A senior advertising agency figure has exposed the extent of sexual harassment, assault, misogyny and discrimination in the industry.
In a blog post, Mad men, furious women, Zoe Scaman suggests that the industry is losing female talent in droves because many are leaving for the sake of their own wellbeing, are being forced out by toxic cultures, or dismissed by their employers after they start a family or speak up about mistreatment.
Scaman claims women in the industry are often branded “too emotional” or “overreacting” when they raise issues about stress or overwork, and suggests that allegations of misconduct by colleagues, leadership and clients are swept under the carpet.
Scaman, founder of advertising and marketing agency Bodacious, told the Guardian that she would like to see non-disclosure agreements banned where sexual harassment and assault is alleged, as well as the creation of as industry body where allegations could be reported and investigated.
“When this stuff happens in agencies, the only route of escalation for women is to [an employer’s] human resources [department], but we all know that HR is not on your side, they’re there to silence staff and avoid scandal,” she said.
“It would put the fear of God into the agencies if they knew that there was an unbiased third party that women could go to, and that they couldn’t control.”
In her blog post, she writes: “When I was 24 I was sexually assaulted by a boss after he followed me into a toilet cubicle on a night out. The next morning, whilst sitting two metres away from me, he sent me an email to suggest we ‘forget about last night’ because he had a wife and kids, as if what had occurred was either consensual or mutual. It was neither.”
She also claims to have been offered just a $2,000 pay increase after finding out a male colleague was earning $20,000 more than she was, and being subjected to over a year of “psychological torment” after working with a man who bullied and belittled others.
The post also includes numerous other anonymised accounts of harassment, discrimination and bullying in the advertising industry, including one woman who said: “I was newly pregnant, feeling utterly rubbish as a result, as the first few months are usually rough. But rather than being understanding, I was told by my boss that he’d be letting me go as he’d been disappointed in my recent performance at work and I was no longer deemed good enough to remain a part of the team.”
Another said: “The women in my agency don’t last long after they join because they quickly realise they have no future here. They’re constantly deputised, overlooked and gaslit.”
Scaman suggests that lockdowns have made the problems worse for some female employees, stating that those who had felt talked over in meeting rooms were “silenced entirely over Zoom”, while those who avoided their abusers in person “were now forced to welcome them into their private spaces, as they stared back at them through video calls”.
“And those who had dared to speak up or to cry foul, found themselves pushed to the front of the queue awaiting the chopping block,” she adds.
The blog post also claims that many perpetrators are “adept at navigating public discourse to position themselves as allies of women, champions of diversity and the cultivators of positive change”.
“Behind closed doors, their facade falls away as they perpetuate pay gaps, punish pregnancies, hush up harassment claims and in some cases, commit acts of assault themselves,” she adds.
In 2018, in the wake of the MeToo movement, the UK advertising industry launched “timeTo“, a campaign against sexual harassment in the sector. Almost 300 companies have endorsed the campaign, adopting the timeTo code of conduct and participating in timeTo training, as well as regular tracking studies on prevalence of sexual harassment.
A spokesperson for the Advertising Association, a founding member of timeTo, said: “The ongoing discussions about what action needs to be taken to address sexual harassment in our industry are essential – the more the issue is discussed in the open, the more awareness we build of the behaviours that are unacceptable in the workplace.
“We know from research conducted by timeTo, our industry’s initiative to tackle sexual harrassment, that this is a live and current issue, not a legacy problem. We strongly believe it is an issue where every advertising professional has a responsibility to ensure work is a safe place for everyone.”