What It's Like to Be a Woman in Adland: Stories of Sexism in the Office

Women Discuss Their Experiences Over the Years

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Martin Barraud/Getty Images
Martin Barraud/Getty Images

For all the progress women have made in business, sexual harassment is too often a fact of life. We asked several prominent women in the ad business under the cover of anonymity about their experiences. Here's what they had to say:

"There was a time when I was passionate about a piece of creative and because of that, my boss asked me if I had my period," said one ad agency executive. "I actually grabbed him and said, 'No, that's insulting. I'm emotional about this creative because I care, but I'll let you know when I have my period so you can decide how passionate I really am.'"

She said that in later years another man asked her if she was going through menopause. "When a guy walks into a room and owns it and takes control, he's a leader. When a woman does it, she still gets, 'Wow, she's self-absorbed and aggressive. She must be going through menopause.'"

One mixed-race agency executive recalls how while in her 20s, her boss -- the director of account services at an agency -- made a "terrible" joke about her parents. The boss said to her that her father, who is white, must have met her mother "at a sex show" because she was not white. "It's horrible to think that a senior person would make a joke like that to their employee," she said.

One executive, who has worked as both an agency exec and a client, recalled that a company she once worked for arranged a meeting in Monte Carlo that included organized activities for spouses. The activities: shopping and going to see Grace Kelly's grave, neither of which appealed to her husband, the only male spouse on the trip. She added that gender bias is "a low hum that's always there."

At an agency pre-party the night of the Effies less than 10 years ago, a former DDB staffer recounts, "It was a great night. I was wearing an appropriate dress. It was a little low-cut, but not too short and it had sleeves. A global executive of DDB at the time came up to me and said, 'Nice boner garage.'"

"One time I was very, very nervous was when the chairman-CEO of the parent company where I was working literally chased me around a coffee table," said a media and marketing veteran. "I kept moving away, and he kept moving in. I was like, 'This was bad.' I was really, really young, probably 22. And I was working in corporate PR, which is why I had exposure to him. I backed up toward the door and opened the door to his office. He definitely got the message that there wouldn't be an opportunity. Then he fixed me up with his son. I felt if I didn't go out with his son, I would be in trouble."

An agency CEO points out, "There's a sense of machismo, and I've seen it from both American and foreign executives, so you can't write it off as a cultural thing. There really is a boys' club at the top -- that's undeniable."

Whether it's inappropriate comments about women and their bodies or jokes made about mothers going to pick up their children, "it just becomes part of what you deal with."

One senior agency executive recalls a male counterpart putting his hand on her knee in a professional setting, as well as men making inappropriate jokes telling her to fetch coffee at board meetings many years ago where she was the only woman. The knee toucher was told to stay away from the woman because there were too many harassment lawsuits against him. Still, he wasn't fired.

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