We Can’t Just Fix the Obvious Stuff

Earlier this morning, I read Zoe Scaman’s essay, Mad Men. Furious Women., about misogyny in the ad industry. It’s a stunning, infuriating must-read. (Grab a glass of water and sit down before you do. Trigger warning: sexual assault. Tbh, you might as well grab a glass of water for this piece too. Trigger warning: sexual harassment, infertility.)

In her subtitle, she says, “Far from dissipating over the last decade, misogyny in the ad industry has simply mutated into something insidious, invisible, lurking in the shadows. It’s time to fire up the floodlights.”

I’ve been thinking about that all day. Insidious, invisible, lurking in the shadows.

When I was 22, I worked 40 hours a week at the front desk of a hotel in downtown Minneapolis, 20 hours a week at my unpaid non-profit internship, and pursued my professional dance career in the in-between times. I was young, a little tired, and very ambitious. After finishing my hotel shift at 10:45pm one night, my boss, Kyle, asked if my coworker (also male) and I wanted to go out for a drink. I said sure. I’d only lived in Minneapolis for about a month and didn’t know very many people or places.

We headed over to what I assumed was a bar a couple blocks from the hotel. When we walked in, it was into a dimly lit strip club where the bouncer knew Kyle well enough to guide him straight to “his booth.” Still wearing my hotel vest and Marriott nametag, squished into a booth with my boss and coworker, neither of whom I knew well, I was mortified. It was extremely uncomfortable. I remember feeling like I couldn’t just get up and leave, for risk of seeming like a prude or, worse, a bitch. I sat nicely through a private dance Kyle ordered (for me, which he watched), had one drink, and got the heck out of there. 

The next day when I came into work, Kyle asked if I wanted to go back again, but this time just the two of us and we could throw in dinner. I laughed and said that my (not real) boyfriend probably wouldn’t like that. I made sure our interactions after that were nice but brief, and I avoided him whenever I could. He left a few weeks later and I got a new boss, a woman, and started sleeping better at night. 

That whole experience sucked. It really did. And looking back, it was obviously bad. Since then, I’ve never experienced something so overtly terrible at work. 

But the insidiousness of misogyny is that it can be cloaked in good intentions, by people who are thoughtful and respectful of women, who are progressive in their beliefs and attitudes. By people who aren’t Kyle. 

So that’s what I want to talk more about. The slippery stuff. The not-overt stuff. The hundreds of incremental “no big deal” moments that build and build into a rolling boil that becomes hard to cool. As Zoe points out, a lot of women in the ad industry deal with it by simply leaving. Sometime before 40, they get too angry and too exhausted, and they opt out. 

We should obviously not be okay with sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination. But what else are we talking about here?   

Below is an incomplete list of experiences from a variety of roles and companies, with examples of things that feed the fire. Most are mine. Ones that aren’t are shared with permission. I’m not unique. And I’m not calling out places or names because I’ve already made my frustrations known to the people involved. Plus I like these people. 

But I think it’s important to talk about this publicly. Because a lot of this is hard to recognize when you’re not on the receiving end of it. And you can’t change a whole culture by only stopping the really bad things. 

A bot of boiling water cooling next to an open fire.
Boiling water image by Martin Cathrae. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license. 

So what’s the other stuff?

It’s male-led teams leading brands that are made for women.

It’s coming to work exhausted after maternity leave, with a busted body and a newborn baby, and being asked if you had a nice break. 

It’s a male boss asking how much the rent is at your first non-shit apartment and responding to your answer that you must be overpaid.

It’s presenting to an all-male board.

It’s presenting to an all-male client team. 

It’s over-preparing to present to an all-male board or client team and getting sidelined.

It’s being constantly interrupted. 

It’s being told that you (not your work, but you) are too passionate, too idealistic, too invested, too cold, too cerebral, too emotional. Too much. 

It’s being “thrown off the deep end” as a form of mentorship you didn’t ask for, in a direction you don’t want to go.

It’s struggling quietly with infertility and anxiety, while overhearing male leaders joke about how much new pregnancies are going to cost the business.

It’s putting your whole self into an organization, getting overloaded, and having your loyalty and ability questioned when you ask for support.

It’s knowing the data, knowing your value, knowing what others comparable to you in the company make, asking for a raise, and being told by a male leadership team, “You’re not quite there yet.”

It’s being a working mom and listening to a male colleague explain that his role is to “bring home the bacon” while his wife takes care of everything at home.

It’s presenting a thoughtful, equity-based policy-change suggestion to an all-male management team only to have them joke about it in front of you, for days, with no answer.

It’s watching more companies, in 2021, be formed and founded by all-male teams. 

That relief I felt when my new front desk manager was a woman – a responsible, problem-solving, detail-oriented woman – that relief is something you don’t really know you need until you have it. It’s why women in leadership matters. It’s why non-white women in leadership matters. Non-binary people in leadership matters. Giving women the keys to the cars they been helping drive from the backseat matters.

And we all have our own stuff to work on. Myself very much included. I am still reckoning with the ways I participate in racism, classism, and internalized misogyny. 

But that’s just it. We all have our own stuff to work on. It’s going to take more than just fixing the obvious to move an entire culture forward. 

I have no idea who will read this and worry it’s about them, who will be sure it’s not about them, who will get angry with me, who will say these things aren’t problems, or who will take it to heart. But it felt wrong to stop myself from sharing it out of fear of how it’ll be perceived. I don’t want my own habits to be part of the problem.