The Fight For Gender Diversity – An Ad Man’s POV

So, a high-powered panel of female leaders featuring Theresa Gattung, Justine Smyth, Tracey Cross, Naomi Ballantyne and Linda Meade were at the M2woman Journey to Excellence forum recently. I think it’s fair to say that the gist of their forum was; “we want moregender equality in the workplace! Now, dammit! Now!”

Huh? Is this really still such an issue any more? As the women note themselves, in New Zealand we have a female Governor-General, Chief Justice and even a – pregnant! – PM! And surely businesses here have heeded Warren Buffett’s wise words and not ignored half the population when seeking out the best talent available. Especially if going by the claims in last year’s Westpac & Deloitte report that a one percent increase in female managers can boost returns by up to 0.07 percent turn out to be true. Simply put, that equates to a handy extra $150,000 every year for a $10 million company. Who would turn their nose up at that sort of bonus – however it comes?

Certainly, gender diversity doesn’t seem to be a problem at the advertising agency where I am currently ensconced. As I idly sip on my stevia-enriched soy latte and glance about the office, I can see that AT LEAST half of the staff are female. This ratio rises to close to 90 percent once my eyes come to rest on the area – dreaded by any creative – known as Suit Land.

But this diversification away from pampered, white, middle-class, heterosexual male asses like mine doesn’t just stop at gender, just by looking about I can see Indians, Chinese, a few Poms, a Pakistani, Indonesian, Israeli, French Tahitian – and apparently there was once even a Slovene here too. Even digital programming – the area I used to regard as the last bastion of malehood – is bulging with females nowadays. Plus, there are at least three gay guys and a lesbian that I know of plus no doubt others who are less overt.

In the ever-shifting sands of the management team here there is usually roughly the same number of women as men, which is a pretty fair reflection of the staff make up – and certainly better than the 29 percent national average. If I had a bucket handy to catch my vomit, I might even be tempted to compare this particular workplace with a United Colors of Benetton ad.

So, what are Ms Gattung and co grumbling about? Surely, we are all living their dream already?

Well, not really. As probably many of you already suspect, the fantasy world of advertising isn’t like most other paradigms. This is a place where middle-aged men can ride skateboards to work, where spending hours on your Instagram account counts as “work” and where you’ll witness even more high fives and knuckle punches than in any NBA game.
Yet we are also at the bleeding edge (as we like saying) of gender equality. But why? Is there some sort of sector-wide crusade to right the wrongs of the traditional WASP old boys’ network?

A nice thought but I doubt it. Believe me, if advertising went on an industry-wide crusade of any kind, we’d NEVER hear the end of it. However, it is possible this agency could be part of the 40% of Kiwi businesses that have a gender policy in place – but I’d be surprised if these guys were that organised. I really think that they just don’t bother noticing gender in a work sense here.

Advertising people are a lot of things, but “pragmatic” is probably the most relevant adjective you can use in polite company. In a nutshell, (another disgusting saying we use far too often) our industry strongly believes that if you can make them money – then who the hell cares what gender, race, religion or sexual preference you are? Just keep on keeping the clients happy and the cash rolling in and we’ll turn a blind eye to whatever you’re into.
Which is exactly what the people from the big M2woman powwow were asking for. But if you think I am proposing that the advertising world is some sort of glittering example of perfect business practice then you are as delusional as your average market researcher. Lest we forget, this is also the same industry that, upon mishandling a client so badly that they leave, will invariably kick out the people who actually make the money in order to protect the managerial types who serve only to have long lunches and drag down profitability. But that’s another story entirely…

What I’d like to do now, as someone who has worked in both male-only and fully integrated workplaces, is impart my learned wisdom on the subject to the members of both sexes:

To the Men

Come on! Is gender diversity STILL an issue? Seriously? Far out. How many of you have actually worked in a 100 percent male environment? Come on, I’ll even accept one of those places where there’s an accounts lady in the fishbowl who largely keeps to herself except for when she hits the dancefloor at boozy Christmas parties!

What’s that? I can’t see too many hands up out there. It’s not surprising really as there aren’t many left these days, thank God. So, if the girls at work are bugging you by scooping up all the promotions, don’t go hankering after the good ole days when they were all safely cooling their heels at home – cause those days sucked!

You see, I’m old enough to have worked in a number of those men-only joints over the years and one of my Room 101 fears (along with getting stuck in traffic jams and waking up to find that I have inherited Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ job) is that, for my sins, I will be subjected to do so again.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I may be a complete metrosexual a**hole but I’m not anti-bloke, even if half the world seems to be these days. I actually quite like playing virtual sports manager and talking about stuff like Joseph Parker’s jab-to-hook ratio and who should be the next Warriors co-captains. I don’t even mind having my biceps punched on occasion and am quite willing to hear ribald tales from guys about the time they stabbed some dude in the leg with a screwdriver – it’s just that I don’t want to hear that kind of stuff ALL the time. (Dear God, spare me. Please!)

If the truth be told, I like to mix things up a bit and considering the nature of my poncy ad job, it kind of works for me. Over the years, I have found it more than useful to have an open mind to the fresh ideas and approaches you can learn from interacting with people who are different from my own background and personality type. For example; the filthy rugby limericks I find so amusing are not always the optimum approach for selling heart medicine to the elderly. Similarly, my personal taste in Italian opera has only rarely come up trumps as a soundtrack for teenage streetwear videos.

