Are we there yet? MullenLowe's Kate Higgins asks people to stop assuming

Every week, we ask industry insiders across all job levels and titles to share personal stories about equality, diversity and inclusion in adland. We know we're not there yet, but we want to document the highs and lows as the industry slowly transforms for the better.

Kate Higgins
President
MullenLowe (Winston-Salem office)

Tell us about one thing that’s happened recently that leads you to believe there’s still a problem.

It all starts innocently enough.

Oh, are you married?
Yes.
Do you and your husband have kids?
Checkmate.
Next move is big -- and vulnerable.
No, my wife and I don’t.

There it is. 

Assuming. It’s a sneaky little bastard. If you’re married and don’t "look" gay, you’re straight. Wrong! We’ve all been taught that assuming makes an ass out of you AND me. That question doesn’t always get me to blink because it’s not always a big and vulnerable one.

But moments when the power dynamic isn’t clear, it can be. Adding to the pitch anxiety we all feel, I get a pit in my stomach when meeting clients for the first time. Yes, it’s 2019, and my team might be surprised by this, but I still have to work through that pit in my stomach for what happens when they learn I am a lesbian.

Advertising has become a home for me because of my passion for creativity. Great creativity demands an open mind. We live in a world of unlimited potential, where we push to find the edge daily. Sure, we overuse words like "breakthrough" and "disruptive." Yet many of us are still narrow in our assumptions with each other. It’s that sneaky little bastard assumption again. And it’s probably making someone uncomfortable.


How about something that proves we’re making progress?

I got fired from my first job out of college because I’m a lesbian. They were not comfortable with me being out and wanted me to pretend to be straight. It was scary because our world was very different then. But I wasn’t ashamed. And, well, keeping quiet is not exactly my strong suit, hence the firing. Don’t worry: I sued them and won because I was lucky to be living in progressive Minnesota.

Our world is so different today.

Gay marriage. The ultimate recognition.

We see ourselves in pop culture all the time. Those of you in the majority may not appreciate just how special it is to be recognized. Everyone’s favorite tearjerker show This Is Us created Tess, a wonderfully confused teen who thinks she wants to kiss a girl. If I had been able to see myself in a character on TV, it would have helped me understand there wasn’t something wrong with me. LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide almost three times more than heterosexual teens, according to The Center for Disease Control. I hope they do right by Tess’s storyline.

Last December, Best Buy had a holiday spot where a busy woman’s holiday shopping craziness included finding something for her wife. Nice job, Andy G. and team. Second shoutout to Minnesota!

And for me, well, I’ve come a long way from a fired 23-year-old to the president of an agency writing this article. Feels like progress.


What else needs to be done to get there?

For those of you who identify as the magic "s" letter, how are you doing? Are you creating an open environment for everyone? Are you welcoming in the subtlest of ways? Are you checking your assumptions?

Until we really embrace the fact that different perspectives and experiences make us collectively smarter about how we approach and ultimately solve our clients’ problems, we won’t be half as clever as we think we are.


And LGBTQ?

Just keep being you. Be open. Be proud. Yes, that sounds gay-cliché, but it’s still needed. Be casual and just be your whole self as opposed to the one you think will cause the least amount of scrutiny.

My wife and I made the move to North Carolina last year. We’d go out for date night and almost every time get asked if we needed separate checks at the end of the meal. It pissed me off to be invisible to them, to be marginalized. It was validating a fear I had that everyone in the South was homophobic. See, we all make assumptions. I am working on that too. We’ve started being a little more open, making it clear we’re a couple, and the great news is we aren’t asked that question nearly as often AND we are still getting great service.

If all of us, all of my tribe, lived genuinely as LGBTQ, I think we would be wonderfully surprised by the speed at which we could kick assumptions to the curb. Sure, it’s scary when you walk into an interview and you really don’t know how your potential new boss might react. But let’s be honest, do you really want to work with narrow-minded people? I am of course not talking about situations where danger could be real. Absolutely not. Always, always be safe.

2019 is here. Make your commitment to being open and accepting. Let’s see how far it takes us.

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