Confessions of a young female ad agency staffer: ‘My hope for change is slim’

While the #MeToo movement has certainly brought issues around sexual harassment and sexism to light in the workplace, ad agencies are still in the early stages of figuring out how to respond. In the latest in our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, a young female ad agency staffer in her 20s discusses how sexism is still prevalent in the industry.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The #MeToo movement has opened the dialogue around sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace. Do you feel like the advertising industry is still a boys club?
Men are favored so much in this industry. I think the #MeToo movement really only affected women. Men, I feel like, have already forgot. I still hear male co-workers being gross. When the Aziz Ansari thing came out, a male co-worker said loudly in a meeting: “I guess assault means nothing anymore.” And he wasn’t being ironic or funny. I told him to be quiet.

What are some examples of sexism you see playing out today?
I see it even when it comes to being listened to. The media team might come over and ask me and my female colleagues a question, but they won’t believe our answers. They’ll ask us to ask the men we work with and then believe whatever they say. Men are also still getting paid more. I asked my male counterpart who does exactly the same job I do what he makes, and it turns out he makes $5,000 more than me. And I’ve heard from other people that the guy who’s associate manager, who doesn’t do more work than me but has a higher job title, makes $17,000 more than me.

You have also been a victim of sexual harassment while working at an agency. Can you describe what happened?
About a year ago, at my old agency, there were three guys and myself on our team. It was a total boys club. I felt uncomfortable a lot. This one guy in particular often made wildly inappropriate sex jokes. At a lunch one day, they were playing a game where they were naming a celebrity they wanted to have sex with and rhyming their name with a person at work they wanted to have sex with. One of the guys named me and I got pissed, and then they continued to tease me about it. I chose to go to HR to file a sexual harassment complaint.

What then?
The agency called a lawyer in, and it wasn’t handled well. The lawyer ended up calling some of my colleagues, basically trying to get dirt on me. No change was made, but the agency mysteriously laid me off a few months later. I think it’s because of the complaint I made.

Did you take any further action against the agency?
No, because the day after I was laid off, I was hired at my current agency — total fate right there, I couldn’t have been luckier — and didn’t have the time or money to pursue a company that big.

Do you believe sexist attitudes in the workplace perpetuate a culture where sexual harassment is OK?
Definitely. If it’s believed women are less, then they will be treated as less. At my old agency, one of the guys tried to write me up for saying “fuck” even though they had filthy mouths. That was sexist AF. That attitude led to worse behavior.

What can women in advertising do if they work at an agency with a culture like you describe?
Women can help each other by standing up for each other when they hear bullshit. I think the most learning needs to be done by men. I don’t think we need to be responsible for their toxic environment.

Will change come?
My hope for change is slim. Change will come when guys who claim to have been disgusted by what happened turn to guys saying something shitty by the water cooler and say “knock it off” instead of saying nothing.

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