The curse women who are “too accomplished” face and the old boys’ club that fears them
Warning: When reading this, you may feel the need to go outside and smoke a cig with Peggy. Peggy understands. We haven’t changed that much since the Mad Men era. Well, except for learning that cigarettes are bad for you.
I’m a woman with a lot going on.
And yesterday, a man tried to tell me that was a bad thing.
I was on a phone call with a senior vice president at a well-known advertising agency in New York City. I’m the kind of person who rarely uses résumés. After all, 98% of jobs are landed from networking, and I rarely have trouble getting in front of someone. So when this senior executive reached out to me via LinkedIn, I naturally took the call. Just like any informational interview, we had a detailed conversation about my relevant professional experience. I had worked closely with both of his clients’ major competitors and clearly had a lot of insider information that would be invaluable to the agency’s efforts. I spoke about my decade of experience in magazines, providing examples of my wins at each publication. I walked him through successful programs I created and sold through to clients. When he wanted to know what work I was most proud of in my career, I began outlining how I pivoted my startup into a branded content company to drive revenue when our cash flow started to dwindle. Then, I confidently explained how I executed an influencer-based, social media engagement strategy that cost nearly nothing, brought in more than a million users, and eventually led to the company’s acquisition.
In a tone that gave me the same feeling I’d get if someone called me fat, the man then said, “You seem like a woman with a lot going on.
I showed your experience to a colleague, and he agreed.” Wow, what a surprise (not): Two men had decided that a woman with an active, thriving career was a bad thing.
Shocked by his comment, I asked about all my job hunting insecurities. Was his concern due to worries about turnover or retention? I asked if they get scared that people from startups will get bored and leave. He didn’t really answer. I reassured him that in my next role I’m looking for the right fit — somewhere I can grow, be around enthusiastic people with innovative ideas, aggressively go after new business, do great work, and manage and mentor a team of creatives. Honestly, that was what I was interested in discussing before the call. I just wanted to have an exploratory conversation and learn about the department he was building, and now I was distracted by the entire conversation.
He didn’t really answer any of my questions. Maybe he thought they were rhetorical? He began scrutinizing my short stint at one publisher. It was 2008. Everyone knows what happened to magazines in 2008. We were all laid off. I started spinning, and I tried to figure out where his concern stemmed from. It can’t be that I teach at Miami Ad School in New York. Learning is teaching, and teaching is learning. I now have the knowledge of a Generation Z professional when it comes to social media and advertising, and I wouldn’t if not for my ad school students. If anything, I know the awesome young talent to recruit and I’m ahead of the curve for someone in their 30s. Does it bother him that I teach a General Assembly class focused on the gender pay gap? I didn’t talk about it during the call, but if he went to my LinkedIn profile, it would be easy to see that I help women find the confidence to negotiate. It can’t be that. Everyone loves a “thought leader,” right? Writing is my passion, but that must be an okay thing if I want to work with content, right? Did my pivot into the startup space make me unqualified? Because in my head, my early-stage startup experience was like getting an MBA without paying for it. It can’t be that.
When I started trying to defend myself against this perceived “woman with a lot going on” comment, my blood started to boil because I realized something essential:
No one would ever say this to a man.
They would praise a man for all his successful projects. They’d light up when they asked him everything about his startup. They’d see his entrepreneurial spirit as a bonus for the company. They’d call him an innovator. They’d call him visionary. They’d say how impressed they were with his background and all he has done in his career.
I can’t be the first woman who has gone through this. A friend said to me, “It’s almost a joke how stereotypical your story is.” Women make up almost 50% of the advertising industry. Are we supposed to be quiet and keep our heads down in 2016? Are we still living in a time where a woman could be seen as too ambitious? I know incredible women at advertising agencies, a few of whom are the only women on their company’s leadership team. These women are top performers. They balance more than you could ever imagine. They are bitches who get shit done. For lack of a better expression, they are “women with a lot going on.” But there’s a reason why I only know a few of these women. The simple fact is that the industry’s leadership is still overwhelmingly dominated by men. As my hero Cindy Gallop said, “At the top of the industry is a closed loop of white guys talking to other white guys.” Indeed, Cindy. That’s exactly what just happened to me.
This probably happened 10 times today, across all sorts of industries. Men who have “a lot going on” are viewed as people who have accomplished many things. They are seen as leaders and innovators who can add great value to a company. They don’t have to dumb themselves down around others. They don’t have to worry about sounding too experienced, too enthusiastic, or too confident. When men talk about their wins, the hiring manager nods his head and wonders if they can afford them.
Whether or not you like Hillary, can you can imagine the battle she has fought throughout her life? Every. Single. Fucking. Day. Hillary even said, “The double standard is alive and well.” Too smart? Too connected? Too experienced? They say she’s part of the elite, but ignore that everyone else is too. What if her experience outshines others? Will she be criticized? Of course, because it’s always the woman’s fault. When she has strong opinions, people think she’s shouting. When she celebrates successes, people say she is bitchy. Men, on the other hand, appear tenacious. Could she actually change the landscape of American politics forever? No way. Women can’t do that.
Women like Hillary, we scare the shit out of the boys’ club.
So, I’m a woman with a lot going on. I’m accomplished. And I’m proud of it. Oh, and guess what? Writing this article is just another thing I got going.
This mic drop is dedicated to my hero Cindy Gallop. If anything, she is really “a woman with a lot going on.” She taught me that “fear of what other people will think is the single most paralyzing dynamic in business and in life. You will never own the future if you care what other people think. The single best moment of my life, quite honestly, was when I realized I no longer gave a damn what anybody thought. It’s the only way to live your life.” Thanks, Cindy. You gave me the courage to write this.
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