:

"She can't wear that. It shows too much."

(Le sigh.)

I'm starting with one where it was female bias against a female.

I was working at an agency (duh), and got pulled into a meeting with the HR person. She was a gossipy sort who most people liked. I usually found her funny and entertaining to be around most of the time. But this was not one of those times.

She'd pulled me aside to ask me to speak to one of the women on my team. This young woman, who was more talented and meticulous with her work than I'd seen in a while, was naturally curvy. And despite being naturally curvy, she always wore things that covered her up. 

She never showed cleavage. She always wore heels and had her legs covered - as she had been taught to dress professionally from the aggressive undergrad business program she'd graduated from a year earlier. 

She was always immaculately put together and kind. Everyone liked working with her.

But because she was curvy, clothes - even a bulky sweater - would show her shape. And some people - in this case, women - had a problem with it.

"You need to talk to her about what she's wearing," the HR snob said. 

"How is it inappropriate, what she's wearing? She is always covered up," I countered. "There isn't any problem."

"Well," said the Snob, "Other women have complained. She gets attention from the men. And it's because she wears sweater and skirts that show her shape."

(Insert image of me confused and wearing a "WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT BITCH" look on my face.)

"Um, yeah..." I said, collecting my thoughts to not be a super huge bitch to her. 

A few seconds went by before I shook my head and laughed.

"I think I know who is complaining," I said. "And until you make a formal rule for EVERYONE about what to wear and include things like wearing blouses deeply cut down against flat chests, I'm not talking to (my team member) about what she wears. Because she is always covered up. And this is sexual discrimination against her by flat-chested people."

I left the office. I didn't talk to my team member. And I was a super c-u-n-terrible person to the person who I knew lodged the complaint and the HR snob.

Most people didn't really like either one of those two anyway.

 

"You can't come with us. Get out of the car, Heather."

I was working at a different agency, and was on a work trip with my team in a different city. We had been out for the evening at dinner, sponsored by a vendor, and it was getting late. I think it was after 10pm, which normally is long after I am asleep. And I was dying to go back to my room to go to take a bath and go to sleep after what had been a long day of staring at Powerpoints followed by rounds of drinks and rich food.

And as we all walked back to the hotel, I overheard the guys in the group (and it was mostly guys in the group) talking about how they were going out to another "club" once we got back to the hotel. 

"Hmm," my mischievous inner dialogue said, "I know what they're going to do."

As soon as we got to the hotel, my boss (a man) and two of my colleagues (both female) headed up to their rooms for the night.

The vendor (who'd sponsored the evening) and my other colleagues (all guys) were hailing cab to go out.

"Wait guys!" I yelled, jumping into the cab before they could get in, "I'm going to come with you! Where are we headed? Let's go!"

Awkward silence.

"Yeah," said one, "You can't come with us."

"Sure she can," said the cool funny one. He was always a no-bullshitter and knew I knew what they were up to. 

"No, she can't," said the third guy.

The vendor, a really nice guy, remained silent.

"Aw," I said. "Come on guys! I want to tag along!"

"You can't come with us," said the poser one who no one liked, and who'd been banned fro entering the building of the agency I partnered with for my division. "Get out of the car."

I smiled and crawled out.

"I know where you guys are going," I said. "Have fun."

They were off to a strip club.

And while I didn't have a problem with where they were going, I did have a problem with them excluding the females. I wasn't actually going to go with them. But I was pissed that conversations and fun was going to be had and it was a "given" that no females would be coming with them.

And I have no idea if that part of the evening was going to be sponsored by the vendor - for all I know they were all just going out as friends and were each going to pay their own way. 

But it was the principle. This was a work trip. And females - at least this female - was being excluded from the conversation. Even if no work-related conversation was going to take place.

If they were smart, they would have planned to meet back in the lobby after the rest of us went to our rooms... And THEN met up to go out. 

Amateurs.

 

"Why do females usually not advance? And when they do, why do they get fucked on pay?"

My "I Don't Give a Fuck" Attitude (MIDGAFA) goes back to one of my first agency jobs.

I was hired at the entry level, as most people were who worked there. In order to advance to more senior levels, you took tests. It was usually a scenario involving a website where you had to comb through and uncover all of the impediments to a search engine's crawler being able to find the content for indexing. 

It was never a multiple choice test. Always an essay-style. Which is good. However, it left the grading to be somewhat subjective. And those who took the test were never walked through afterwards to go over what they got right or wrong. It was a "You passed by this much," or "You passed, but you missed some big things," or "You failed it."

Before I ever took the test, I'd noticed that there was only one woman in a manager role. All others were men. And those who seemed to get the most attention from management were men.

"Do women not take the test?" I'd asked.

Turns out most had. One was promoted to a higher level, but not to manager - despite knowing more and doing more. And I was told she'd had to argue for the promotion.  A few others had received the "next step up" from where I was. But recently men had come in at entry level, taken the test, and been tapped for management level.

Side meetings. Inside jokes. Keying a select few (with penises) in on changes that were coming to the agency.

"What the fuck?" I asked, as I noticed this.

So I took it up with the recently hired HR person. 

"How come only men seem to be getting the chance to grow here?" I asked.

I then listed off everything I had noticed, her poor eyes starting to spin.

I was then pegged as a "troublemaker." But it was a good thing, It put them slightly on edge. I was good at my job, and well-liked. But they did not like me being vocal.

They decided to open up some new levels, and a woman got moved into one of the roles... Someone who I felt had been overlooked. I was happy. Progress! She wasn't a "manager"... But she was a lead.

Soon enough, I had enough experience and it was my turn to take the test and attempt to advance to lead. Another person was chosen. Someone who was very good at their job and who I respected. A man. I was happy.

A few months after that, I took the test again, and was chosen.

I was offered a 4% increase for my promotion.

"That's it?" was my response, expecting to be reprimanded for my terseness. (And let's be honest, rightly so. There is a much nicer way to negotiate.)

But I wasn't. The director looked at me and simply said, "Well that's not the usual response I get when I offer someone money. But we'll go ahead and give you 10% more."

Was. Not. Expecting. That.

When I relayed the story to someone else - a female - later, they were shocked. Not at my audacity... But at the fact that I'd gotten more with no argument by just sticking up for myself and asking a question.

When they'd tried to negotiate for themselves, they'd been told, "That's what the role pays."

Part of me realized that

1. Women seemed to not think of negotiation as a regular thing.

2. When they did at this place, they seemed to still be told, "no."

I honestly think I got what I wanted because I'd raised questions about women's roles in that workplace. And they didn't want me causing trouble beyond the open vocalization I had done.

And this made me realize that this was the only way to ever be... Open. Transparent. Vocal. 

I've been told, "No" many times in my career. But I learned that asking is never a bad thing.

(Though you may want to be much nicer about how you ask.)

 

As you can see, I've tried to do my part when I encounter any type of sexual discrimination and bias. I have had to hear about a sexual harassment complaint (at an agency in Toronto) against a an executive who had a habit of hugging junior people when out at a holiday party. (The employees didn't want to take a complaint far, other than mentioning it to our boss)... So it does not surprise me at all that these things happen. 

Where I work now, it's unlikely that I will have to deal with these types of things.

Why?

Because there are women in executive leadership and senior management. Quite a few, actually.

Also, we have regular training on workplace behaviors, sexual harassment and discrimination bias... As well as training on how to manage people who have different learning styles.

On top of that, I personally don't socialize much with people I work with. I do a little. But not much. This has been my policy since my first agency job in digital marketing. I tend to become friends with people after I've left the workplace I shared with them.

I also don't date people I work with... Which hadn't been a possibility until four-ish years ago when I got divorced. I wouldn't want to date someone who I also worked in the same office with. Or even the same company.

Not that I expect others to follow this rule at all. The agency world can require long hours, after all. And it's not uncommon for couples to form. I just like to keep things separate.

Plus, I'm an introvert. And introvert who is unafraid to raise hell when needed.