Adland’s Reckoning With Misogyny Is Long Overdue

Adland’s Reckoning With Misogyny Is Long Overdue

As a journalist, and as a feminist, reporting on instances of misogyny and sexism can prove difficult. We are bound by the idea of impartiality.

Journalistic training often leads us to believe that if you report the facts, the truth will come out and justice will prevail.

Then why do we still see abuses of power? From derogatory comments about women in the workplace, to harassment from clients, to the silencing of women in cases of assault or abuse.

This is the reality of the world we live in in. Unfortunately, misogyny is still a pillar of our society. By extension, it is a pillar of the media and marketing industry, too.

Misogyny is so endemic we now have cliches about what it looks like. Phrases like “a post #MeToo era”, and the palpable hatred of assertive “bossy” women while assertive men are praised.

We put women in ad campaigns and hold International Women’s Day brunches, but fire them when they return from maternity leave.

These acts of discrimination are repeated over and over again, and still, it feels like very little changes.

I am 23, and the fact that sexism is as entrenched and palpable in our world as it was when my mother was my age is particularly disheartening.

Perhaps that sexism is occasionally less overt, but it’s still a pulsing current of disenfranchisement, frustration and uncomfortable laughter.

We have, of course, had progress. In adland, we have an impressive cohort of wonderful female leaders.

But we still haven’t had a cultural shift away from misogyny.

Ultimately, misogyny thrives every time a man’s comfort is prioritised over a woman’s happiness, success, or mental health.

So, here are some facts about misogyny, which apply to every industry:

One: We are all complicit in misogyny, whether it is intentional or unconscious, because of the patriarchal values that dominate our society. The world isn’t divided into ‘misogynists’ and ‘nice people’. That’s why actively fighting misogyny is so important.

Two: Misogyny needs to be acknowledged and actively addressed, because it has negative consequences for all of us, regardless of gender.

Three: Women’s lives are ruined to preserve the careers of ‘nice’ men.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Antoinette Lattouf, award-winning journalist, co-founder of Media Diversity Australia and author of the upcoming book How to Lose Friends and Influence White People :

There are so many examples of sexism I have experienced in my career as a journalist, but one stood out to me because it was wrong on so many levels.

I had just turned 30, and one of my colleagues who was about 20 years older than me said, “Oh, happy birthday”. After I thank him, he went on to say, “You look great for 30”.

I was like, “Okay, weird. Thanks.” And then he continued, “You know, given you’ve had children”.

I just thought, okay, we’re getting weirder, and then he said:

“You know, it’s all going to go downhill from here. So enjoy it while it lasts.”

I thought he was going to apologise for the awkward, weird comments he had made, but then he continued, and said, “You know, but like, given your heritage and your olive skin and stuff, you might have a couple of good more years in you. Maybe that heritage has come in handy after all.”

I was like, wow, this is sexist, ageist, mum-ist, racist! It was everything in one, packaged and masqueraded as some kind of compliment.

I remember walking away thinking, “Mate, you’re not easy on the eye, you’re not a great journalist, and, you know, you have pretty average personality, too. I didn’t go around giving you a report card.” But these are just one of the many casual comments that women have to face. If you are a woman of colour, or a mother, or a person with a disability, there are just extra layers to those microaggressions.

In Australia, we just disguise all of our ‘isms’ with casual humour as though it’s meant to be okay, but it’s not.

Now, I wish I had said ‘no, thanks’ – not accepting the birthday wishes, not accepting this as a compliment. But I walked away, and that was that. I wish I had handled it differently.

Sunita Gloster, CEO of Gloster Advisory, Senior Advisor at Accenture, and Advisor to UN Women Australia :

Every woman I know in the industry has a story involving misogyny, sexism, pay inequality or worse still, bad conduct or sexual harassment. Either from their personal experience or of someone they know. Every woman.

Zoe Scaman’s recent blog ‘Mad Men and Furious Women’ calls it out in fury inciting us to ‘fire up the floodlights’.  =Rightly so. Gender inequalities are the biggest human rights issue of our time, and our industry is notoriously not immune.

But this isn’t a problem of awareness, nor a lack of reaction.

