So here’s the trouble with the latest sexism scandal in the advertising industry. It’s turning from a numbers problem into a perception problem before it’s solved the numbers problem. And perception problems are a bitch (yeap, that’s sexist talk) to solve.
Bear with me for this.
A numbers problem is measurable by objective standards. A woman makes n USD/month vs a man in the same position who makes nX2 USD/month. There are nXy more men in such and such position than women. It takes men n years to be promoted and women nXy years to be promoted. These are numbers problems and the assumption is that by making sure that n=n for both men and women we will solve the problem. And we might.
But sexism is also about power and relationships and, if you will, power relationships. Again, bear with me. I interrupt people and speak in short, abrupt, sentences therefore, as a woman, I am a bitch, I am irritating. I interrupt people and speak in short, abrupt sentences, therefore, as a man, I am a decisive leader. I am soft-spoken and an introvert, prefer to work alone and therefore, as a woman, I am best suited for jobs that do not require important decision-making. I am soft-spoken and an introvert, prefer to work alone and, therefore, as a man, I am a brooding, dark genius. There you have leadership qualities interpreted differently by gender, so while you may do n=n, that makes no difference if you define what success looks like through a single lens.
Finally, sexism is about perception. I am a leader who’s promoted a number of women, yet none of my female co-workers jump to my defence when I get tied up in a sexism scandal. The industry does not have a problem because we operate on meritocracy, and yet multiple women speak out that there’s a problem (the implication being, I assume, that they have no merit and complain because, lacking in merit, they simply, objectively did not receive any recognition). This is where we think n=n, we disregard a potential gendered definition of success AND we also think we can solve the issue by just bringing up numbers or personal experience.
I will call all of this “the Ellen Pao complex” — because, truly, Ellen Pao’s lawsuit and the subsequent coverage shows how much we cannot rely exclusively on numbers. Ellen Pao was convinced she was a driven career woman who was being undeservedly punished for her style. She had the numbers. Her former colleagues, whom she was suing, said she was an annoying, entitled bitch who was not good enough. The numbers were not wrong but this was not about the numbers. There is NO way out of this complex. There is absolutely no objective scale for perceptions and there’s no factual solutions. Hitting the numbers might be the first step but (as the increasingly racially tense US shows) it’s not a solution for any issue.
So, bottom line, if you work in the advertising industry and have a say in how your company is run, here’s what you do: DO MORE FOR WOMEN. OVER PROMOTE THEM. OVER DISCUSS THE MATTER. OVER ADDRESS IT. [this paragraph initially said “if you work somewhere and you think you have a problem with workplace sexism” but that’s not good enough. Truth is, if you work in advertising TODAY you most likely do have some problems with this. So just do the above.]
If you need steps, here’s the steps:
- Try to even out the numbers fast. Make sure n=n for both men and women.
- Address perceptions by openly asking questions, pro actively querying whether you’re doing well. Sit down with a group of women and ask, send out an email, do an anonymous poll. Make sure perceptions are NOT different to what you think just because you’ve done point 1.
- Do more.
The thing with this is, nobody will tell you, ever, dude, stop, you’re promoting women too much, you’re trying too hard to showcase them, you’re being too wonderful to the women in your organisation. There is NO risk with this.
Now, if you’re a guy reading this and this has made you slightly mad or uncomfortable, here’s a question: why?