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The tales that prove sexual harassment is still a major issue in the Australian ad industry

Over the past few months, several women from the Australian ad industry have reached out to Mumbrella with stories of sexual harassment in the workplace. Mumbrella's Josie Tutty speaks to them, along with industry expert Cindy Gallop, to discover what more needs to be done to eradicate Australia's endemic problem once and for all.

According to a 2016 survey of some of Australia’s biggest ad agencies, 42% of female employees reported they have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their career, and 20% said they had experienced it “more than few times”.

The survey, conducted by agency body The Agency Circle, also found while strategy roles were pretty evenly matched at 48% male and 52% female, leadership roles were incredibly skewed. Just 16% of CEO or MD roles were held by females.

As revealed in the following stories from women in the Australian ad industry, calling out sexual harassment becomes an intimidating prospect when the board room is full of men.

They tell their stories to Mumbrella in the hope that they might encourage others to speak up and call it out.

Freelancing as a woman in the Australian ad industry

During an agency contract, Claire* became drinking buddies with a group of colleagues, a regular occurrence in that agency circle. She remained friendly with many of them after the contract finished.

The agency’s creative director was part of the group. He was notorious for making inappropriate jokes – it was ‘his thing’ and no one picked him up on it. But over time his behaviour evolved into harassment, including leaving drunk and aggressive messages on Claire’s phone, causing her to end the friendship and avoid him.

They’d had no contact in the best part of a year when he got in touch out of the blue.

“He found me online and sent me a message claiming he’d attempted suicide, that it was somehow all my fault and demanded I leave the country. I was at a loss for words,” Claire says.

Following that, she received a stream of messages across multiple platforms.

“I told him clearly that what we has doing was harassment, and to stop contacting me, that I was going to the police,” she says. “Each time he contacted me I blocked him on that channel, and eventually it died down.”

More than a month later, Claire was offered a short-term contract at a Sydney agency, the same place the CD was freelancing.

“I flagged with my recruiter and the agency the issues I’d had with him previously. But they assured me his contract was almost up, we’d barely have any crossover and they’d protect me.

“I was told it was such a large business it’s unlikely he’d even know I was there, and I reminded myself that I shouldn’t let a creep like that dictate where and when I worked.”

Reluctantly she took the contract. But it didn’t work out as planned. Three days in, the CD learned Claire was in the building and sent her an abusive message via the company email.

“He was calling me a c*nt, but also demanding I ‘help him out’ and not tell anyone that he’d been harassing me. I felt so unsafe – he was openly saying all this over his email, so clearly he wasn’t concerned about consequences. There’s no telling what someone like that will do,” she continued.

Claire immediately shared the email with her recruiter, traffic manager and her direct manager, asking for support.

“They all seemed horrified by his behaviour at the time. I was told the HR manager was away until the following day (Friday) which I wasn’t contracted for, but they assured me they’d manage the issue with her in my absence.”

However, over the weekend, Claire was contacted by her recruiter and told the CD had apologised for his behaviour, and the agency had extended his contract. She was advised to work from home for the next week so as not to exacerbate the situation. Subsequently her contract was cut short.

Claire has since learned that the CD is still freelancing at the same prominent Sydney agency, and appears not to have received any consequences for his actions. She’s also filed a report with her local police station, but has struggled to get ongoing support:

“It’s been tough to get consistent responses. On one hand I was told the messages he was leaving me were more than inappropriate, they were criminal, and that he should be prosecuted. On the other hand, because he was merely an ex-colleague, not an abusive spouse, it wasn’t a priority.”

Claire also knew she’d have to risk being blamed as the victim, which she had a taste of with the Sydney agency.

“I guess it’s easy for people to look the other way when it’s just another woman being harassed in advertising,” she says.

When HR is the CEO

In her first week at her new company, Sarah* was invited to a meeting with a client and her male senior strategist. The meeting was followed by dinner and drinks.

Sarah explains: “It was at this time that the senior strategist decided to tell me he had feelings for me, he was attracted to my mind, he found my brain appealing, my vulnerability and my openness and easy nature with people.”

Sarah told the senior strategist that she respected his transparency but that she was not at all interested. Her wishes weren’t respected. During a company trip away, the strategist continued his advances, and despite multiple rejections, wouldn’t leave her alone.

“The senior strategist had been in the company longer then I had – there was no HR in the company, no senior female staff, I didn’t know where to seek support.”

During her third week, Sarah was working late when the senior strategist told her to come into his office and close the door.

He told her how he felt uncomfortable every time she entered the room, that he couldn’t wait for her three month probation to be up and that he wanted to ‘clear the elephant in the room’.

He then handed her a handwritten letter, which began: “I haven’t stopped thinking about you since I first discovered your mind and it really made me feel something inside, deep inside.”

Sarah says: “I can’t actually remember what the rest of the letter said now – it’s like my mind blocked out as I was flooded with fear, discomfort, confusion and disbelief around the lack of professionalism in this situation and unwanted attention that I had attempted to stop on numerous occasions.

“On leaving the building, the senior strategist requested I give him back the letter – at this point I really started to get nervous, he was extremely edgy and shaky and demanded that he walked me from the office after I requested there was no need and I wanted to go alone.”

