I was 26 years old and living in Toledo, Ohio. I had just landed my first big job, running two of the biggest accounts at an interactive agency. I was on my first business trip to visit one of these clients in North Carolina (a strategic planning session for an overhaul of its website), and I couldn’t have been more excited to share all of my thoughts and ideas.
The room was huge. The chairs were set up in a U-shaped formation. In attendance were about 25 men—and me. I sat across the “U” from our main client, the brand manager. Every time I opened my mouth, he would slowly and deliberately take a magazine out of his briefcase, open it up on his lap and pretend to read. As if this blatant dismissal of my ideas wasn’t enough, he also called my boss upon our return to Toledo to let him know he thought I was “uppity” and requested that I keep my mouth shut in future meetings.
This is just one of many stories like this in my career. And as many of us have known, but perhaps ignored or pushed down, all women have these stories. Both the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements have done wonders to highlight ugly experiences and treatment.
While there is tremendous import to the sharing and amplification of our stories, if nothing changes, we have missed the mark. And while I encourage us all to keep speaking up, we need to also continue to remind the powers that be that speaking up is no longer enough.
Last year, I read a summary of a panel that took place at PRWeek’s 2017 Hall of Femme induction. At this event, an all-male panel convened to discuss the state of women in the workplace. (You read that right.)
According to the article, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman (full disclosure: I used to work there) stated that if women don’t feel their voices are being heard in the corporate world, they need to speak more loudly.
“I asked them [female employees], ‘How are we going to fix that?’” Edelman said, adding, “’Either you’re going to speak up, or I’m going to have to hammer the guys.’ They said, ‘Hammer the guys first,’ and I said, ‘You speak up first.’”
I would argue that if women don’t feel their voices are being heard, they need their management teams to figure out why and implement changes to ensure it doesn’t continue to happen.
Because without a clear directive from the top, all of that “speaking up” will yield nothing but frustration, lost opportunities and status quo. And I might point out that the directive to “speak up” takes male management off the hook and looks to women to fix the problems at hand.
Women learn early on in their careers that speaking up is not always beneficial. A Yale University study found that women who talk a lot are viewed negatively by others, especially if they hold positions of power. Not only are they seen as domineering, but significantly less competent and suitable for leadership than males who speak the same force and amount.
Institutional sexism has become so ingrained in our workplaces and society that for years it hasn’t even made it onto the radar of many senior-ranking and C-suite male executives. Time is indeed up for that ignorance and mismanagement.
Looking forward I encourage everyone in senior roles at agencies to take a long, hard look at how women are both treated and compensated, because not only are women discouraged from speaking up, they are also compensated at a fraction of the salary of their male colleagues. The PRWeek 2016 Salary Survey reports that male PR executives earn about $125,000 a year compared to $80,000 a year for women, and Marketing Week reports a 26 percent gender gap among agency employees.
Almost seven years ago, I started a business because I was tired of how women were being treated in the corporate world and I wanted to make a difference. Our mission is to empower women through the elevation of their voices and knowledge. And we do this by providing valuable opportunities to female influencers who are creating and amplifying the stellar content that helps move the needle for brands who want to reach this valuable demographic.
We also do this by hiring full-time employees who do amazing and creative work, though they might have gaps in their resume because they took time off to raise children. We provide flexible schedules and don’t blink when kids pop into a video call because they are home (again, OMG) for a snow day.
We are certainly not the only agency seeking to make real change. My former colleague Caroline Dettman, now chief creative and community officer at Golin, recently launched a new movement called #HaveHerBack. What’s most exciting is that it moves beyond just awareness and into action, with concrete goals to “hire more female creative directors in the hopes of eventually doubling their representation; to train employees on proper workplace conduct; and to create a culture of empowerment for all.”
I do think that progress has been made, and many continue to do the work, every day, to make a change. I encourage those who are complacent to take a long, hard look at their agency cultures and set forth some concrete goals of their own that will move us toward a new world order. Time is up for anything but progress.