Someone recently pointed out to me that my agency life puts me in the rare position of being one of the few men in my team.
It's odd to write this article from a place of privilege – a white man, in his twenties, in the creative department – since previous Untold Stories entries have been powerful exposures of problems faced by the unprivileged. But I wanted to shine a light on an example where our industry is getting it right. Where there is progress, we ought to celebrate it.
With that celebration comes a strange sense of melancholy and general ickiness, too, probably due to the fact that we are essentially celebrating my perspective as the exception to the rule. Regardless, any excuse to find a positive is a good one in my book.
I normally consider myself to be reasonably progressive when it comes to workplace equality, especially regarding gender. I was only disappointed that I hadn't clocked the unusual ratio sooner. Now I’ve noticed it, however, I can’t un-notice it. I have since started keeping track of what it means for myself, the teams I work in and the agency that employs me.
OK, let’s imagine you’re me. Lucky you, right?
You’re a guy in a meeting room, surrounded by women. What difference does this actually make? Well, it makes surprisingly little difference. The same power plays, ego struggles and meeting dynamics exist – gender equality makes real change but doesn’t change that we’re human. However, there’s one major difference in the room worth highlighting: an air of awareness.
You don’t realise how much we interrupt each other until we don’t. You don’t realise how real "masculine" micro-behaviors are until they don’t exist. You don’t realise how deflating and downright dull lad-like chat can be until it’s gone.
The reason, in my uneducated opinion, is because women have had to deal with these issues for years. They’re aware of them in a way that a mixed or male-heavy group simply wouldn’t be. They have each other’s backs, and when in the majority that protection manifests as alertness to negative behaviours. Put simply, they don’t interrupt, because they know how it feels to be interrupted.
Meeting-room behaviour aside, how does this uneven balance alter the culture? Again, the first observation is that it really doesn’t change as much as you’d expect. There are still beers. There are still arguments, tensions and tears. Cliques, in and out groups and laughs. Sports chat and everything-in-between chat. Exactly what you expect from a group of humans.
But, again, the differences are the micro ones that add up. There are no work meetings between just the guys at the bar after work. (Because that would involve me sitting at a bar. Alone. Talking to myself.) Which means any out-of-work occasions are inclusive from the start, not out of embarrassment or forced politeness, but from a genuine desire for the team to be together.
And how does this impact my work? I’ve never been afraid to ask for help, or at the very least an opinion. At previous agencies, I was limited to handing my copy over to a room of men to critique. Since working in a diverse agency, I’ve realised I may as well have handed it to a nodding clone version of me.
The number of slight stereotypes, tiny discriminations and outright regressive mistakes I’ve made, only to be caught by a female team member, is frankly embarrassing. In the absence of a diverse team, those brave enough to point these biases out are drowned out by a male-pitched harmony of agreement.
Now, I’m sure this works the other way around, too, and that men are likely to catch mistakes from women due to a different perspective. However, that only further proves the need for balance and diversity.
Be an ally
If you, like me, are in a position of privilege, use it to lift someone else. If your colleague is being talked over in a meeting, address it in the moment. You could say: "I don’t think XYZ had finished their point – please continue, XYZ." Reinforce their point and ensure credit is given back to them. If you want to make gender bias front of mind for your agency but don’t know how to start, put a bunch of posters from "The Woman in the Room" in the toilets or in other public spaces.
Check your hiring protocol*
* Advice from a lawyer
Who your agency looks to hire is as important as how it treats them once they start. Ask senior managers if their business values include a commitment to workplace diversity – and if not, why not? This commitment should be hardwired into HR personnel, job advertisements and briefs to recruiters. It should inform who interviews candidates and the questions that candidates are asked. A truly progressive agency should seriously consider adopting "blind" recruitment policies and conducting a campaign to address specific diversity gaps.
Check your suppliers too. Use resources such as Equal Lens to ensure potential collaborators are getting an equal shot.
Check your privilege
Share your work with members of the team who have a different perspective to you. At the very least, it will save audience alienation, the client and agency a major trip-up and your embarrassment. At best, it will result in better work. If there’s someone who could speak from an informed position, put them forward for the project or bring them into the process. It will only strengthen the output.
Write for the under-represented
As a creative, I have a duty to ensure that representation within my work is true. If you don’t feel like you’re able to write in a way that does this, get help from the experts. Talk to those who can share their voice with you, whether that’s working with and hiring from an under-represented community or recruiting a research agency that talks to these groups daily (such as On Road).
Have an experience you think should be shared? Help our industry take action by writing to [email protected]
Untold Stories collaborated with Shilpen Savani, solicitor and partner at law firm Gunnercooke, to provide a legal perspective