Women in advertising: what the glass ceiling gave us

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It's imperative that we're honest about how discrimination is still impacting women in the workplace, says Quantcast's VP of marketing.

Let me reassure you, this isn’t going to be yet another piece where a woman in a leadership role waxes lyrical about "empowerment." Neither is it a diatribe about how all we need for gender equality in advertising is a bit of self-belief and a "thata girl!" fist-pump attitude.

It isn’t enough.

We need much more than that. We need honesty, clarity and focus. We need to have frank conversations about it—and lots of them, in real time.

It’s imperative that we’re honest about where we still are, and that’s a place where adversity—in the form of discrimination—is still impacting women in our workplaces. Women continue to face challenges that are grounded in legacy, outdated tradition and a long-standing undercurrent of belief that women are inferior to men. Worse still, the adverse effects on women’s careers are being drastically downplayed.

Now, I realize I’m talking from a position of privilege. It’s much easier for a woman who’s been working for some time to call out inappropriate behavior from others, whether that’s a man using graphic sexual references in a meeting, or ordering a peer-level woman to get coffee, or thanking her for "taking one for the team," accompanied by a wink, after returning from a lunch meeting with a male client.

This discriminatory behavior is not okay because it’s "just old school." It’s not "in our (pretty little) heads." And, it’s certainly not indicative of "being too sensitive." These reactions to discriminatory behavior may stem from ignorance or obliviousness. However, I feel strongly that we—starting with me—must stop sanitizing the words we use to describe discrimination. We need to tell it like it is and stop allowing comfortable words that don’t offend.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still hard to confront these culturally ingrained behaviors and put myself out there, on stages like Advertising Week’s, as I did yesterday. I still worry about being told I’m "imagining it." What drives me through this discomfort is the wish that the women coming up the ranks will not have to deal with discrimination. The older I get, the more I know that addressing these dynamics—no matter how uncomfortable—is the right thing to do.

I also recognize that as you get more experienced in handling discrimination, you build a "muscle" that will help tackle the issue better each time it presents itself. That chips away at the glass ceiling. It helps form the cracks that each woman needs to be able to break through. Building up tolerance for discomfort to have the honest conversations to address bad behavior is key.

But, what next? What should you do after being bold enough to call out bad behavior?

This is where the clarity and focus come in. I’m a big believer in having a game plan and acting on it, not just sounding off. So if you call out problems with discrimination in your workplace, ensure you’re confident in presenting suggestions to tackle the issue at the same time.

Ask yourself: What goals and policies should be in place? What steps can be taken? What practical tools and approaches can be passed on to people? Or can be used as frameworks for the future? How can I bring my experience to bear on this challenge?

Be proactive. Be curious. Ask for different perspectives. Listen to the answers. Take feedback on board.

And what if, after all this proactivity, your ideas and solutions are sidelined? Continue to push, ask questions and document each time discrimination shows up.

Like any human being, if you are bold, have ambition and drive, you will grow. Let’s not deny the uphill battle we’ve faced on gender equality for decades, but let’s also not forget what the glass ceiling has given us, which is the importance of having the conversation about it in real terms. And continuing to have it until it’s no longer an issue.

Amy Vale is VP Marketing at Quantcast.