2min readBusiness 23 July 2019
Over the last year, I've been asked a lot about how it feels to be a female in the predominantly male advertising industry. More often than not I respond with a puzzled look because truth be told, I have never really faced adversity in my career. So, I have to wonder why? Why has my experience been different than so many others? After all, it's true – I'm a female Creative Director, and when I started climbing the career ladder I was one of the 3%. I have worked for men in almost all of my jobs, sat in many conference rooms where I was the only female, and yet I still didn't feel like this was any kind of “predicament."
I needed to understand WHY.
What I discovered was a commonality among the people I surrounded myself with and worked for. As I moved along my career path, and interviewed and accepted positions, I ended up working for men who naturally empower women. These men were expressive, kind mentors who challenged me and wanted to give me the floor when I was ready. No different than the way people have habits in romantic relationships, being drawn to people who may treat them in a certain way (good or bad!) – I believe I had a natural inclination towards bosses who would give me responsibility, let me shine, mentor me with respect, value my opinion, but most importantly allow me to challenge them.
Challenging myself and those around me is part of my DNA, and something that I am realizing comes from my Jewish upbringing. Growing up, I attended private yeshivahs where it was common to juggle nine Hebrew subjects, many of which were devoted to “probing ancient Jewish texts" to seek deeper meaning and truth.
These were deep commentaries where one could spend hours agonizing about the meanings behind a single word or examining multiple viewpoints.
This habit of questioning everything was prized growing up, and “thinking for oneself" was a quality I was encouraged to embody.
At the time, I probably complained about staying in school for 12 hours, but now I am thankful I have the rigor to volley with the best strategists, argue the merits of a headline, question the briefs, or our goals and objectives. At the heart of this learning style is also the ability to walk around and see things empathetically from various points of view.
As I envision the environments in which women don't succeed - it is where their opinion is not equal, or valued or if they aren't being HEARD or given the credit nor credence of their point of view. It's not like I haven't encountered the industry clichés.
I have had to shut down unwelcome advances, and have shouted above the fray of male colleagues with a booming voice, but I now realize that I am lucky it wasn't worse. I was fortunate to be spared a lot of what has plagued my industry – women who have been shamed, coerced and made to feel uncomfortable. Sadly, it is becoming clear that my situation is unique.
So, my advice to women of all ages, ethnicities, level of seniority and even industry: Be careful where you spend your time - don't just size up the work opportunities when deciding on your next move - consider the ecosystem.
Think about the way you felt in an interview, ask to meet the people you will be working with directly – make sure the environment is hospitable towards not just you, but women as a whole. Even after you have accepted a position - always continue asking yourself if you feel heard, supported and equal. If the answer is no, move on and find your tribe - because it's out there, I promise you.
We are living in exciting times – with a seismic shift upon us – #metoo and #timesup are not just moments- but movements that are defining our here and now and also creating a BEFORE and an AFTER. They are allowing our shared voices to have power, and conversations to be had out loud.
I hope this movement makes it easier for any woman to walk away from a situation that doesn't serve her – and to find support. Women are lifting others up in a way that I didn't see when I was moving through the ranks- and it's thrilling to witness.
I know that as a female leader in my field, the most important role I have is possibly as a shelter – where other women can come to talk or seek advice, but it is also my job to create a safe, welcoming environment for anyone who hasn't had a voice in the past.
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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 in directly linked to women's' appearance, 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."
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