#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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Empowerment – the long winding road

Happy women’s day to us all!

For me, today is a day that inspires me to keep fighting, keep moving forward, keep striving for empowerment and equality. Today is also a day with sad and frustrating undertones since it reminds us that we still have such a long way to go. The road ahead is never ending, or so it seems..

For the last months I have been working with several papers for my doctoral thesis, mostly I have been gathering empirical material in the form of interviews and focus group discussions for a particular paper that will be about female sexual agency in contemporary advertising. I will not go into too much detail, but needless to say there is an ambivalence towards this shift in advertising where the idea, the message is that women + sex = power. As always, women’s bodies, their appearance, is at the core of this subject, and sadly it is still and will still be up for many discussions in years, decades to come, I’m afraid. Personally, I am a bit torn between thinking: “women should be able to display themselves any which way they want”, and “hm, yes sure that does sound lovely, but we cannot ignore the fact that the social construction of women and their bodies/appearance is not the same as for men, and women are unfortunately much more sexualized, still, so trying to gain power by being sexy is kind of another side of the male-gaze coin. Is this really the way to empowerment?”. I do not really think there is a correct answer or solution to this conundrum, but getting to study what other women  think about it has provided me with different perspectives and inspirations. This work is for me so thrilling, frustrating, eye-opening and tough, I am truly blessed to have gotten this opportunity to delve into such issues that I am so passionate about.

On another note.. in a couple of days it will be the 20th anniversary of one of the best tv-shows ever: Buffy, the vampire slayer, first airing on the 10th of March 1997. For me, growing up in the 90’s/00’s, Buffy was such an inspirational, kick-arse feminist character that inspired in so many different ways to be yourself, to be strong, to take place and claim space, to be brave, to be ok with being sad, afraid, thinking that you may not be good enough, but realizing that you are. I feel a bit sad for generations that have come after me, who instead got to grow up with Twilight or whatnot instead of Buffy, because Buffy is a fighter, not a push-over, she is not obsessed with guys all the time, since she is a bit too damn busy saving the world.

In her own words:
buffy
Truer words were never spoken..

So happy 20th anniversary Buffy, and thank you for inspiring me and other young girls to be empowered.

So what else is new, well, I recently got the lovely news that one of my papers was accepted to the Macromarketing conference held in New Zealand, yay me! And today, of all days, I also got the news that another short paper was accepted for another conference, in Paris. So double-yay for me, on this wonderful, women’s day.

Victoria’s real secret

A recent photo from the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret has received some negative attention due to it’s tasteless and poor photoshopping. Finally. How nice to see all those comments highlighting one of the problems with such ads: too damn much photoshopping. My heart literally swelled while reading many of the comments cause it tells me that there is still hope. One day we might even be rid of all these flawless, objectifying and unreal portrayals of women altogether. How lovely that would be..

But as of now, we are not quite there, and just for the heck of it I’ll jump in the discussion and review the ad in question:

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Wanna know Victoria’s real secret? Well here it is: Photoshop! The model used in this image was no question already skinny on the verge of anorectic, otherwise they would most likely not even had used her. But still, skinny is not skinny enough. Beautiful is not beautiful enough. Nice skin is not nice enough, not until it looks absolutely flawless and “perfect”, not until all the hairs, cracks, pores, wrinkles and everything else that makes skin, well, skin, is retouched into looking like plastic. As some of the negative comments already suggested, her exposed arm has lost some meat/muscle, and her poor butt cheek has been photoshopped into oblivion. I can’t imagine how a woman that actually had that body (ps. there is no such woman so don’t even try looking for her) would manage to sit down properly, but maybe she doesn’t sit. Maybe she just always stands against a dark mysterious wall with her hands up and her legs spread.
How awful for her.

The problem with this image is not just that it is exaggeratedly photoshopped, it is also the way they portray her: Passive, anonymous, just waiting for someone to grab her from behind. She is sexualized in a very disturbing and suggestively violent way. I would even go so far as to saying that she kind of looks like a soon-to-be-rape-victim. And all this just to sell panties. Really?

It’s time to grow up and smell the cracks, pores, wrinkles and natural “flaws” that all people have Victoria’s secret, time to take some damned responsibility and stop objectifying and distorting women just to sell underwear (!). Trust me that can be done without putting down women and contributing to the sexist male gaze and the objectification of women. If you want women to like your underwear and buy them, how about not first making them feel like shit cause they cannot possibly ever achieve the same kind of unnatural and photoshopped “flawlessness” that you are cramming down their throats? How about not trying to fool them into thinking that your panties are magic and can make them look like this, cause seriously, come on. It’s panties. Just panties. It won’t change you, it won’t make you feel better about who you really are, it won’t erase your “flaws”, or even your butt cheeks. It’s just plain old panties. And photoshop.

So now that your secret is out “Victoria”, how about instead making women feel beautiful for who they are, flaws and all?

Let’s do this

OK then, so this is my new blog devoted to my PhD studies, most importantly my research of sexism in ads. For all of you who don’t already know, I am pretty passionate about this subject, and relentless when it comes to sexist ads. It all started some four years ago when I stumbled upon a video on Youtube with Jean Kilbourne talking about sexism in advertising, how it has developed over the years, how it has only gotten worse, how it is a real issue that concerns all of us. I knew then and there that this was something I had to get involved in, so I decided to start studying business and marketing, just so I could write a bachelor thesis about this. And well, long story short, two years later I did.

For all of you who are interested, or have nothing better to do, have a go at it why don’t you:

Fuckable:
The objectification of women in advertising through a female perspective

Also, here’s a little video of Jean Kilbourne speaking at TEDx. It’s not the same as the one I saw all those years ago, but it will give you a glimpse of this incredible woman and her journey through this vast field of sexist, offensive and demoralizing imagery we call advertisements: