What You Told Us About Sex, Sexism And Discrimination In The Agency Business

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Photo: Lucy Burr Luck / Flickr, CC

Recently, we noted that a proposed class action sex discrimination lawsuit filed against Publicis Groupe’s MSLGroup PR unit alleged that 70 per cent of Publicis’ 45,000 PR executives worldwide are women, but females occupy only 15 per cent of the “leadership” positions.The suit also claims MSLGroup president president Jim Tsokanos took his younger female employees for drinks a bit too often, and that he allegedly said some boorish things in the office.

So we asked you to tell us what it’s like working in the PR business in terms of sex discrimination on the job.

Go directly to the stories you told us >
We got a few responses, and then Colleen DeCourcy, the CEO of digital media agency Socialistic, outed herself as the author of a jaw dropping “confession” column in Digiday where she described an encounter with a male colleague who told her, “I like that necklace, I could choke you with it while I fuck you from behind,” and then tried to laugh it off as a joke.

That story got a lot of attention, and widened the debate to the agency business as a whole, on both the media and PR sides.

What follows are your stories, told to us anonymously in email or in our comments sections, unedited.

They come from both men and women. They all have one thing in common: Because agencies often have a disproportionate number of young women as employees—and because drinking is often part of the business—it can create a combustible mix with no clear line between sex, sexual harassment, and sex discrimination.

I've raised the question of harassment with a lot of my co-workers, and I'm not sure I've ever had a colleague that can claim *not* to have been subject to behaviour that was, if not actual harassment, certainly questionable.

As a rule, though, I hear stories about this being client-driven (as opposed to supervisor-underling within an actual agency).

There are probably structural reasons for that. It's a perfect storm of blurry lines: you have a combustible mix of young women who are attractive, personable, or both, a relationship in which there is an explicit imbalance (client-agency), older, more powerful men, unclear lines about what is and is not OK in terms of personal relationships (inter-office relationships tend to be explicitly regulated by HR, but the rules around clients -- especially guys who are not the day to day agency contact -- is not explicit), and, generally, lots more booze than you see in a lot of other professional environments.

The pregnancy thing is big here. I'm not sure it's different from any other high-powered job (lawyer, exec, etc.), but not only is there a sex imbalance as you go up the corporate ladder, there is a huge maternal wall issue.

The women who *do* make it seem to be disproportionately childless (the men: not so much). I suspect the explicit hierarchy of agency life has something to do with it ... take time off, and you fall out of the lock-step promotional patterns. In fact, I'd be curious as heck as to whether there has ever been research showing any disparity between in-house folks and agency folks. My hypothesis would be that there are a lot more successful women in house than in agencies.

I have worked with a number of PR agencies, and they are almost all dominated by women.

... I've dealt with many agencies in my time and they have plenty of average looking people (although they definitely always have a few smoking hot folks on staff, no question about that).

Here's where misconceptions may occur. Yes, when trying to sign up a client, an agency is going to send its best looking people (whether male or female). Yes, some good looking people will get further in their careers because their looks facilitating a greater ability to network with people (people will talk to them JUST because they are hot ... meanwhile a homely person might only attain that connection once people realise how good they are at their job).

With regards to the PR industry having a lot of hot women in it. I'm sorry, but I don't see this as true. To be good in PR you have to be able to write well, think strategically, work quickly, manage clients, etc.- it is not a 'booth babe' type of job. 90 per cent of your time, if you work in PR, is spent at a computer or on the phone. Looks are a bonus, but a good writer who can think strategically is worth far more than someone who is merely hot.

Now, people in PR probably dress better than in other industries just because they are aware that first impressions matter and so like to always be ready to make a good first impression. But in terms of their physical beauty, they are no different than the rest of the population.

Now, with regards to the 'hot' women and men who are often used to court clients, this isn't any different than say women in sales or for that matter women news anchors. Looks can definitely help you rise faster, but that's true in almost any profession where you are seeking approval from an audience of some kind.

Even having said that, I still hesitate to say this is wide spread, because there are still plenty of 'average' looking account managers who do just fine. Their personality, work and reputation serve them well with clients.

It's not just the men who can be pigs ...

1) My old female boss told me she would rather have a woman in my job.

2) A female co-worker once showed me porn in the office.

3) A female coworker once made a vague joke about erections to me.

I've been told by female bosses that I'm not welcome at certain events cause it will be a 'women's power day.' By which they mean that they'll take the company credit card, and get trashed at the event bar, while trying to pick up the male bartenders.

I've been passed over for a position because I wasn't the 'right' fit. Person who told me about the job later confirmed that the entire office is female, and never hire men.

I've also worked in offices with a high female count, where jokes and commentary sound like something you'd expect from 1950s businessmen, not 30/40 something women who embrace a harassment free workplace.

My manager began calling me at the house trying to get me to go out with him.

My manager at one company told me he hired me because I had 'nice calves.'

One day we were eating lunch and I heard that some of my colleagues were invited to go to lunch with a senior manager of our company. When I said how jealous I was that they were getting to go to lunch with this person, one of my male colleagues said, 'yeah, but I bet you are getting to have dinner with him later!'

I was at a company party in the cafeteria and one of the older field guys actually slapped me on the behind and laughed and walked off. I was so embarrassed ... one of my other colleagues actually came over and told me he would testify if I wanted to prosecute the other person ... but I would have never done that because it would have gotten me fired from that job.

I once worked at an ad agency where we had 'steel cage death matches' on placement of our regional TV budgets. We only bought 1 station deep and whoever gave us the best proposal after 2 allowed resubmissions got the entire budget. I told a sales rep in Seattle 'your not getting the job done as your proposal won't get you the buy'. She responded 'Your doing things to me I wouldn't let my husband do' to which I said 'well if you want this buy you're going to have to hike that skirt a little higher or get some knee pads'. We just both howled with laughter.She did resubmit, but she didn't get the buy but when she called back to inquire about how she did, I took the time to explain to her which station we bought and why so she had something to tell her Sales Manager instead of me not talking to her and letting her hang out their with no answers. She said she had never had as much fun in negotiations and thanked me for being a pro. She also sent me a station coffee mug even after they weren't bought. It's all in how you approach things.

The results were unbelievable for our client as well.

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