#sistabriefen – Stories of sexism in the world of agencies

I’ve been working at different agencies (PR/Communication/Web) for several years now and in light of #sistabriefen: Women in the industry in Sweden signing up to stand united and ask clients and agencies to demand equality and put an end to sexual harassment, marginalization and discrimination, I would just like to tell some of my own experiences and stories in this world.

First of all, I never really thought about working in marketing or at agencies before I actually started, it was more of a coincidence, one of those “being at the right place in the right time” things: While in Oslo for a photo project I met a friends’ brothers’ partner who worked at an agency that happened to be looking for some part-time help with a project managing photos, and I figured I could earn some experience and cash after my last employment as a photographer. What was supposed to be a 2 week job turned into months, which turned into a full time job, which eventually turned into my first promotion as a Production manager. This journey was no thanks to the CEO of the company, who I still think to this day is one of the biggest arseholes I’ve ever, so far, encountered. No, this was due to colleagues, especially one senior developer who saw my potential and competence, and basically persuaded the CEO to promote me. Even though I myself had sent my CV to the boss at least 4 times during the first year I worked there, I am pretty sure he never actually read it.

It’s difficult now, so many years later, to recount all the subtle incidents and remarks I experienced there, I was young and new to that world, still trying to figure out my place in it. I remember getting the work that nobody else wanted, shit tasks basically, even though I was far more educated than say another colleague who was the same age as me and hadn’t even finished her first degree while I was working on my third while also working there, but still had a better position (to be fair, she was in a relationship with one of the owners so… I guess that counts for more). I remember being hit on at the first office party I ever went to by a client who must have been twice my age. I remember the male-dominated tone of the place, the locker-roomish atmosphere. I remember talking about these things with other female colleagues who also felt troubled and frustrated. I also remember being called “cocky” and “tough” right before I was laid off for reasons I can only assume were personal and not based on my work, skills or anything else that should matter. Oh well. Even though it stung, I was glad to be out of that place.

Later I was head-hunted by another agency, which in hindsight did give me some pause before accepting the offer seeing as I was the only woman working there when I started: warning signs that I chose to disregard, thinking that I could manage on my own and inspire some change. And sure, I did change some things and at first my efficiency and ambition was a welcoming force according to my closest boss. Nonetheless, being the only woman (and a strong and opinionated one at that) where the majority of the men working there were scared of conflict and thought discussions meant fights, well, it soon became quite tricky and frustrating. I remember one instance where we had an e-mail thread among some colleagues discussing ideas for our new site. One colleague in the SEO department tried pushing for an idea which basically only involved SEO and was frankly not that good in terms of design and UX, something that I of course tried to put forth after also discussing it with our senior designer (who agreed with me). I explained that I didn’t think the idea was that good and tried to get him to understand why, but instead he went on the offence, personally attacking me because I “obviously did not understand SEO”. I maintained my composure and stuck to the original point concerning the idea and then the discussion abruptly ended. A few days later one of the owners came by and asked to see me in the conference room. I had no idea what it was about but he told me that the e-mail discussion was just not OK, that I had handled it poorly. He said: You are like a bulldozer, you just run everybody over! And I couldn’t help thinking: “If I were a white man in my 30ies like the rest of you, would we be having this exact conversation right now? I fucking doubt it.” I asked him how on earth I was the one being punished for the discussion when it was the other colleague who personally attacked me while I stuck to the topic, never saying anything bad or mean about him personally. But it was no use. He said that I cannot behave like that with my colleagues, it was not acceptable. I had to change and be “softer”. Little did I know that he would use that same tactic against me several times later on, claiming that I was too rough with colleagues, clients, god and his grandma. One time he called and told me he just had a conversation with a client who claimed that they felt like I had run them over and the first thing I did after talking to him was of course to go back in my mind and figure out what I had said or done that had made the client feel that way. I was upset with myself, thinking it was me, that I was the problem. But seeing as I am a grown up who can take responsibility for my actions, I felt the need to apologize to the client so I contacted them and told them I never meant to run them over and that I was sorry about it, that I hope I could make up for it and asked them to just let me know how they would like me to better communicate with them. The response I got baffled me: The client said that they were a bit surprised seeing as they never had claimed that I had run them over… my colleague had either misinterpreted something, or perhaps more accurately, he had lied to me just to put me down once again, just because he couldn’t deal with my no-nonsense approach. Other incidents at that damned place included: me having to take crap from clients due to the lies that the owners had told them and promises that they made (which they knew couldn’t be kept but hey, I was there as a scapegoat when shit hit the fan so, it was fine…); me having to take crap from partner firms due to lies that the owners had told them which I was not allowed to come clean about; me having to deal with them turning into drunken jackasses at every staff party, enduring even more male-macho-boyish talk and behavior, and so on, and so forth.

