At 21, my first official professional title was, “Design Assistant.” The job description spoke of an impeccable eye for design, a passion for keeping up with current trends, and a dedication to detail.
My ACTUAL job, however, was a bit different than advertised. My daily duties included arriving to the office well-outfitted and unscathed after a sticky 45-minute ride on the New York subway system, swiftly mounting graphic presentations onto foam boards without creating any bubbles at the very last minute before the client arrived to see them, and fetching Skinny Vanilla Lattes from a midtown Manhattan Starbucks (re: the definition of clusterfuck) whenever anyone snapped their fingers.
I certainly figured out how to excel at my work — but, other than the fact that I had snagged a design title with the fancy firm name underneath… I was basically a glorified errand girl.
As a “first gen” Millennial, I didn’t expect to start off with much of a say on anything. From the early days in design school, the unspoken mantra, “You have to work twice as hard as the guys in the room to earn the right to have an opinion,” was drilled into my mind beginning with freshman year at Uni. I graduated with the expectation that I would take a lot of coffee orders before I was able to predominantly voice my opinions or significantly affect a creative direction with my ideas, or eventually, lead a team with my hard-won expertise. And this expectation turned out to be (mostly) true.
I did a LOT of mundane, not-necessarily-thrilling work before I was able to do work that I was passionate about — and while I climbed the ranks faster than the average female creative, it still took until age twenty-seven (six years into my career) before I was given any type of authority over creative direction, and age thirty (nine years into my career) before I earned a salary large enough to buy myself a modest car. (I waited until I could pay for the whole thing in cash like a good recession-era graduate… but still, you get the picture. Lots of grunt work.) I encountered a lot of setbacks, too. Some because of mistakes I made, but others were influenced by my gender.
Heaps, even. And many times, these barriers kept them from rising professionally as fast as their male counterparts — and therefore impacted their financial success.
In the early 2000s, the percentage of women in leadership roles was extremely low. When I entered the workforce in 2002, only 12% of United States Congress and 1.2% of America’s Fortune 500 CEOs were women. My own mother was a stay-at-home mom, along with almost every auntie, relative, friend and neighbor I knew from her generation.
In my life before moving across the globe, I once co-produced a mini-documentary about what electing a woman president might do for the psyche of American women. My fellow producer and I interviewed about a dozen women from our hometown, and let them say whatever they wanted about their mentors growing up, the struggles they had faced both in life and the business world, and their hopes for the future of women in America. When we asked about female mentors, one women said something that has rung in my ears from time to time ever since. I will never forget it:
“People cannot be what they have not seen,” she said, “Our mothers were homemakers and housewives, so there was no one to emulate. As we went along and tried to succeed in the office, we had to make it up.”
And we did.
The women of my generation, born in the 80’s and at the crux of a cultural shift, paved the way in a new working landscape with very few mentors. The women who had succeeded in business before us were few and far between, and many had adapted to operate in a “boys’ club” mindset so thoroughly that they couldn’t operate as our advocates.
So, we put in our time. We put up with some bullshit. We navigated difficult situations. We did our best without many clear models for success. But it didn’t have to be so tough.
Every 80’s-born professional woman I know who works in the creative industry in America has at least one horror story to tell about being degraded by a male coworker. Unfortunately, we entered the office in a time where the old rules of conduct still applied, and were told things like:
“Yeah, we don’t really enforce sexual harassment policies,” or
“Just keep your mouth shut… you don’t want to be the girl who ruins it for everyone,” or even,
“You need to learn how to hang with the guys if you want to be a part of this company.”
So we learned to keep quiet for fear of losing our jobs or damaging our professional reputations. And the result was that a lot of us were put into uncomfortable situations — and were left to figure out what to do about it on our own. For example:
One evening in my mid-twenties, I went out for a ‘we-launched-our-new-website’ happy hour with my team. Everyone on the team had a few beers, and by the end of the evening, I found myself physically dodging an advance from one of the company’s founders as he “mistook” a goodbye wave for a romantic opportunity.
The company had only one woman in a leadership role, and she was rumored to have previously had a long-standing, ongoing affair with the boss in question, so there was literally no one to turn to for guidance. I sent out resumes, found a comparable position at another firm and gracefully offered my two-weeks notice before the incident could repeat itself. I didn’t feel like I had any other option.
In another instance, I was working at a completely different company when an older, prominent leader in the company walked by and made a very loud, vocal comment about his apparent affinity for my backside in front of my design team. It was humiliating, and instantly threatened my credibility in the room.
So, I sought advice from an older female HR professional. I scheduled a private meeting in her office, calmly explained to her what happened, and asked what I should do about the situation. Unfortunately, her response is one that I will never forget:
“These kinds of things used to happen all the time back in the 70s, when I started in the professional world," she told me, "and no one got up-in-arms about it. We used to take it as a compliment.”
Unfortunately, the thing she didn’t seem to understand was that those kinds of “compliments” can do heaps of damage to a young woman’s professional self esteem and upward mobility. Or perhaps she did… either way, she was either unwilling or unable to advocate for a young female employee who had been sexually harrassed by her superior.
In instances like these, I had very few options. Although I wasn’t the one that made an inappropriate mistake, I was the one who had to deal with the consequences. Neither of the men in these stories were handed any repercussions, and, whatever their reasons, neither of the women who could have advocated for me did. During both of these events — which are far from an exhaustive list of the times similar things have happened — I remember wondering whether having strong female leader in the office might’ve made a difference.
