Swaay co-founder, Trish Schmitt, sits with Susan LaScala Wood, a co-creator of www.over30under30.com (read as: Over "30 under 30"), an online conversation with experienced (ie, nearing or over 50) ad industry creatives about getting older in the business, how the industry has changed, and how they've persevered. The two first met in ad school in Atlanta, where they were working hard to put their portfolios together. Fast forward 20+ years later and they've been reunited as freelance partners, posting about their work days on their shared Instagram account, bossywomen.biz, and supporting each other in their other creative endeavors.
TRISH: First of all, congrats. This project is being talked about quite a bit. How did it come about?
SUSAN: Thanks…and somewhat randomly, really. It all started when I saw a post by another writer -- my now partner in this, Rob Rooney. He had written an article that touched upon the topic of awards lists – and the ageist nature of the ones specifically titled "30 under 30" and "40 under 40". I had written to him saying the article really resonated with me and half-joked that we should put a list together that was titled "50 Over 50". Next thing you know, we set up a meeting to actually do it. Of course, we had to figure out what "it" was exactly. Such lists actually do exist. We knew we wanted to keep it focused on the creative department. But I think our initial thoughts were much less optimistic in tone. We considered highlighting people who essentially got pushed out of the industry and were forced to do other things – whether it was teach or open a coffee shop. But ultimately we decided to switch our focus to people who were persevering in advertising or another creative field, featuring stories that would be inspiring to us and give more hope than despair.
TRISH: How did you choose the people to highlight? There does seem to be quite a few more men than women.
SUSAN: Well, not-so-surprisingly, in an industry that's known for being ageist, not every older creative is comfortable talking about age. And I'd say this was especially true of female creatives we reached out to, especially at first. A lot more (though definitely not all) of the responses that fit into the category of "I love what you're doing but I just don't want to out myself" were from women. But while this may be disappointing, it's actually not surprising to me at all – especially as a woman who's experienced various iterations of judgement throughout my career. I totally get it, and I don't judge their discomfort.
Not only do women have the "baby thing" held against us, our grey hairs are somehow more offensive. And obviously this is not exclusive to the ad industry, but it's true to just about every industry that exists.
That said, I think the more amazing people who joined the conversation, the more that conversation extended offline into offices (and bars), the more women and men were not just less worried about sharing their own stories and perspectives, but they were actually quite excited and enthusiastic. While we'd started our process by reaching out to talented creatives we both knew personally, soon people started approaching us, nominating themselves or someone else – and yes, that group included women. There was a palpable shift where an inspired community mentality began to replace individual fear.
TRISH: Do you think most older people in advertising have been affected by ageism.
SUSAN: I do. Though most of the time I don't think it's overt. These days, employers and recruiters are saavy enough to know it's not exactly cool (or legal) to make decisions based on age. So the way we are affected tends to be much more subtle: agencies choose a cheaper (ie, younger) candidate. Or we're not given the juicier projects. Or maybe we're a better creative than we are a manager…and we find there's no longer a place for us. I do think it's interesting, perhaps even telling, that a LOT of the talented older creatives we talked to are now freelancing. There are only so many ECD and CCO jobs out there, so that's likely one reason. But another is that freelance allows creatives to actually create…while getting paid their worth, most of the time anyway. And with so much less politics and BS – two things a person can definitely grow tired of after 20+ years.
TRISH: Overall, did you get a sense that women's experiences differed from men's?
SUSAN: No…and hell, yes. There are certainly many commonalities among the genders as we've gotten older in the industry together. The introduction of the digital age that sent clients and employers into a Snapchat-user hiring frenzy being a big one. You'll find plenty on this topic in many of the interviews. But there were definitely some differences as well. Many of the women we featured were total rock stars, creatives who were icons to me. And even though most of them would say ageism, to their knowledge, hasn't overtly affected them, sexism inevitably comes into play.
Nearly every woman who is a parent voiced the extra tough challenges that came along in their 30's and 40's. Advertising is not an easy place to be a mom (not just as opposed to being single…but, yes, even as opposed to being a dad). There's a feeling that we can't talk about our kids without fear of judgement that we can't possibly be great at both. On the site, Kimberly Harrington talked about an employer she loves to work with, who actually gets it right:
"Aside from the work itself, which I love, it's just incredible what a relief it is to work with all women including other mothers. It's incredible what a relief it is to not apologize for your life or not have to lie about needing to pick up a kid at school. I can't emphasize enough how much mothers are trained to hide or apologize for their lives. It's gross."
I couldn't have summed it up better.
Of course, there are also female creatives in the industry who do not have kids. But even they are often penalized – for simply being child-bearing age. It makes many bosses wary.
I think sexism has also come into play when it comes to promotions. I've seen many men at my own agencies get promoted before women who were at least as talented. One female creative I know was given an "apprenticeship" instead of an ACD title, while no guy at the agency had ever had to take that pre-step. When this sort of thing happens, it puts women on a slower track, which certainly has a cumulative effect as she ages. I also think employers are less forgiving of a women's perceived weaknesses – this is yet another thing I've both witnessed and experienced time and time again.
TRISH: Is there anything within the stories that surprised you the most?
SUSAN: Nothing that "surprised" me per se. What I was most affected by, though, was the incredible compassion that emanated from all of these talented people. As they share their perspectives on challenging issues within the industry, it's not purely a bitch session, and it's not a "look at me, aren't I amazing" promo piece. It's an honest conversation, fearless and real. And while there are some incredible pieces written by women, it's not exclusively a gender thing – I think both genders can relate to, empathize with and be inspired by each other's stories. It wasn't just women who were affected by Jane Evan's angry, honest, powerful female-centric words, including (maybe even especially) the ones about menopause.
TRISH: What are you hoping will come out of this?
SUSAN: What's been particularly rewarding about the project is hearing from people who've been struggling at this time in their career, thanking us for putting the site out there. I think it's helped them feel valid that yes, the industry has changed and no they are not alone. It also encouraged them to look inward and really think about what they are passionate about. If it's still advertising, great, keep learning, keep growing, keep going. But if it's not, maybe it's time to get out – and maybe that's not such a bad thing.
But, I hope more comes out of it than just self-reflection and a conversation. I hope creative leaders start to think about and actually implement solutions. And I hope those solutions take off as fast and furiously as the open office plan (for the record, I am NOT a fan – but damn, that concept really stuck). Personally, I think one of the most intriguing ideas that was tossed out was essentially creating a new position called "Very Senior Creative" (credit to the brilliant Madeleine Morris for the term, though others touched upon the topic). This would be someone who is not managing, but creating and mentoring. And I really do think there are plenty of people who would be thrilled to have the position, even if it would pay less than their last Creative Director job. Maybe they could get promoted to Very, Very Senior Creative. That would be amazing to see. I also would love to see a shift in the way we all view older creatives – yes, especially women. Hitting 40 should be a celebration, not something we should feel we have to hide. I mean, look at the alternative! I know the more interviews I read, the more pride welled up inside me that I am a part of this incredible, inspiring group.
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Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success is directly linked to women's appearances, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."