Business suffers when women flee (editorial)

Female talent is being bullied out of advertising and the industry is worse for it.
Harassment

Editor’s note: This piece will not be the last on the subject of sexual harassment in the Canadian marketing industry. Our editorial team has committed to covering the issue and we want to hear from our readers, including those who wish to speak to us confidentially. If you have a story to share, please email tips@strategyonline.ca.

“I thought you were going to invite me up.”

That’s a text I got nearly a decade ago. It was the first of a few inappropriate messages that came from the established male reporter I’d been shadowing in a work placement. They arrived minutes after he’d walked me home following a night out with coworkers, which I initially took as a polite gesture from a married dad.

I shut it down as best I could. I’d wanted to be in the boys’ club and be liked, but this wasn’t right.

So the next time I saw him, again at a social event, I called him out.

I was met with his anger: he hadn’t done anything wrong and I was ridiculous for acting as though he had.

The encounter left me embarrassed and in tears. Was I at fault? Was I taking something “too seriously?” I had already been brushed off when calling out the guys in that newsroom for their cruel nickname for a female reporter.

Eventually, I received an apology, but the damage was still done. My confidence took a hit early in my career, when I needed it most. I half-heartedly tried to maintain connections, but the apprenticeship was already over. Instead of trying to extend it into something more, as was my original plan, I lost the nerve and ended up leaving an entire branch of my chosen industry.

As it does from time to time, that story came to my mind recently. I was speaking to advertising vet Cindy Gallop, who is championing her industry to acknowledge its systemic sexual harassment problem. In part, she’s been collecting personal stories of women who have faced discrimination and violence while trying to do their jobs.

She said this:

“Sexual harassment is actively managing women out of our industry. A recurring motif in the emails I get is ‘I left. I left the agency, I left the industry, because as I spoke up, I was retaliated against. I was forced out or I was too ashamed and embarrassed to say anything, but my career was over.’”

In my case, a place where I might eventually build a career quickly diminished as an option. I was embarrassed, felt childish and at fault. I didn’t know how to bounce back. So I looked elsewhere.

That is happening on a major scale in advertising, says Gallop. Great advertising requires diversity and inclusion from the people making it, she says, and that cannot happen if harassment is driving women from the industry.

The business implications are far-reaching. When women have a reduced role in creating advertising, female consumers – the primary purchasers – increasingly find advertising irrelevant to them, Gallop says. In short, it’s why we still see so much shitty advertising.

For those, by the way, who think a few comments aren’t doing much harm or aren’t enough to dissuade women from remaining in their field, consider Gallop’s take – it’s one I share – on what happens when we hear them.

“You strip us of all our professional credibility. You reduce us to sexual objects. You ensure that the men around us will never look at us in the same way again and you destroy our careers.”

Following the many harassment and assault allegations coming out of the entertainment industry, I’m also seeing calls, rightfully, not to mourn the male celebrities we assumed were good guys. Instead, consider the work that was lost because women were bullied out of pursuing it.

The advertising world should reflect on that too.

You want your work to stand out.

You want it to be relevant.

You want a place on the podium in awards shows.

You want the “big idea.”

The next time you ask why you’re not getting those things, take a look at your team. And take a look at who has left.

tips@strategyonline.ca