So, you can imagine just how handy having female creatives around becomes once you get a brief for selling make-up, fashion or a Justin Timberlake concert! I’ll admit right now that whenever these situations arise I waste absolutely no time in sidling up to one for a fairly in-depth “consultation”.

So come on guys, what do you fear about having a woman in the workplace? Really?

Are you worried that if there are some women around the office, you may end up stuck next to one beside the coffee machine and be left with no option other than to attempt some sort of awkward alien conversation? Then naturally, after a couple of minutes there is the white-hot danger that she’ll have you painting your nails, wearing lipstick and talking about Meghan Markle’s dress sense for the rest of the day.

Well, it is possible I guess. My son has come home from his 100 percent female-staffed daycare wearing nail polish before but, considering he was only three at the time, I didn’t go into anaphylactic shock at the news. I merely chalked it up as one of those things you do to round out your life experience – you know, along with styling your hair into a mullet and/or drinking Steinlager at room temperature. Things you try just to remind yourself why they are not such good ideas to persist with regularly.

Wearing nail polish once certainly doesn’t seem to have affected my son too adversely, he’s fifteen now and does okay in the girl stakes. Who knows? Maybe it even helped him better understand that convoluted, bizarre organ we call the female mind. Better than me anyhow.

Are you afraid that, with women around, you won’t be allowed to do “guy stuff” anymore?

That will depend on what you classify as “guy stuff” I guess. If you go for “picking your feet at the table” or “open-mouthed belching” then I’m sorry to say it’s not just chicks who are grossed out by that sort of behaviour. But if you go for something like “lunchtime indoor cricket with a rubbish bin for a wicket” then you might be pleasantly surprised. For, despite the mixed company, not only have I managed to keep up my tradition of righting miserable Black Caps defeats in the office the next day – but occasionally some of the girls have joined in too. And hit my cultured leg spin to all corners, damn them. Plus, one Asian guy I played with was even able to in-swing a sellotaped ball of screwed-up paper! (He’s still under 30 if you’re reading this, Mike Hesson).

But I suspect the real “guy stuff” you’re all thinking about involves a raised stage and several fit-looking dance students slumming it in various stages of undress around a series of poles…
God bless advertising! On no less than THREE occasions, the entire agency I’ve been at has voted en masse to go to a strip bar as part of a work celebration. Really! Women too, in fact they were the main instigators. Quite how this came about, I’m not so sure but I was too grateful to go about demanding any explanations. And, because it was within mixed company, all three visits turned out to be incredibly fun nights out rather than swiftly degenerating into something altogether much more tawdry and depressing. Which invariably is what happens every time I accompany a male-only group to a skin club.

Is it that you are worried that you won’t be able to tell dirty jokes anymore?

Okay, fair call. This treasured aspect of blokedom is very much under threat within a diversified space. But – and please forgive me as I’m drawing a very long bow here – what if we entertain the notion, albeit fleetingly, that some of these jokes might not actually be… funny?

I only bring this up as I have a – vivid – memory of my time in the trades where there was a young apprentice who had an Australian mum. Well this tasty tidbit from his personnel file only seemed to offer the other tradies carte blanche to badger the boy all day every day about his heritage. Which MIGHT have been okay for a while if humour had been involved in any way at all. But from my viewpoint, all I could see was a pack of lapdogs yapping bitter xenophobic vitriol at a frightened rabbit.

Now, if you think I am just tradie-bashing, think back to the Quade Cooper booing malarkey. An entire crowd jeering at a proud son of the Waikato simply for pointing out that Sir Richie really did cheat (come on, even Nizbo used the euphemism; “the number 7 always plays to the edge of the law!”) This jeering bizzo was all so amusing when it first happened back at the 2011 World Cup, but guys – it becomes cringe-inducing embarrassment when it is STILL happening five or six years later. Even Steve Hansen, Captain Alpha Male himself, was rarked up enough to try putting a lid on it at press conferences both before and after any relevant home Bledisloe Tests.

Dismal behaviour like this is called Groupthink guys, and it’s what happens when there is a distinct lack of diversity amongst the host. And just because hundreds, or even thousands, of people join in on your riff doesn’t make it funny. At all.

To the Women

So you’re demanding your right to the boardrooms eh? Well, fair enough too as absolutely everyone wants a nice, cushy, ridiculously overpaid job. Including me! And frankly, going by some of the scandalous revelations spilled virtually daily in our newspapers, pretty much anyone COULD do a better job than some of the old boys we’ve got snoozing around the Round Table. Especially if, like you say, they’re off playing golf half the time. But what about the other side of the spectrum too? The less glamorous jobs?

True, I do know of one woman who chose a career in butchery, and she’s not bad at it either, winning an Apprentice of the Year award for her troubles. Plus, there are even a handful of women operating heavy machinery at some of the major road projects around our country. I’ve even heard of a female apprentice plumber before… but that’s about it.

Less than one percent of Licensed Building Practitioners are female, there are a couple of auto mechanics here and there and not a lot else. Sure, it’s hard to break into some of these industries but isn’t that the same problem you’re facing in the boardrooms? Yet we don’t hear too many wails about the lack of female forms filling out overalls.

Could it also be that not many women want to do these jobs? Which is crazy really because if you have the balls to fix a man’s car, unblock his sink or rewire his garage – then he won’t have any left to give you a hard time about anything at all.

The fact is that there is the opportunity for change at all levels, in most sectors and as usual we men might need the occasional gentle push to help that change happen.