Silence. It happens for so many reasons. Writer’s block, death, speechlessness, imposed. I have not written in almost three months and not doing so has undoubtedly inflicted upon me more inward contemplation, self-flagellation, and despair than one should endure. My lack of writing has, to be fair, been more so a combination of a few factors rather than any single one. I’ve been going through something about which I, for a long time, only told my immediate family and closest friends, and even to them, I did not impart the most grotesque of details; I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet, though I have alluded to it in some prior blog posts, albeit in veiled terms. In addition to my own reticence, due to ongoing legal wrangling, I did not want to jeopardize any position or disclose any information that might negatively affect the outcome. Then Thursday happened. Now, I simply no longer care.
I will still, to protect myself and the integrity of the ongoing legalities, not entirely expose the details of my situation, though I feel not only that the man in question deserves public humiliation, but feel as strongly that the company who employed him and who is now spending a small fortune on limiting their exposure deserve public derision and ongoing – if not permanent – devaluation of their brand. There simply is no excuse for the human resource failure and entire lack of oversight that led to his hiring in the first instance. No reason except that like many industries, the one in question is male-dominated and misogynist, but in this one, they’ve all known each other for years – or even decades – and as a result, are all seemingly admitted to this particular club on the basis of “what you know about who you know” rather than merely the less insidious, but still offensive “who you know.” It’s a case of inclusion via mutually assured destruction based on the “you stab my back, I’ll stab yours” mantra.
I wrote about this culture way back in May of last year, but the person to whom I sent it to for review told me that even by my standards, it was harsh, and indeed parts of it were. The part which remains relevant, and especially to the issue at hand, is below.
Excerpt from ‘Shut Up and Play:’
I’m good at what I do. Even people who loathe me will – I think – begrudgingly admit that I know my stuff, and even in some aspects, extremely well. But unfortunately, this isn’t enough, being exceptional at what you do. It’s also the one thing that good, decent, honest, hard-working parents never think or know to teach their children: sometimes skills don’t matter and you just have to shut up and play the game.
Neither of my parents was university educated and in fact, both of them came from below average economic situations. What they did have, though, were incredibly strong families with bible hewn morals and unwavering ethical standards. They were also examples of work ethics that almost no longer exist today, at least not in the main and not for anything today’s society would perceive as being “not worth the effort.” They taught us as literally as one can possibly imagine that all we had to do was work hard every day, strive to be the best at what we do and that everything else would fall into place.
What a load of hooey. At least in today’s world where honesty, skills, and hard work have largely – at least in certain sectors and at certain levels – been replaced entirely by the ability to smile, nod your head in accordance, speak when spoken to, have the same opinion as your boss, jump up and down and clap at all company functions, wear your company Christmas gift branded sweatshirt every time the sun isn’t shining and turn in anyone who says anything remotely negative (or true) about the shortcomings of the organization for which you work. We now are expected to live, work and – perhaps my biggest irritant – play in the office equivalent of Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
A few agencies ago I Worked under a man who had and still has absolutely zero idea about digital. Which would be fine were his title not SVP of Digital. He was and is the most full of crap individual that whatever god you believe in ever wasted time creating. If he was, in fact, a vessel of any god; I have often thought just the opposite. But my heavens can he talk: about golf, about Women (too much, in fact, openly and about really young ones for a “happily married” executive of 50); about himself when he used to be a serial drunk. He ran up the company Amex to as high as $23K a month doodling all over the country and then made up reasons for the trip after the fac when the expense reports and receipts were due. He also had the card “compromised” on more than one occasion. On porn sites. I know that’s exactly where I use my personal Amex, nevermind the company one. Several serious, large clients absolutely despised him and asked that he never be invited to another meeting; others – usually clients led by women who didn’t know enough to challenge him and who lapped up the attention – welcomed and cooed at the very sight of him. But they were small money; little potatoes.
Yet since I left he has been made not only a partner, but an equity partner. Why? Because he was on the “inside,” one of the boys. But more importantly, he’s non-threatening to the extremely insecure CEO who knows even less about digital and almost nothing about advertising. He tells him exactly what he wants to hear, hangs on his every word, tells him his horrible ideas are platinum, and never, ever says anything negative in his presence. He is to this CEO what Dr. Conrad was to Michael Jackson. But perhaps my favorite part of this tale is that if this agency had done background checks (and I’m sorry, but who doesn’t since like 2004) when he was hired they would have found a criminal history of DUI, reckless endangerment and other various and sundry items strewn across three states, and if they had really checked his references, would’ve found out what he did to the company finances at the employer immediately preceeding this one. But they didn’t and they won’t because they don’t want to know. They are all “happy,” and that is all that matters. For now, at least.
The man who did to me what he did is one of the boys; a member of the club. Loudest jester at the head of the table of debauchery in the perpetual den of inequity. His history of predatory and sexually inappropriate behavior well pre-dated me and will undoubtedly surface again at a later date when he has been sufficiently punished, found himself another band of willing enablers and has been lulled again into a false sense of security as defined by his brazen disregard for anything remotely approaching decorum or respect. His infidelity was an open secret, as was his tendency to hire or even choose clients based on their looks and his attractiveness to them. He said things to me about his sex life with his wife that should see her rewarded with every single thing he ever owned and every single thing he’ll ever earn. The retaliation he exacted on me as a result of my rejections and outright challenges of his behavior is the worst thing I have ever experienced, in the workplace or otherwise, and I am far from a crumbling cookie. I would call him a pig except that this would be unfair to the pig. No words can aptly describe the abject debased nature of his character.