After the “bulldozer incident” I thought, and still maintain: I would rather be the bulldozer, than being the one run over by it. Especially seeing as I was constantly being run over by my male bosses and colleagues any way: Every time I had an idea that no one wanted to listen to; every time I tried to speak at a meeting and was interrupted; every time I got someone else’s shit thrown at me; every time I worked my arse off and had the best damn results there but instead got negative feedback for being “too hard”, “too tough”, “too opinionated”; every time I was denied a raise even though I deserved one; every time I was assigned the role as some kind of mother/maid, as if I was taking care of children in a god damned kindergarten; every time I was given less resources for my projects, but still had to accomplish the same goals and deadlines, lest I be shamed; every time I was told that I was the problem and had to change my ways; every time I was made the black sheep, the scapegoat, the punching bag. It really didn’t matter how much of a bulldozer I might or might not have been, I was still the one being run over for the most part, and the few times I spoke up about it, well, you can probably figure out how that went. Basically: I was damned if I did, and I was damned if I didn’t.

When I eventually told my boss I was quitting, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was finally free.

But then again: Will I ever be free, will any of us who have experienced this type of discrimination and sexism at work ever be treated as equals, listened to, respected, valued? I firmly believe that as long as the agencies are mostly dominated by males, women will always be in a token position, sticking out like sore thumbs. That is why #sistabriefen is such an important and necessary plea. My experiences are far from the worst that have happened and still happen to women in this industry, I consider myself lucky in a way, but I know also that I have deserved more respect than was given to me. However, when reading some of the horror stories that women have endured, I am shocked, yet not surprised, disgusted, and just at a loss for words. Many stories can be read here (mostly in Swedish though), for those of you interested, for those who perhaps don’t really think this is a “big deal”, for those who want to grasp the vastness of these issues. Read, educate yourself, speak up about it, stop it.

mad men

(funny little tidbit: just got a text from a former colleague (one of the few reasonable men at that place who I felt I could confide in and who confided in me), telling me that everything is chaos right now. Since I left, not that long ago, the project management is basically non-existent, the boss is completely lost, everyone is overburdened, irritated and frustrated. I shouldn’t be happy about this, but I am. It is nice to realize that the space I filled there, the hard work I put in, was in fact crucial and without it, well… That’s their problem, I guess. It’s just sad, typical and unfortunate that some people and especially bosses, do not understand or appreciate the value of their employees, especially when they happen to be female. However, I want to believe in Karma, in some form of justice, and I find the fact that they are struggling without me to be the universe giving me a silent nod: I was not always the problem, I actually did know what the heck I was doing, and why.)

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Unaccompanied women

While in Paris for the weekend with a friend, we went to a bar Saturday night enjoying some drinks and nice conversation. At one point the ladies at the table next to us leave and it doesn’t take long until a guy takes a seat next to my friend and starts talking to us. Which is fine in itself, I guess. His English wasn’t very good so we barely understood him at first, but he tried to communicate and explain things as best he could. He was being “friendly” asking where we came from (which became a long ordeal for my friend seeing as he had never heard of her country, but oh well..) and trying to teach us French words/phrases. However, seeing as personal space here is not really the same as it is where I or my friend live, I quickly noticed that she was getting a bit uncomfortable every time he was talking because he kept leaning into her,  so I tried steering us back to our original conversation which only involved the two of us. Surely, he would get the hint. But they never do..

We managed eventually to return to our own discussion and all of a sudden some friend of his appeared joining the table so there I thought, now it should be ok cause he was probably just being social while waiting for his friend and now that he is here they will see to themselves. Sure, that worked for a while, until suddenly the guy starts talking to us again, being even more persistent, asking for our names (fake ones were given), how long we are staying in Paris and so on. The conversation then took a turn for the worse when he said, or pointed out inquiringly: “Oh, but you are here alone..” I frowned and responded: “No, we are not here alone, we are here together.” He then tried in a ridiculous way to explain that he meant that yeah we were technically here together but “separate” as in her and I were two women “alone”, as in not accompanied by men, as in single, and thus in “need” of male company. I was already pissed off at this point so I said: “No, we are together.” Because I learned a long time ago that the lesbian card is handy to use with your friends when trying to get rid of men who just simply cannot take a hint, or even a dozen. While he tried to figure out if what I said was true, we downed our drinks and left the bar.

So. Why is this upsetting to me? Well, it’s simple: In what logical, rational way, would it ever be considered normal for me to go up to two or more men hanging out and say to them that “hey, you are here alone ey *wink wink*”, when clearly, they are not alone, they are hanging out with each other, and that doesn’t automatically mean that they are single, or that they even want my company or anything other than that they are in fact hanging out. I would never even imagine doing something like that, and if I ever did, it would just be ridiculous. But for women to enjoy each others’ company while not accompanied by men, suddenly, they are alone, and of course they must therefore be single, and of course they must want some male company. How does that make any fucking any sense?

And furthermore, even when I happen to be hanging out alone as in not with any friends or whatnot, that does not automatically mean that I want any, much less a strangers, company. I cannot even count how many times strange men have come up to me while I’ve been out in public enjoying my own company and just persisted to invade it, even though my words and body language say the same thing: I do not want your god damn company, go away.

Learn to take a hint guys, seriously. We would all be better off if you could check your privileges and stop assuming women, or anyone, want or need your company when they show you that they don’t.