Advertising sector has #MeToo moment as blog sparks women’s anger
Hundreds of women working in advertising have described being sexually assaulted, harassed and discriminated against, after a blog provoked an outpouring of fury that is being described as the industry’s #MeToo moment.
Senior advertising industry player Zoe Scaman said she had been inundated with emails from women across the world describing incidents ranging from sexist comments in meetings to sexual assault and rape. She is now working with leaders of bodies representing women in the advertising sector to try to effect real change and “not just another policy pledge”.
In her blogpost Mad Men, Furious Women, Scaman includes some of the examples she received, but has removed identifying details.
One woman described being sexually assaulted by her boss when she was 24 after he followed her into a toilet cubicle, then suggested they “forget about it” as though it was “consensual or mutual”. “It was neither,” she wrote.
Another found out she was being paid £20,000 less than a man of equivalent seniority and experience, while a senior figure described being made redundant when six months pregnant after just bringing in new business. Stories of receiving sexual advances from clients were common, with women describing being told to “take it for the team” and “suck it up”.
While the vast majority of women who had contacted her were angry, many did not want their stories posted online, Scaman said.
“Women are absolutely terrified of the consequences of them being honest about the abuse that they face,” she said. “These women get pushed out, they get silenced with NDAs. And the men who are problematic continue to succeed, continue to lead these agencies … All of us have got personal stories of women who’ve had to speak up and who have just been absolutely trashed.”
Scaman, founder of marketing and advertising agency Bodacious, said she had written the blog after meeting up with another female strategist, who had just moved to London. They were soon talking about who to avoid in the industry and which were the “safer” agencies.
“Between the two of us, we had some horrific stories,” she said. “And these aren’t from back in the 80s and 90s, they are happening now.”
Scaman believes while there is misogyny and discrimination in every field of work, the self-styled “maverick” nature of advertising makes it a particularly difficult – and sometimes dangerous – place for women.
“The problem with supposedly living outside of society’s rules is you get away with bad behaviour, and it is dismissed as ‘just what happens in advertising’,” she said.
A 2018 survey by TimeTo, the ad industry body set up in the wake of #MeToo, found 41% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment and/or assault at work, but 83% had not reported it.
A 2016 survey of 600 women working in the US from the 3% Conference found more than half of the respondents had been subjected to an unwanted sexual advance – 88% of these from a colleague, 70% from a superior and 49% from a client. Only one in three had filed a complaint. The same report also found 68% of women in the sector had been told they were “too aggressive” and 64% they were “too emotional”.
Scaman has joined up with leaders from different bodies representing women in advertising, and said there is now a “coming together to talk about real change”. She would like to see the end of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) in cases of sexual harassment and assault in the industry, and the creation of a “central repository”: an external body where harassment could be externally and independently reported and investigated.
“When this stuff happens in agencies, the only route of escalation for women is to [an employer’s] human resources [department], but we all know that HR is not on your side, they’re there to silence staff and avoid scandal,” she said. “It would put the fear of God into the agencies if they knew that there was an unbiased third party that women could go to, and that they couldn’t control.”
Scaman added that if advertising agencies are serious about tackling the problem, they should pay to fund such a body, rather than making an easily forgotten pledge. “I don’t give a shit about pledges and codes of conduct because they don’t mean anything,” she said. “They don’t work. What I really want to see is policy change.”