There’s a married man in my office that I love to watch. The way the veins on his forearms move when describing an idea, the way his eyes mist over when talking about his newborn son, the way his hand folds over the mouse when he gets involved with the design of a new logo, the tan in his strong neck from his daily surf. It’s hot and it’s totally innocent. Or is it?
On 1 May 2016, The New York Times published an article entitled “For Women in Advertising, It’s Still a ‘Mad Men’ World” by Sydney Ember, and this article got me thinking. In South Africa, are we a byproduct of the Mad Men-era of the American advertising industry? Are our women experiencing the anxieties and discrimination on the same level as our sisters on other continents?
Susan Credle, Global Chief Creative Officer of FCB, said, “I still to this day, when I feel the blood boiling in me and I just want to let it all out, I cut it by 90 percent because I’m a woman.” I’m shouting and cheering from across the oceans, “I feel you, fellow woman-in-advertising!” and I have no doubt I am not the only one. But there is something I must mention here that my sisters-in-advertising might not like, and that’s the fact that I have been guilty of sexual innuendo, commentary and possibly drunken harassment in more than one situation, just as much as I have been a victim of that same harassment. I want to run away and hide while saying this, but it would be wrong. So, here’s my Mad (Wo)men story.
I’ve been slogging away in the advertising industry since entering the workplace as a green copywriter in 2004, and twelve years later I’m still just a copywriter. It’s partly my own doing as I tend to leave an agency after one year. One year after which I am usually overworked, fed up, depleted and in no mood to be creative anymore. Again, possibly my own doing as I never say no, I take on more than I can realistically handle, and I always worry that I might lose my job to someone younger, prettier, smarter, darker or cheaper than me. At the end of another year I am often pulling my hair, because I’m not speaking up. I feel out of place in a man’s world, and I’m still holding the title of “copywriter” on LinkedIn. So I leave with one too many embarrassing office parties behind my name, and yet another broken relationship on my CV.
After every resignation I am devastated. As a single woman I can only imagine the distress that a divorce must cause. I imagine it something like my own pain of falling apart at the seams, crying day in and day out, staying in bed wearing an old agency T-shirt (from an awards goody bag), and thinking back on all the should-have’s and could-have’s. It takes all of another year to get over the ex-agency, while pining over a relationship that was clearly more abusive than it was nurturing. A year later, the ritual is repeated with current agency and the ex-list gets longer and the breakups harder. Why is it that I do this, and what am I doing wrong? It is time to step up and face the music like my sisters in New York Adland? Or should I make peace with a life of crappy punch lines, a shitty salary, and radio ads that no one wants to write?
I clearly remember the first time I picked up on the nuances between the sexes in the workplace. At an alcohol-induced office party, I noticed the head of IT, a sexy, dark married man, flirting with a group of young girls. Flirting included touching them often (those light grazes on the arm, shoulder, small back) and filling their glasses with booze. I had been a rather rowdy student at university myself, who had no problem with slamming tequila after tequila and shaking my ass on the dance floor, possibly followed by some tongue wrestling with a boy. At this particular party, I remember feeling jealous that he wasn’t flirting with me, rather than being surprised that he was, as a married man, flirting inappropriately with young women. Shocking. What was happening to me? Was I already being moulded for what was to come in my next ten years of office parties, inappropriate flings and ‘innocent’ looks between co-workers? From that night on the lines became blurred, never to be clear again.
Later, whispers of sexual harassment seeped through the office, but none of the women were willing to step forward. Instead of speaking up, I also fell back and never told anyone how Mr IT once cornered me in the staff stock room and how I had wished that he would try to kiss me, but he only mocked me and made me feel small. I didn’t know then and still don’t know now if that constitutes harassment. All I felt was guilt for thinking such things of a married man and that I probably provoked him for treating me like an insignificant bug. I never would have acted on advances from a married man, but it bothered me when married men didn’t try anything with me. And then it bothered me that it bothered me, and it became a cycle of self-loathing. Through most of my agency career, I was single and lonely, and my thoughts were becoming warped in a place where we were sexualising everything on a daily basis.
“… in interviews with more than a dozen women, mostly executives, who work in advertising, many said they found it hard to believe how much their particular business still remained a white man’s world,” Ember writes. “Although some women said they had never personally experienced gender discrimination and referred to it as a thing of the past, many said they repeatedly felt ignored or dismissed by male colleagues and left out socially.” I can relate to this in a big way, where females in advertising are often invited to meetings to ‘defuse a client’ or to ‘just take notes and look pretty’.
In an industry where we are constantly editing, distorting, tweaking images of humans to make them hotter, thinner and ‘better’, who could blame a man for becoming deluded by the gorgeous females in his office, the real ones and the ones on his screen? I’ve never met an ugly woman in an advertising agency, especially in the city where I currently reside. At one of my previous jobs, female clients often commented how visiting our office was like stepping into a fashion magazine. We laughed and shrugged, while secretly feeling chuffed that we were seen as desirable and as having enviable jobs. The distortion of our reality was getting bigger by the year and I was just one of the females in it, playing the ‘see and be seen’ game.
In my never-ending quest to up-skill and to get out of the shithole of advertising, I decided to pursue postgraduate studies with a Master of Arts in Creative Writing in 2014. My boss at the time was very supportive, but I couldn’t help feeling that no one really gave a shit how many degrees you held in advertising. People thought it was brave to tackle a Master’s while working as a copywriter at a top agency in South Africa, but hey, good luck to you, bitch, you’re on your own. I had a feeling that all the average jobs were given to me, while the award-winning campaign work went to the more senior teams. It was fine with me, because I really didn’t have the energy for a battle, but I did feel hurt that mostly white men behind glass doors were given the large, glossy accounts and bitches like me were writing 140-character Twitter copy for clients that no one wanted to touch.
If I were a man in the same situation, would I have been given special treatment because I was studying? Probably not. But I can’t help to think that I would have been more supported by the management team (the white men in glass offices) if I had been a penis-bearing human. This doesn’t make me bitter, but it makes me want to try harder. I just don’t know for how long I can sustain it.
It is no wonder then that many women ‘retire’ from advertising around the age of 40. I’m not basing this on any statistics, but merely on personal observation. Many women in advertising get married, have a baby or two, and make the decision to quit the game, or to consult from home. I support and salute these women, and find it sad and discouraging that many of them felt like they weren’t supported as mothers when they returned to their agency homes. They were frowned at when leaving the office early to fetch a sick child, they were purposefully left out of meetings that were scheduled after working hours (because it was her choice to attend her child’s first ballet recital, instead of staying for the client dinner). These strong women bailed. The ones who were once the young girls dancing under disco balls, taking off panties behind bars, photocopying perky boobs, flirting with married men, kissing single men, single women, sometimes even a client. They had had enough.
It’s definitely not all ugly and messy, as I have met and am still friends with some amazing Ad Men. Men who are fathers, husbands, designers, photographers, directors. “[Credle] emphasized that many men in the industry had helped her succeed and that for her the bad experiences had been rare,” notes Ember. It’s when we are offered salaries less than our male colleagues’, when we are referred to as ‘pretty wallpaper’ in meetings, or when we are called names for our behaviour in certain situations that we become feisty bitches who want to claw at our male counterparts. It is then that I know the eye candy is not enough to endure the pain.