IWD 2022: ‘Be more gentle – I would love to hear from a man who has received that advice.’

For International Women's Day 2022, Mumbrella's Anna Macdonald spoke to several women about how they felt in the industry, their experiences, and what ought to be done to help women achieve parity.

It’s complicated to address how women feel in this industry. Some feel things have improved for women, others feel things are going backwards.

For example, TBWA Sydney chief growth officer Nitsa Lotus says: “I feel like there’ve been some pretty fundamental changes. If you’d asked me this question maybe 20 years ago, I would have a very, very different. I kind of feel like there’ve been some fundamental changes in the industry since I started, it was slow and steady change for quite a long time. And it was super frustrating if I’m honest.

“But it’s significantly changed. And I think the rate of change in the last, I reckon, five years has been more exponential change than incremental change, at least culturally. There’s this zero tolerance for sexism now, whereas it was always jokey, jokey when I first started. What people used to get away with was just abhorrent really, but I mean, it’s so different now.”

Nitsa Lotus

Jessica Thompson, creative director at The Hallway, remains optimistic: “I’m really encouraged by the direction that things are taking. I see more and more female role models in leadership. I see more men prepared to listen and learn and cooperate and advocate. I feel confident, certainly in the place where I work, that there’s infinite opportunity for growth. And I don’t feel I’m hampered in my own career progress by my gender.”

However, Thompson adds: “I think publicly a lot of agencies and agency leaders are saying all of the right things. I think it’s disappointing that we keep seeing reports and survey results come out confirming that not a lot has changed or at least that there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Innocean CEO and founder of Fck the Cupcakes Jasmin Bedir says: “I think it’s actually gotten worse because it’s just gone under the surface. Businesses now get away with ticking boxes and hammering logos onto the website and wearing t-shirts, signaling on the surface that they are apparently appreciative and supportive of women, but that’s just all ornamental. That’s all just window dressing. Because we in communications are very good with making things look a certain way on the outside.”

Jasmin Bedir

There is acknowledgment across all the women spoken to that there are barriers to women in the workplace, and that there is progress to be made in this space.

“There is still a mental load for women,” says Lotus. “The unpaid domestic work alongside a career is bloody hectic, and it can sometimes feel like an endurance marathon. It’s exhausting. I don’t blame people for tapping out. Up until COVID, if you think about it, flexible working didn’t really exist.”

“It took a global pandemic to show our industry that we don’t actually need to be tied to our desks. And I don’t think that flexibility should just be for women. It’s got to be obviously across the board,” adds Lotus.

Thompson speaks of a personal experience that has stuck with her years after the matter: “I’ve seen and experienced advice for how to grow your career as a woman that I don’t believe a man would ever.”

The advice given to Thompson was “Be more gentle”.

Jessica Thompson

“There is a version of that feedback that says: ‘people will find it easier to make progress, people will find it easier to work with you and you will find more fruitful opportunities if you are more cooperative’,” says Thompson. “I feel like that is the gender-neutral way to give that feedback. ‘Be more gentle’: I would love to hear from a man who has received that advice.”

Thompson continues: “Do you know the worst part is? That I took that feedback and it worked. I’m so upset that that advice was right. And I would love to see a management style and a workplace culture where that advice has no place.”

Solutions for the problems faced by women range from sponsorship to an “amnesty” for men. Fck The Cupcakes launched a campaign last month to encourage men both within the industry and in wider society to be agents of change in the fight for equality between the genders.

Off the back of the campaign, Bedir says: “We kind of have to do a little bit of an amnesty and I didn’t realize that that’s probably the biggest obstacle that people think: ‘my past is going to come and haunt me here’.”

Bedir continues: “The focus has shifted a little bit because a lot of brands are finding it difficult to get involved because they are also worried that they may have not been squeaky clean in the past. So therefore, we have shifted our focus more on working with HR departments and giving them the coaching.

“So that actually, it doesn’t mean you have to be squeaky clean because if you’re all just waiting until everyone’s perfect, we will never be able to commence.”

Lotus points out the importance of sponsorship, as opposed to mentorship, of up-and-coming female talent.

“Closing the gender pay gap and keeping it closed,” says Lotus, “Tackling gender composition with long-term targets, not just short-termism, not quotas. You can’t just hire women. You need to keep them, you need to address issues that are specific to women in your agency or in your organisation. You need to have a path for them and then hard-wiring inclusivity into the culture of an organization.

“I think if you tackle those three things, we would see exponential change because it would see women being promoted earlier, showing that they can be great role models, seeing great role models. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is a term that has been bandied about.”

Lotus adds: “My observation is organisations lose steam, they’ve got other pressing matters. And then all of a sudden this becomes almost on the back burner. If we stay… on course, then I think you’ve got a damn good chance of achieving parity, but it does mean some pretty hard decisions. Closing the gender pay gap has financial implications. A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.

“So it’s not easy. It sounds easy, but it’s not.”

Agreement across the board is that hiring women should be based on their ability to do the job, especially women.

“Everybody’s work should be based on talent,” says Thompson. “There’s a stigma around diversity hires. I think that the people who are most talented for the role should get the role. However, I think maybe at this kind of early stage of change, it’s necessary to keep people accountable through things like quotas for combating their own unconscious biases that might be getting in the way of them hiring the best people for the job.”

There is also, unfortunately, a criminal element when discussing women in advertising.

Bedir speaks of serious accusations: “Because we’ve been conducting these research studies, I know a woman that has been sexually assaulted in a very prominent agency. They can’t talk about that because there’s NDAs, there’s HR departments, and because of the way our law is constructed in this country and defamation. The amount is not small, the stuff that happens in agencies. And if you look at production companies, it’s even worse.”

Late last year ShEqual, an initiative led by Women’s Health Victoria, released a report that detailed anonymous accounts of sexual assault and harassment in the advertising industry.

Bedir advocates for middle management to speak up in those situations: “We’ve got a responsibility to make sure that middle management, underneath these people, speaks up in the future and doesn’t let this happen. And we need male middle management, not women. They know that something’s going on with insane creative directors [who] have God complexes and think they can get away with hitting on 20 year old art directors. I need middle management men in the future to speak up about it and say that this is not on.”

 If you or someone you care about needs support, please contact 1800 RESPECT at 1800 737 732. In an emergency, call 000.


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