She adds: “He said that he had spoken to other colleagues about his feelings for me and that he just couldn’t get me off his mind, that his brain was like a hamster wheel spinning around and around. He said he thought about killing himself.

“He later text messaged me with a photo he had taken of me individually during the long weekend away. He had told me that this photo had made him feel something deep inside.”

There is no HR in Sarah’s independent agency – the HR is the CEO. Every member of senior staff is male, meaning she struggled to know where to turn.

Eventually, she turned to the CEO and head of strategy, who promised they would speak with their lawyers about the situation. The strategist was not punished, and Sarah had to make do with being placed on a different team to the strategist.

“I was told that by my CEO that of course I didn’t want anyone else to know about this, so they wouldn’t tell anyone else other than the other three senior male staff members.

“I was isolated with only males knowing about how a male had sexually harassed me. I was led to believe that they had done all they could, that they were doing me a favour by keeping this quiet, that it would be better off this way, for everyone.

“It was only on my last day with the company that another staff member said that ‘they knew that I could have negatively impacted the company if I spoke out’. I felt so disgusted inside.”

When asked about what needs to be done to make a change, Sarah says: “Honestly, a complete industry reboot – this can’t carry on. My case didn’t include physical touch, but it didn’t need too. This individual made very conscious and clever decisions around his behaviour. I was completely blindsided. I didn’t know this stuff happened, I didn’t know this stuff would happen to me.”

Sarah admits she has friends and colleagues who have experienced similar situations. To the thousands more she’s sure are out there, she says: “I am sorry that this has happened to you. I can only hope there is a silver lining at the end of this suffering. I hope we can create real change.”

The Cindy Gallop method

Sarah and Claire’s stories are not unique. Mumbrella has heard from other women with similar stories; stories that they would prefer not to share for fear of getting in trouble with work.

Cindy Gallop is one woman who knows all too well about sexual harassment in the advertising industry.

Back in 2016, she told the audience during a Mumbrella360 panel: “I’ve had numerous emails from women in the Australian ad industry as well as women in the industry around the world telling me appalling stories that they are too scared to say out loud to the ad industry here, to the media, and those stories involved sexual harassment, abuse and retaliation, and the impossibility of pursuing the creative careers they love and want as passionately as every single one of you men did.”

Gallop: Says she has heard “appalling stories” about the Australian ad industry

In 2017, not much has changed. Speaking exclusively to Mumbrella, Gallop describes a female creative who had reached out to her about her experiences working for an Australian ad agency. The woman had never been sent to Cannes and was never put forward for awards juries, privileges her fellow male creative directors were constantly given.

“The stories they tell me make me feel that because the Australian ad industry is so white male dominated, there is much more public endorsement of the fact that it’s ‘okay to behave like that'”, she says.

As evidence of this fact, Gallop points to the Australian ad industry’s response to the resignation of Kevin Roberts from Saatchi & Saatchi in 2016.

“A number of the responses that we saw coming out of Australia and New Zealand were in support of Kevin Roberts,” she says.

During the now infamous interview, Roberts had this to say about Gallop: “I think she’s got problems that are of her own making. I think she’s making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile, and to take applause, and to get on a soap[box].”

Gallop’s response was to take to Twitter and ask adland what they thought.

Gallop has a breadth of experience across tech, advertising, theatre, public speaking and is therefore sharply aware that this is a problem not confined to the ad industry alone. She does, however, believe that Australia is one step behind America in solving the problem:

“I think there is more social endorsement of bad behaviour in Australia than there is in certainly the US at the moment, because in the US there have been a number of scandals. There is a veneer of ‘no one should be doing this’.

“Now, of course under that veneer everyone’s fucking doing it, but at least there is a consciousness of the fact that this is not the way that you should be behaving as a man in our industry.”

Since the Agency Circle survey was conducted, several of Australia’s ad agencies have admitted they need to do more, and have announced various programs and management reshuffles aimed at putting things right.

If they truly do start making a change, it won’t simply fulfil a quota: it could revolutionise their business.

Even the subtlest forms of sexist behaviours can have a detrimental effect to a company’s overall performance. A 2013 Harvard Business School study, for example, revealed that “in masculine domains, the patronising behaviour of powerful men created gender differences in performance… where such differences did not otherwise exist.”

In Gallop’s eyes, it’s important that men and women work together to banish harassment from the workplace. For men, “number one is listen to us – because we are ‘manterrupted’, mansplained, condescended, ignored, shut down all the time.

“Number two: believe us. Believe what we tell you, because your experience is not our experience.”

And for women, Gallop recommends a simple but effective solution: calling it out.

“The reason you must call it out is because you may think your career’s fucked if you do, but I’m here to tell you that your career’s fucked if you don’t,” she says.

She suggests documenting every incident, “sit down and write yourself a journal entry, and date it, and send an email to yourself so it’s very clear when the date is. If there’s anything that can be visually captured, visually capture it. Send that straight to HR.”

To those women who question their experiences, Gallop’s advice is not doubt themselves: “The moment you feel something untoward is going on, trust me: something untoward is going on.

“If you call this out and it’s not responded to in the right way, get the fuck out as quickly as possible. Make damn sure you do not sign an NDA, get the fuck out, and then speak publicly about what went down.

“If nobody speaks up, nothing changes. The more every one of us speaks up, the more emboldened other women feel to speak up.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

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