Two weeks ago, for the first time in well over a month, I began re-reading my blog; reminded myself of who I am. In addition, I began reading the articles by Ronan Farrow, the statements by Asia Argento and Rose McGowan and then started to think about all of the teams I’ve managed over the years, full of young women, for many of whom it was their first foray into the working world. I realized I could no longer sit on the sidelines and fiddle while Rome burns; I can write, too, and my story is as bad as any that has been told. And worse, I wonder how many stories of the women for whom I was once responsible in the many agencies in which I’ve worked did not feel strong or empowered enough went untold, and perhaps some of them because of me.
The first thing I did was write to the CFO and co-founder of the best agency for which I’ve ever worked. He’s a good man. A good man. So rarely do I get to write that in the context of the business of advertising.
Below is a redacted excerpt from that exchange:
I am not bringing this up to bash you or anyone over the head; on the contrary, you know I have great affection for you and for my time there. I’m asking you this as a friend and someone who has been made to feel, for her entire career, that we have to shout more loudly, have twice the skills and bring in twice the revenue to be taken half as seriously. And when we do all of those things just to hold the ground where we are – never mind advance – it simply helps to perpetuate the male myth that we are emotional, hysterical, or overly dramatic. In advertising especially, we are almost made to feel as though we have to be somewhat laddish in order to survive, never mind thrive; that we have to pretend that everything is okay and that yes, we are just like you. It isn’t okay.
I’m also telling you this because I realize that women like me have to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We can’t just play along, tell our younger female colleagues to “man up and move on.” Indeed even the term “man up” is so indicative of the problem itself. We have to try to change the culture; shift the balance.
Why am I saying this now? Because what I went through at xyz was truly horrific, but also just the unfortunate inevitable denouement of daring to get to that level in a man’s world. Whereas I know that there is no intentionally oppressive attitude or policy toward women at abc, I likewise sense there has never been a conscious effort made to create balance. And no, I am not asking for the elevation of women purely for that reason; I believe only in merit-based reward and placement. But that merit-based culture must apply equally to both sexes. So all I’m asking, instead of any thanks or anything else for referrals I send to you, is that you think about this issue seriously; do not dismiss it out of hand.
You have a daughter and I can assure you that you would never, ever want her to be subject to many of the things I have been. If this alienates you or makes you uncomfortable, so be it. I have never been as resolute in my convictions and absent of fear as I am at this stage in my life.
He replied almost immediately and it was, as befits his character, astonishing in its candor and life-affirming in its passion.
The next day, I had a scheduled call with my own attorney. For reasons of lawyer-client confidentiality, I will not disclose any of the contents of that conversation. But the outcome was that next in the process, I would need to submit to an interview by an investigator paid for by the multi-billion dollar company in question. Not just any investigator, but a female attorney who has made her living and her career defending such entities. I will leave it to the reader to surmise my reaction and response.
I put it out of my head as best I could and went about my life until the day before the scheduled interview, at which point I decided to research both her and the man the company in question had hired as counsel of record. I became less and less impressed with her CV, though ironically she had set it up and put it out to do precisely the opposite: she wanted to impress and emphasize that she was there for you, corporate America. I’m on your side. I’m one of you. I am one of the willing armies of the Goliath; never have I been a David.
Everything in my statement can be proven with records and statements, but I have to submit to recounting the single most painful episode of my life to another woman whom I do not know and would never choose to because she is being paid by a multi-billion dollar corporation to assess their exposure, mitigate their risk and help to defend a serial predator. When a victim can be spared further indignation by someone actually taking the time to do their job from an investigative standpoint, I find it offensive. I knew our system was broken with regard to how women are sidelined, treated and demeaned in the workplace, but to now find how that dysfunction extends to the system which is meant to protect us, I am disgusted. It’s no wonder women are angry. We should have been, and I wish we had been angry years ago when I was still young and had the energy to engage at a more meaningful level.
On the assigned day, I was imbued with a calm that is only bestowed by truth and was further heartened by the unwavering support of my family. The woman in question was professional, calm, and mostly respectful; so much so that I thanked her at the end, my undying southern manners still at work even under the worst of circumstances. Those three qualities – professional, calm, and mostly respectful – do not, unfortunately, help in situations such as this. They merely help mask one’s true intent and purpose; aid her in doing her job, that being to lead you down the primrose path. She was there to sit in judgment of me, unknowing all throughout that it was I who was more harshly judging her. She is not just a part of the problem, but the embodiment thereof, the poster child for it. There was nothing about her that was interested in truth; her only interest was in winning. So much so that she is blinded by it and instinctively guided toward it. I was nothing more than one more step on the ladder, one more cog in the wheel. One more potential roadblock to being able to add this victory on behalf of corporate America to the long list of those she proudly displays on her CV.
This happened to me so gradually throughout my career, the erosion of my expectations, of my standards. The unacceptable comments were de rigueur, the unsubtle glances were expected. Women who did not just “man up” and deal with it were pansies. Those of us who could go toe to toe and stand shoulder to shoulder with the men were the “real women.” No, we were helping to pave the path to our own undoing. Seduced by power, placated by pay, silenced by position. My recovery from my myopia, from my shelter of faux grandiose superiority, was the result of the cruelest type of shock. I hope for her it is more gentle and epiphanic.
So at what price silence? Mine has cost me the ability to express myself, to get this out, to deal with it in the manner I deal with most things. In the past, my silence has likely cost others who have worked with and for me, and for that I am deeply regretful and ashamed. In the future, it may cost others who need just that one article, that one post, that one example that makes them feel not alone, not afraid and emboldened to do what is right.