The news this year has brought us high-profile story after high-profile story about sexual harassment in the workplace — verbal transgressions, especially. But in my career, I’ve found that words are only one indicator of a person’s attitudes toward the opposite gender. And not a very reliable indicator at that. Experience has taught me to be wary of obvious assumptions about how a man will behave toward women when it really comes down to it. The issue is, in a word, complicated.
At least it was when I started at a downtown boutique advertising agency in my 20s. The creative director routinely spent half of the time looking me in the eye and half of the time looking at my chest. He was explicit and crass when admiring women. But as a boss, he was also as inspiring as they come. I was new to the business, getting a lot of crummy assignments to write coupon copy, and he was an incredible salesman. Every time I left his office after a meeting, I was swelling with ambitions to write the best darned coupon copy the world had ever seen.
He was, of course, married to a model. She starred in some of our campaigns. But more significantly, two of his “right-hand men” were women. They essentially ran the department. They were brilliant writers and empowering leaders.
My other boss, the CEO who started the place, was also obsessed with female appearance. He routinely commented on what I was wearing, my hair, and my weight fluctuations while expressing a bemused attitude toward my efforts to look inventive and interesting. But he also paid me well, took a lot of sass and back talk from me when he wanted to make changes to my work, and made me feel loved and secure in my job. Let me remind you that the words “loved” and “secure” rarely appear near the words “advertising agency.” He was another boss who put women in charge. The largest departments at the agency were, in fact, at one time or another, overseen by females.
The objectification went both ways. One day, after a young male account manager explained a brand’s strategy to me and my co-ed team, he left the room, and we talked about him. “He’s so sensitive and brooding,” one of the women said. “I think he’s a rapist,” I joked. We all luxuriated in the comfort we had found at this hipster enclave. It felt expressive and liberating to say whatever unfounded, superficial, and sexually tinged impression came into our minds. The guys just rolled their eyes.
The freedom was nourishing. The creative department came up with crazy ideas. We recommended raw, homemade videos for one large cell phone company — before people did that kind of thing on network television. We were at the forefront of flash mobs and other guerrilla marketing tricks. We experimented with new digital visual manipulations. We always tried to be different. One client wanted a big idea — their Italian pasta sauce was coming to the U.S. “How about we build a table across the Brooklyn Bridge?” we asked (and we almost got to do it). Even though I was the new girl, I won a Clio for my first assignment because those who were in charge gave me a chance.
I knew I was in a field that valued appearance. This was part of the deal. Some businesses make widgets. In advertising, those widgets are image. The way type looks, a layout looks, how a location looks, an actor’s hands look, this is what a lot of it is about, and the gaze is detailed and harsh. I found a home in this world. But as is often the case in a career, I felt that in order to move up, I had to move out. I told my bosses I needed to make a lot more TV commercials, and it just wasn’t happening for me given my junior position and the limited TV clients we had at the time.
So I found a job at a large multinational agency, a company that I didn’t have to explain when I mentioned it to people at cocktail parties. On my last day at the old place, a bunch of my colleagues threw confetti at me out the sixth floor window of our building as I lugged my thesauruses home and cried.
At 11 a.m. on my first day at the new place, I received a gigantic bouquet of flowers from my former employers with a note that said, “Done any TV yet?”
By my second day, I realized I had made a huge mistake. I was sitting on a marble slab outside my new office building, hearing the real lowdown on what was going on at the agency from my new art director partner. The creative standards were low. The office politics stifling. I just stared at a car tire and thought to myself, “OMG what have I done?”
Then I rapidly discovered what my real problem was. I was at a total boys’ club. Not the kind that led to obvious snide comments, because everyone there was much too savvy for that. I never heard someone say something sexist or inappropriate to me and never felt the risk that anyone would. It was more insidious. I was now in the kind of environment where it was clear that a woman’s presence at an all-male lunch was a hindrance. The type of place where you knew when the female left the room, the guys could really talk. The sort of company that would team women with women and put them on hair care, cosmetics, and feminine hygiene products. They hired a girl writer (like me) for a restless guy art director (like my partner) as a way to tell him he wasn’t ready for the big time yet.
Eleven months, three days, and four hours later, I left the land of the unspoken and went back to my old place. On my first day back, I was working with a male partner again. He was distracted by the girl walking back and forth past his office to make copies.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked him as his eyes once again darted to his glass door.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “she’s just hot.”
I was home again.
The relationships between the sexes are tangled. Human interaction will always reflect that. But it has become all too common to burnish one’s own image with easy outrage at what we read and what we hear. Yes the fact still remains. There are bad, misogynistic, power-abusing men out there. Some of them act badly. Some of them talk a big vulgar game. But in my case, it was silence that I learned to be afraid of.