What happens when a woman of a certain age gets into a position of power?
When I was 52 I was hired as the President of a creative company. Before I started, I met with a wise friend in her 70s, and she told me that I was about to encounter a force field.
“What do you mean? What kind of force field?”
“The cultural force field every woman in power encounters.”
I thought she was exaggerating. Until I walked into it.
I have worked in advertising since the 90s, and I have experienced sexual harassment, gender bias, and hostile work environments—things that most women still endure in every industry. I’d been in leadership positions before – how could being the boss be different?
It was. Anyone who has watched election coverage this year knows that a segment of our culture is acutely uncomfortable with women in power, particularly women of a certain age.
That’s the force field: resistance to a woman in power exercising that power, especially if she is over forty and her expression of power flaunts accepted norms of traditional gender roles. The resistance is expressed as hostility, a thousand little slices at the foundation of her power. A woman leader will see her authority undermined, her competence questioned, and her performance held to different standards than that of her male counterparts.
The force field is real, but it’s invisible. It can be subtler than other forms of sexual harassment, but it is still pernicious. It’s negative energy that permeates relationships and corporate cultures and drains the energy out of everyone exposed to it. It breeds damaging actions, from micro-aggressions to hostility to active discrimination. Women who are victims of it often don’t have a name or narrative for it and search for a reason for why it’s happening. Many women blame themselves, or internalize the stress and find themselves getting sick or not sleeping when they are in a position of power.
So if we want more women to rise to positions of power, then we need to warn them about the force field, prepare them for it, and equip them to deal with it.
We didn’t get here by being nice.
We all get irritated with others at work. The loud talker, the tuna fish wielding lunch eater, the meeting hijacker. The force field isn’t about that kind of irritation or even anger. It taps into a deep, inflamed cultural rage where a woman exercising power over men touches a live wire of antipathy that many men don’t even know they have.
Some men feel entitled to tell a woman in a public space to smile, watch her language if she swears, or, if they think she’s overweight, comment on what she eats. This deeply engrained cultural notion that public space is male space and that women need to behave according to certain rules extends to the workplace as well. A woman who doesn’t seem to put the needs of others first, or who commands, leads, decides, and tells others what to do can be perceived as an affront to the male idea of how women should behave. These ideas are often deeply internalized, but they carry a tremendous amount of energy, and men – and women – can become irrationally incensed when a woman steps outside the guardrails society has constructed for her.
Women are socialized to prioritize other people’s feelings, to avoid being too assertive, to not ask for more money or a better position. We’re trained to be likable and to value being liked. Unfortunately, leaders have to discipline people (or fire them), cut budgets, and carry out unpopular decisions every day. No leader can be successful and be universally liked. Ideally, women in leadership understand how to pick our battles and build social capital where we can. But we wouldn’t have gotten where we are today without being able to tolerate the dislike of others.
A woman who isn’t primarily motivated by a desire to be liked or a need to be desired as a sexual object is threatening to many men. When that women tells a man no, or makes a decision that he thinks challenges his authority or autonomy, it can result in rage, the fuel for the force field.
It’s very hard for anyone over 50, male or female, to get a job in advertising. I could write an entire series of blog posts on age discrimination; I mention it here because it has a disproportionate impact on women in power.
In our male-dominated culture, where women are valued for their looks, sexual appeal and their potential to procreate, women over 50 are discounted more than men over 50, even if only subconsciously. I’ve noticed a look I get occasionally when I say something smart to a client. It’s a double take, like “hey, she has a brain.” I didn’t get that look when I was in my thirties and forties.
Most agency leaders, particularly in networks and holding companies, are middle-aged white men. Often these agencies diversify by hiring younger women and putting them on a leadership track. That’s good, but when a middle aged male leader hires a 30-year-old woman, he has more power by dint of age and experience. When he hires a woman who is his contemporary, the power differential is less. He risks losing power, which many people are afraid to do. So, often, he just doesn’t hire a woman over 40.
Many women notice that they get less sexual attention from men as they age. For me, the cloak of invisibility that culture wraps around me as a woman with grey hair is a relief after years of street harassment. But women can’t afford to be invisible at work. When our skills, experience, and power make us visible for accomplishments and abilities that have nothing to do with our sexuality or roles as wife or mother, that challenges some people’s perceptions so deeply that they just want to make us go away. And if they have enough financial, corporate, political, or other power, that’s exactly what they do.
The ad business is not special.
Women in power share similar challenges in every industry. But we ad people think we’re special. We have beer in the fridge, we wear jeans to work, we lead culture, we do cool stuff, and we’re paid to challenge norms and solve problems.
I’ve worked at agencies where putting multiple teams on a creative project was called a “gang bang.” The men who led those creative departments didn’t think it was a problem to use a term of art that referenced gang rape. When I told the founder of an agency that disrobing to his underwear and jumping out of a room to “surprise” a woman employee was offensive, wrong and could get him sued, I was told my political correctness would ruin the creative culture.
In advertising, things that would get a man fired in any other industry can be the ticket to wealth and promotion. And the women and men who have the temerity to challenge these behaviors are too often fired, passed over for promotion or subtly blacklisted.
A man who thinks he’s a feminist because he “lets” his wife work outside the home will be enraged when he is challenged on matters of gender discrimination because it threatens his identity as a liberal progressive good guy. Nothing adds fuel to the force field as quickly as a woman challenging a man on gender issues.
So why do I stay?
I stay in the industry because I see things changing. Some agencies are moving women into leadership and working hard to improve their cultures. Some amazingly proactive, affirming, feminists are out there trying to change the game. A few of those feminists are middle aged white men. Most of the men and women I work with who are under 35 are refreshingly free of the force field energy. They grew up with mothers who worked, they are used to women in positions of power, and they are more open to shifting gender identities and gender roles.
I stay because I don’t want to see young women get promoted without being warned about some of what lies ahead. I want them to know about the force field and be ready. I want to be the voice from their future telling them to watch out.
I stay because we can’t solve a problem if we refuse to acknowledge it. I recently spoke at a 3 Percent Conference event to help increase the percentage of female creative leaders in advertising. Most of the audience was women in their 30’s, and at 54, I was by far the oldest woman in the room. In 20 years, the 30-something ad women in that room will be 50-somethings like I am now. I stay because I want them to still have jobs, to be running the show, to see female peers who are bosses, presidents, Chief Creative Officers, and agency founders.
I stay because I want to leach the negative power and energy out of the force field until it’s nothing more than a thin band of fading light on the ground.