When the floodlights switch on, we circle the wagons, everyone is horrified, we discuss the issues in leadership meetings, someone might even lose their job, we restate our commitment, strengthen processes and policies, and believe change could be real.

But the dogs bark and the caravan of outrage moves on. Until the next brave woman tells her story, or the next man steps on a self-made landmine.

It was five years ago, a senior industry leader on a global stage felt so assured as to declare that gender equality and the lack of women in leadership roles was not an issue in the industry or his agency network. He blamed the lack of diversity on a lack of ambition.

Obviously, he didn’t last long in his role after those comments. But it was an important floodlight moment, triggering a comprehensive and global outpouring with all and sundry publicly distancing themselves from his deplorable diatribe. Diversity and inclusion are business imperatives that will not be negotiated, we all affirmed.

What gets measured gets improved, and we’ve proved it. Parts of the industry show real progress in their census data on pay, representation and promotion, but the opening gambit still remains, every woman has a story.  Because the hubris which was so plainly evident in that leader five years ago is just the tip of the iceberg.  Only last week a young, senior woman in an agency told me she still feels the need to pretend she’s not a parent in her agency. I was lost for words. Her story, and others like it, don’t make the census.

As an industry, we focus our attention on the tip of the iceberg stories. We‘re drawn to headlines heralding good or exposing ugly. The twin peaks of celebration or scandal. But how big is the iceberg under the water’s surface? The ‘every day’ stories of bias, sexism and bad conduct that get swept under the carpet of business as usual. The stories not captured in the ‘census’ nor worthy of headlines.

The real challenge is how we bring the entire iceberg into visibility. Only then will we reckon the unconscious scale and ubiquity of what lies between good and ugly.

Not easy for an industry whose fulcrum is reputation. ‘Firing up the floodlights’ with fury frightens us all. It is why anonymity is still for most, the only safe harbour. And then, at a company level, stories that could be industry-wide learning experiences are usually submerged under non-disclosure agreements.

So, I commend B&T for continuing to spotlight women, our achievements, our stories and our industry’s challenges. Because unfortunately, there are still many among us that will have read the opening paragraph with disbelief. If that is you, please take a moment to read Zoe Scaman’s blog.

Then look into the detail of the recent Wunderman Thompson UK sex discrimination case – it’s a pivotal moment for the industry. It warns of a looming industry battle of the sexes as we remedy our gender imbalances and reputation.

As advertisers increasingly move to mandate diversity, equality and inclusion throughout the marketing supply chain, the watchout is the impact of those mandates and the discomfort some will feel as a result.

The link between who we are and what we create is now what’s in the floodlights. Equality and diversity within our ranks are deemed essential ingredients to enable us to serve our customers, serve their customers. To not address any imbalances within our make-up is at best commercially negligent and at worst destructive.

Unchallenged, harmful stereotypes are the root cause of gender discrimination and inequality. Cultural shifts in attitudes are the key to changing behaviour and the systems that perpetuate society’s inequalities.

That’s what we do. Our dime is earned in changing attitudes and behaviours. We take this responsibility seriously, yet harmful stereotypes still eke out in our product, our creative work, through our media and technology.

Our opportunity is to lead the way to acknowledge, accelerate and improve the status and security of women. Notwithstanding, the representation and inequalities around mobility, LGBTQI and cultural diversity also on the agenda. A rising tide will lift all boats.

As an industry, we stand tall in our reputation as growth drivers and influencers of culture. As a profession, we are trained to listen to the voice of the customer and observe their experiences. But are we doing enough to listen to the voices within our industry? And to bear witness to the stories that sit between the good and the ugly.

Sexism and gender-based biases within our industry have a destructive ripple effect across society, And it’s on our watch. Acceptance is the first step to change. The question is, are we there yet?

Cindy Gallop, founder of BBH USA, MakeLoveNotPorn and If We Ran The World:

I’m often asked in interviews, “So Cindy, what sexism did you experience coming up through the ranks in advertising?” And my response is: a fish does not know what water is.

With reporting from Alexandra Coulton

Featured image source: iStock/Nuthawut Somsuk

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