At another agency, one of my male coworkers — let’s call him Mike — and I were handed a special project from the Vice President of Creative. Mike and I were both in our early 30’s and had built our creative storytelling abilities to be known as absolute digital guns amongst our colleagues. We were both ambitious, talented, and eager for opportunities to shine.
Our agency was in jeopardy of losing a major client, so the two of us were responsible for delivering a client retention piece in the form of a short film highlighting our proprietary creative process. We were assigned to work under a senior project manager, who was also a woman and had a long tenure at the agency, and present the resulting film directly to the VP.
We both busted ass — truly. The film had a short deadline, so we each clocked in 70+ hours for the next three weeks to get it done. By the time it was presented, it was perfect in our eyes. There were no changes I would have made to the final product if given more time — which is a rare thing to say in the creative industry.
The good news was that the hard work paid off. We were able to retain our contract with our major client and both the project manager and VP were so impressed with the resulting piece that it was featured it in a large agency-wide luncheon. The problem arose when it came time for recognition:
“What an amazing result,” the VP gushed on stage in front of the entire agency, “And I’d like to extend special recognition to Mike, who gave up his nights and weekends to help us retain one of our most valuable clients. What an effort!”
The senior project manager looked down from the stage immediately, and her eyes locked instantly with mine. However she didn’t say anything about the VP’s mistake, or interject to add my name. We both stood in silence, knowing that my efforts had been forgotten in the same breath that my male colleagues were recognised, and neither of us said a word. A couple of months later, Mike was promoted and given a pay raise while I was passed over for the advanced position.
Mistakes can be made, and things like this happen often, but unfortunately, they tend to happen to women at a higher rate than men. I personally have had quite a few instances where my efforts to go above and beyond were noticed and/or recognised less frequently than they should have been — and in those instances, a tenured female advocate could have paved the way.
Everyone — male or female — has to prove themselves through hard work and sacrifice in order to earn the respect from their colleagues. For women, however, the tendency to take a back seat and resist speaking up can make breaking through workplace milestones even harder.
Personally, I’ve encountered many instances in my early to mid-career where my voice was overtaken in meetings, or I phrased my ideas in a way that prevented my ideas from being taken seriously because I was scared of appearing too “pushy.”
According to Deborah Tannen, a linguistics expert and one of the leading researchers in the communication differences between professional men and women, women frequently say “we” when talking about something they have personally accomplished, while men most often say “I.” When handing out direction, woman will ask subordinates, “Do you think you could do this by 4?” while men tend to speak more directly: “Do this by 4.”
Women are often hyper-aware of not appearing too bossy or assertive, and therefore accidentally downplay their own, hard-earned authority in the room. According to Tannen, women are socialized to sound less confident, and this socialization often works to our detriment in the workplace. Women are less likely than men to assert their own expertise or call attention to their own accomplishments. For more info on this fascinating subject, listen to this episode of Women in the Workplace by Harvard Business Review.
Human beings learn their cues for communication and codes of conduct are learned from our peers. So, if all the other women in the room — especially the ones we look up to — are using soft language or avoiding opportunities to take credit for their achievements, it’s easy to find ourselves being overheard. Over the years, I’ve often wondered if it might be easier to make my ideas heard with more authoritative, direct female voices in the room.
I will never forget the moment that I realized how prevalent the gender pay gap truly was. I was in my early 30s and earning what I thought was a fairly decent salary. I was working at an agency with huge international brands on their roster and a fairly intensive, beyond-the-9-to-5 schedule.
One evening, my team and I stayed late after work to prepare for a huge pitch that needed to go out the door and on a plane to our potential client the next day. It had been a hectic week with multiple deadlines, and we were all a little tired and overworked. The “late crew” that evening included two junior marketing associates, one of my male colleagues in a similar position, and myself.
Luckily, this rush happened to fall on a night when I had no other afterwork plans, but my male colleague had apparently canceled other plans at the last minute in order to stay late and finish the pitch, and he was understandably unhappy about it. In addition to that, we had run into technology hiccups, so the completion of the project had taken even longer than expected.
About an hour before putting the finishing touches on the pitch, my colleague seemed to hit a breaking point, and he begin to voice his displeasure. Unfortunately for me, his expression of dissatisfaction came in the form of “I don’t get paid enough for this amount of frustration. I only make…” and then, he uttered a figure that was 1½ times my salary.
One. And a half. Times.
I would be downplaying the situation to say that I was just a bit taken aback. We had the same work experience, similar responsibilities and education, and if workloads were compared, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that mine was quite a bit heavier. I kept my cool, finished the pitch, and bid pleasant goodbyes to my coworkers that evening — but I also marched into my boss’s office the following Monday morning with a bulleted list of reason that I deserved a gender-pay-gap-closing raise.
Despite gender-based setbacks like these, many of us managed to thrive at work. I worked my way up the marketing ladder with a lot of of passion and a bit of pure stubbornness, and many of my female friends and colleagues rose in their own respective industries. And while there’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on the past —
Want to know how? Move on to part two of this piece for my ideas on how we can empower the next generation of female leaders.
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Nat is an American expat, obsessive world traveler, yoga instructor, aspiring author and the Marketing and Content Lead here at Zuper. Prior to coming to Zuper, Nat created campaigns for the retirement division of Fortune 100's Nationwide Financial in the States, along with a number of start-ups, bootstrapped organizations and nationally-known brands. When she isn't at the helm of Zuper's creative team, Nat can typically be found bopping around Bondi or hiking Sydney's national parks.