Jan 16, 2020

I was the token female in the creative department

In the latest edition of Untold Stories, a woman recalls the toxic and shaping experience of being the only female in an agency creative department.

I was the token female in the creative department

I’m a woman and I’m a creative – I’m a "female creative", apparently. I work in a team with my creative partner who is male but, unlike me, he doesn’t have a gendered title. We’ve worked together through placements, our first full-time job and we’re still working together now, a couple of agencies later.

Our first position was in a small agency and I was the only woman in the creative department. It was a toxic and shaping experience.

I never expected my male colleagues to relate to my differences as a woman; rather, it was more an assumption that I’d have to relate to the male experience. This is problematic in itself. Worse still, there was only one kind of male experience available, set in tone by the partners of the agency.

My executive creative director glamourised the violence of the industry from "the golden years". He bragged about creatives beating each other up over a brief in the pub and his bad-boy reputation. He never stopped to think that it would be inappropriate to promote this, especially given his position of power.

In this agency, there were shouting, stomping and stropping. The emotional peaks and troughs of the creative department were a rollercoaster ride and – for the most part, I felt – wildly unnecessary. There were more obvious moments of shouting and pouting, and then there were the slight underhanded comments that I felt like no-one else heard but me.

Female account handlers and clients were described as "flappy", "stressed" or "difficult". But the men were never challenged; they weren’t bad at their jobs, they were "firm", "solid" or "knows what he wants" (a phenomenon extensively documented in Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her). This kind of rhetoric continued to inform my impression that women weren’t as powerful or intelligent in the eyes of many of my male colleagues.

Perhaps it goes without saying that, as said agency wasn’t hiring diversely when it came to gender, that extended to people of colour, disability and sexuality too.

Fortunately, in my current agency, things are much more diverse and I’m working with some brilliant creatives and treating it as a sanctuary. The impact of this diversity is obvious; it means more voices, more opinions, more ideas and better creativity. When you create a working environment that gives everyone a voice, it teaches others to listen, breaking the echo chamber.

Although I’ve now found somewhere I feel able to thrive, I’d like to share my experience from when I was feeling isolated and unsupported.

Your agency is not the limit

If you’re not feeling inspired in your department, or if it’s not all it was cracked up to be, don’t fret. You can find your idols elsewhere. Search for them on Instagram, buy their books, go to their talks, listen to their podcasts, follow them on Twitter. Sign up to the Who’s Your Momma mentorship scheme. A different network to your agency offering is essential.

But whether you choose to stay or leave, you have a choice. You can choose to give all your energy to an employer that won’t make the changes to understand and support you. Or you can choose your battles and make a strategic play to get out of there.

You can champion diverse makers

It’s a privilege to be in a position to select diverse illustrators, designers and directors. You can use the power you have to raise up other women and their talents (and get them paid!). See every piece of work as an opportunity to change the status quo. Start with Free the Bid and Badass.Gal.  

Your creative can make a difference

You can write jokes that make everyone laugh – ones that are at no-one’s expense. You can make work that’s inclusive, work that debunks stereotypes, work that’s sensitive and emotional – because you are sensitive and emotional and that is OK. 

You can support others

If you’re in a smaller shop, inappropriate sexual harassment can go unchecked, whether that’s an ECD who makes everyone uncomfortable with a sexist joke or an agency veteran who feels they can physically handle every junior female employee at the Christmas party. In any case, you’ll get rumblings of it happening all around you and you can encourage the women who are targeted to be vocal and not feel ashamed. You can be there for them when the HR team is not. 

Your differences are your strength

Feeling inadequate for not being a carbon copy of a creative isn’t productive. What is productive is working on projects outside the office and collaborating with people who get you. Your differences set you aside, so keep widening that gap and diversifying what you offer. See the films they won’t, go to the exhibitions they won’t. Remember, you don’t want to be one of those people anyway. 

Campaign UK

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