Sexist bosses: What a difference a decade doesn't make

Faced with a misogynistic boss, Nancy Vonk refused to stay silent. Now, former co-chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather Toronto implores others to speak up.

You may have seen the headlines — they were everywhere, from the New York Times to India’s DNA: a female exec publicly challenged one of her network’s most senior leaders over misogynistic remarks. That was me. A decade ago, with my co-CCO Janet Kestin standing beside me. Last week, the articles we read about the drama unfolding at JWT, complete with reader comments claiming the woman was thin-skinned or lying, brought on a nauseating sense of déjà-vu.

Neil French came to Toronto for a 2005 industry event as a special guest speaker. When asked during Q&A why there aren’t more female CDs, he argued they don’t deserve those positions. A woman with a child "won’t commit." With disgust in his voice, he said, "Why give them a chance? They’ll just run off and suckle something." Many more reasons women couldn’t be entrusted with the big job ensued. I decided his stance on the gender he framed as slacker breeders called for pushback from a female leader in the room. I posted my thoughts on the site that had organized the event. Within hours, it went viral. Neil resigned from his job a few weeks later.

Extensive news coverage sparked a lot of discussion and debate on women’s career stalls in advertising and beyond. It didn’t exactly solve the problem, of course. There’s been some progress but a glance at the senior ranks confirms those with the most influence remain overwhelmingly male.

Whether or not Erin Johnson’s claims about her CEO will be proven to be true in court, it’s a fact that, in agencies across the globe, the subtle and overt workplace gender bias that takes most women off the "up" escalator just keeps on keeping on. Yes right here in Anno Domini 2016.

Before my reality check 10 years ago, my view was, "Bias? What bias?" I hadn’t suffered from it. I thought the women who told me about their experiences — from being shut out of primo accounts to being booked into the same hotel room with a male colleague — were isolated incidents. Gender bias was so 1963. I had to see an over-the-top demo from a personal hero right in front of my face to have an epiphany: gender bias is alive and well, and hurting women.

If I started to grasp a bigger picture after that event, my education went way further doing research for a book HarperCollins commissioned Janet and me to write in 2008. Darling, You Can’t Do Both (And Other Noise To Ignore On Your Way Up) is a guide to breaking invisible rules of business that trip women up. (Our editor seized on the title after hearing us talk about an old boss who offered me a big promotion, but cautioned against motherhood if I accepted it. "Darling, you can’t do both.") We spent years interviewing experts, reading studies and talking to women across many industries to better understand what keeps holding our gender back from senior roles.

Research from Catalyst shows that unless the most senior leaders send the clear message that gender bias won’t be tolerated and follow through with consequences, things will only change so much. Diversity training and women’s programs are great, but not enough. The heads of companies that reap the greatest benefits from gender diversity (like retention of their best women and better financial results) walk the walk and serve as role models.

Calling out bias is excruciatingly hard, for anyone. But silence is the biggest factor working against change. I looked the other way countless times. I told myself it was no big deal when someone said something sexist. I winced but bit my tongue when a female company owner told me she was furious with a woman who worked for her for getting pregnant. ("I just hate mat leave!") Now I see I was part of the problem.

At the companies beating workplace bias, female and male employees more readily call out bias when they see it, following the example set by the top. Not with a wagging finger, but in the spirit of giving a teachable moment. Most people who say the wrong thing don’t have bad intentions; when it’s pointed out something they said was negative for a female co-worker, they can learn and change. The UN "HeForShe" campaign brilliantly flags the opportunity for men and women to use their voices. I’m convinced this will mean turning the corner.

Ultimately, we’re all biased towards people like ourselves. We’re more comfortable with them; we trust them more. It’s the human condition and all. This explains maybe more than anything else why men at the helm keep putting men into the most influential positions. Most women do indeed lead differently than men. The best-selling book "The Athena Doctrine" describes a style marked by less ego, long-view perspective, inclusiveness and empathy. The many benefits include more women under that type of leader staying on that "up" escalator to bring greater success to their companies. Countries like Norway grasped that years ago and the government mandates that boards include at least 40% women. In many parts of Europe 90% of companies offer flex time to women and men, the stigma of taking it long since eliminated. The reason is clear: productivity is higher.

If a court determines JWT has a misogynist racist anti-semitic CEO, we’ll be left to wonder how that was possible in 2016. But that ruling would also come with a very shiny silver lining: there would be an opening for an inclusive leader who could take that great agency to new heights.

Nancy Vonk is former co-chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather Toronto.

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