Letter To A Young Woman In Advertising

I’ve managed, mentored and coached a number of young women in my career in advertising. It’s one of my favorite things. Some common themes come up, so I want to address them.

It is still tough out there. I’m astonished that problems I grappled with as I started out in the 90s are still prevalent. I thought it would be different by now. You are in an industry that is dominated by middle aged white men. It is not racially diverse. Alcoholism and drug addiction are rampant – every agency where I have ever worked has beer on tap 24/7. You are participating in a system and a culture that is often hostile to women and especially challenging for women of color.

Which means it’s probably not about you. So often when I ask women what skills they would like to improve, what attributes they would like to shift to be more successful, they list characteristics that are not faults. I’m too intense. I talk too fast. I’m attractive and men sexualize me even though I don’t wear make up and dress modestly. I’m reserved. Who told you these are bad things? Men don’t bring these things up as problems. What man would think physical attractiveness, drive and ambition are deficits? Be yourself. If you are intense and talk fast and have big ideas, you will get push back, but that’s a product of the culture, and ultimately not your problem. It will take you far. But you have to get used to the fact that you will make people uncomfortable. Don’t try to be liked, strive to be respected. I remember a woman once telling me she wanted to be known as tough but fair. I like that. It is better to be respected for your drive, initiative, integrity and performance than liked. This is not high school. Be kind, thoughtful and professional but then realize that what other people think of you is not your problem or responsibility.

If you are shy or reserved or afraid, move forward anyway. Once, at a negotiation training, a young woman said that she cried every time she asked for a raise, what should she do? Practice, I told her, find authority figures you can role play with to get better. But ask for the raise anyway, ask for what you deserve even if tears are streaming down your face. If you’re brave enough to ask that question in room full of 100 people at a training, you’re brave enough to ask for the raise even if you cry. I am terrified of public speaking, but I do it all the time. People can’t tell. You may feel like the anxiety is shooting out of your head in visible sparks, but it’s not. I present like it’s the most natural thing in the world for me, people never see that my stomach is in knots and my legs shake. Fear will not kill you. When you push against the internalized barriers inculcated by our society, you may feel intense discomfort. Do it anyway. It’s been said before but bears repeating – courage is not the absence of fear, it’s being afraid and moving forward anyway.  

Women’s bodies are considered to be the property of the male dominated society. Don’t play. I don’t advocate women using their sexuality to get attention, and observing appropriate standards of dress is always a good idea. But you don’t have to be ashamed of what you look like. If you are thin and attractive, you will get noticed. If you are fat you will get noticed. Our culture notices, comments and regulates how women look. All we can do is not play. I no longer comment on a woman’s appearance; if she’s lost weight or gotten fit I don’t say anything – it’s not a compliment, it’s a distraction, it’s opting into the conversation that how we appear is in any way germane to our performance at work. I could have worn a flour sack to work in my 20s and I still would have gotten hit on. Now I’m in my fifties I’m invisible. The attention when I was younger was oppressive, the relief of not being seen as a sexual being after 45 is significant, even if I reject the premise upon which it is based. Reject the power of the male gaze. What men think about how I look, their judgments about my physical appearance, sexual appeal or lack thereof are absolutely not pertinent in the workplace.

Prepare for battle. If you are sexually harassed, stand up for yourself if you can. Not everyone can – I was a single mom and there were times I put up with a hostile work environment because I couldn’t afford to not have a job and I was justifiably concerned about getting fired. Later, I got an attorney. I have initiated multiple legal actions for a hostile work environment, and gotten more than one settlement. I was afraid I would get a reputation as a litigious liability, but it turns out employers want to keep that secret and no one knew unless I told them. Women are told not to be angry, the angry woman stereotype is used as a weapon, particularly for African American women. Be angry. Anger is how we protect ourselves. Learn how to be forceful and stay professional, stand up for yourself and others, reject the notion that being angry is unattractive, objectionable, not feminine. Anger can save you. Many people think I’m a bitch. I don’t care, no one messes with me anymore, and if social opprobrium is the price I have to pay to be respected, I’m fine with that.

Find your people. You will need a support group. Find it, build it, embrace it. Support the women around you, always. Give credit to women for their work and ideas. Name them. One of my favorite clients does this all the time. “Jane had a great idea…Mollie’s brief said…. Rachel brought up a good point…” Make space for women to speak, don’t let men ride over you or the women you work with in meetings.

Having a family and working in advertising is hard. You will need all your resources to navigate it. But it can be done. You will have to make sacrifices. You cannot have it all all of the time, unless you are very rich and very lucky. Decide what you are willing to let go of; a clean house, a social life, time at the gym. When my children were young I did almost nothing besides parent and work. I don’t regret that. Give yourself permission to do what is best for you and your family. If you need to take time off, take time off. Yes, it will be hard to come back, but most things worth doing are hard. If you’re lucky, life is long. Your children are young for a very short time. They will go to school, leave the house, and you will have lots of time. Yes, it is harder to stay in advertising as an older woman, trust me, I know. But it is possible.

See the positives. I try to make a list of everything I am grateful for every day. Advertising can be so much fun. Working with creative people in a fast paced environment striving to make good work can be deeply rewarding. Being employed and having benefits is a gift. When women complain to me about “only” making $100,000 a year I will give them advice on how to negotiate for a competitive salary that is commensurate with their experience. We should all be paid what we are worth, and we need to fight for that. But don’t lose track of the fact that most of us make more than almost everyone else in the world. We work in cool offices with interesting people and have the opportunity to be successful and engaged. There is a difference between anger and resentment. Anger is fuel to protect ourselves in the moment. Resentment is a toxin that leaches away our energy. Realize that advertising isn’t for everyone, and give yourself permission to leave if you want. But if you stay, foster an attitude of gratitude.

Don’t overcorrect. Being helpful and trying to move the team forward always works. If your job is to make copies and set up meetings and even get coffee, do your job. Support work is not inherently sexist.  If you are an engineer and a man asks you to get him coffee you might want to say no, because it’s not your job. But if you are an executive assistant, assist. Pick your battles. Build social capital where you can, without ever violating your principles or demeaning yourself. If you want to do something thoughtful, kind, and helpful do it, even if it plays into some social stereotype.

You’ve got this. You can do this. It will be hard, but you’re not alone. Stay strong, reject false narratives and stereotypes, fight, play, create and thrive. Stay if you can, and become the role model you want now. Help the women coming up with you and behind you. Be especially intentional about helping women of color. We are infinitely powerful, with our arms linked we can change the world.


Notes on White Privilege for White Women

Five Ways Women Can Present More Effectively