On the creative side, that’s a great motto for a very young work force. Many women will admit that it’s fun and even flattering to be a part of a happy, gender-fluid, youthy family at the office, enjoying midnight naps on bosses’ couches after 12-hour days, and calling in free pizza deliveries on the weekends.
Sure, it’s all fun and games until notorious biological time-keeper (and party pooper) Madame Uterus starts making her status updates known -- about 10 years in. Then the platters of stale mini-muffins and bagels at the office start to seem a lot less appealing. And things like access to reasonable maternity and paternity leave, workable hours, affordable child care and a decent home become actual issues, for both men and women.
Because this is not a female issue -- it’s a human one.
That’s also when it becomes clear the leadership model in many agencies, still loosely based on a 1950s' concept of a male wage earner with a wife at home, is painfully broken -- for everyone.
Even the perk of social engineering through egg freezing -- which I discussed last week -- doesn’t hold up as any sort of solution. Because you’re just kicking the whole work/life balance problem, like a can, down the road.
So other than moving to Sweden, a Valhalla of parental leave and free child care for life, what’s an ad person to do?
Enter “Darling, You Can’t Do Both: And Other Noise to Ignore on Your Way Up,” a book just published in the U.S., by Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk, the creative team behind the groundbreaking work on the Dove: Real Beauty campaign. They shared the title of Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy/Toronto for 13 years. Just as they shared a "big job,” which allowed each one time for a family (sort of), their book is a gold mine of counterintuitive wisdom about how to have a life in advertising.
Indeed, Kestin and Vonk have walked the walk, backwards and in high heels, or stomping along in army boots -- whatever it took.
The premise of the book is that there are invisible (or not-so-invisible) rules of working that women need to retire in order to succeed in their jobs. Some of them seem really obvious and ancient at this point, like “You’re not worth as much as a man,” and “Be a pleaser. Say yes.”
But sadly, there is still a major wage gap for women, and a confidence gap as well, even among millennials. (The book mentions “second-generation gender bias.”)
The authors also recount what coaches and recruiters have told them: When women are suggested for big jobs, the women tend to hesitate, thinking that they have to tick off every box in order to qualify, while the men forge ahead, even if their experience covers 30% of the qualifications.
But the central whopper that needs to be stomped on is the notion alluded to in the title: “Big career or family: Pick one.” Actually, the “Darling, You Can’t Do Both,” line is a direct quotation from Nancy’s boss, who, while offering her the top job some 20 years ago, added the caveat that she should not have children. (Meanwhile, he was a father of three.)
She is candid and brave enough to reveal in the book that she immediately went home and had a “revenge pregnancy.” Well, not really. She and her husband had been thinking about it. And she was getting into her late 30s.
In what followed, she discovered the last rule to be broken: “Ambition is a straight line to the top.”
“Darling” maintains that it’s not, and the Kestin/Vonk advice applies to both genders: “Consider ignoring the ladder. Take the lily pad approach instead. Jump from smaller to larger to smaller to much larger, according to the life you're reaching for.
Meanwhile, the line about not being able to do both was not the only dubious advice the authors got from well-meaning bosses.
Kestin tells the story of requesting to work on a beer account when she was a young copywriter. She was told by the account director: “You can no more understand beer than I can understand tampons.”
Somehow, without a sex change or a Ph.D. in beer, she managed to get on the account and write some work that sold, although she wasn’t allowed to be in the room to present it to the client.
In Vonk’s case, although she came across sexism during the course of her career, she managed to look the other way for a good long time. “I didn't feel a gender penalty, and sometimes, being female was a benefit. For instance, there are so few women in senior jobs in ad agency creative departments, I was frequently invited to be on awards show juries and to speak at events where I’d ‘represent the women.’ "
That was until 2005, when Neil French, the widely admired, Hemingway-esque, international creative director who previously had been something of a mentor to Vonk, went off the rails at an industry event in Toronto and announced, with venom in his voice, that "Women don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to. They're crap.” To put a fine point on it, he added, “They won’t commit. They’ll just run off and suckle something if you give them a chance.”
“I suddenly saw gender bias in a different light,” Vonk writes. “And I saw myself as part of the problem -- someone who had always turned a blind eye. I owned up to that when I wrote an essay online that challenged what was said that night. That piece got a lot of attention around the world. And although there was a great deal of support for the pushback, the many thousands of misogynistic comments within the 60,000 or so on the site where it was posted said a lot about how far we hadn’t come. “
French later complained of “death by Internet” and resigned from his job.
Are things better today? In some ways they are, because with all of the nonstop talk for women to “be the change,” people are forced to listen. (Think about the pushback that the CEO of Microsoft got for his advice to women to not ask for raises.)
More directly, One Club has initiated an annual Women’s Creative Leadership series (Full disclosure: I moderated a One Club panel this week with Vonk) and “The 3% Conference,” taking place next week in San Francisco, (named for the shameful percentage of female creative directors.) According to the latest figures available, it should actually be renamed “The 11% Conference.”
Is that progress? Well, it’s gonna take a whole lot more attention to “You can’t be the change until you see the change” from everyone. Even the sometime sucklers.
Actually, I like what Elizabeth Warren has to say about the gender disparity in the Senate, and the need for female role models: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”