Your Subconscious is a Real Don Draper

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Early last fall, Felix wrote an editorial about creative directors. Specifically, he wrote about female creative directors. Or the lack of them. A discussion arose in the comments section regarding the likelihood of females to be promoted in the advertising industry – which is to say, people discussed it not being very likely at all.

Noted in both the editorial and the comments were male admissions of female colleagues who were smarter or more talented than their Y-chromosomed counterparts, but bore lesser titles. Several explanations were offered for this imbalance, including blatant misogyny and family or lifestyle priorities. One commenter even suggested a trickle-over effect of female stereotypes in ads infiltrating the agencies that created them.

Across most industries, women still hold fewer C or VP-level positions than men – about one to every five, statistically. In advertising – whose more general ranks are actually dominated by females – that same ratio is closer to one to fifteen. Families, lifestyle preferences, misogyny; whatever you want to call it, none of those explanations are a good reason for that level of discrepancy. It’s just an embarrassingly ugly flaw on the face of our industry.

By the rulebook, we call this stuff sexism, but the symptoms of that sexism have clearly evolved beyond the textbook definition. Unanimously, we agree that grabbing random, unsolicited ass in the workplace is wrong, and its occurrence today is rare (and fiercely punishable). But as other industries head towards balance in leadership, the advertising industry still seems to be patting itself on the back for adopting the most surface-level tenants of workplace equality. We adopted an equal-opportunity employment clause. We said no-no to sexual objectification, at least its blatant or non-branded version. We became comfortable with our male employees wearing girls’ pants. But did we ever ask ourselves what the actual roots of those behaviors were? And then work to tackle those? If we haven’t, we might as well come out and call ourselves misogynists – cause that’s kinda what those numbers are saying.

Roots aren’t easy to get at, allegorically or otherwise, but a discussion with a female friend made me think I’d surfaced at least one. This girl, a high performing twenty-something in a mid-level position, was discussing the double-edged sword of outperforming people’s expectations of her in the workplace. On the one hand, she enjoyed the sensation of catching her male co-workers off guard with her high aptitude for awesomeness. On the other hand, she felt uncomfortable that the accolades always seemed to come with a side of shock, like her ability to excel was unexpected – an emotion that never seemed to be reproduced when the men in her office experienced similar success. She wondered out loud whether the bar for her had been subconsciously set lower than that of her male coworkers – with whom she shared a job title.

This idea was fascinating to me, and even more so when two other smart women confirmed similar experiences in their own work environments. While the “shock” reactions of their co-working counterparts were effectively harmless, they did hint at an odder phenomenon (and potentially one of those roots we’re talking about).

In jobs and in life, we typically perform to the level of expectations set for us by a variety of cultural factors. This is why you often see correlations between education and income levels, geographic location and age of marriage, etc. In this same way, a company’s employees perform to the level of the bar set in front of them. Those three high-performing gals really didn’t care where the bar had been set for them, because they were in the habit of setting their own – which a small portion of the population excels at. But if they had been using the bar set for them, they may very well have landed under the boys. The boys sharing the same job title.

It’s a tough question, but one begging the asking: Do you honestly have the same expectations of the females you work with as you do the males?

I can’t say that I do. I have no idea why. God knows it’s unintentional, but to deny that sentiment is hovering there – and that it may have influenced my actions – would be ignorant.

If I don’t have expectations for women to perform on the same level as men in advertising – and don’t express those expectations aggressively through workplace culture and communication – science suggests I could literally be holding them back. No, I’m not looking at women and seeing babies and aprons – that would be sexist. But I’m also not seeing a CD. So what’s the word for that?

I think it’s something like, “one in fifteen higher ups in advertising are women.”

Think about it. Hack some roots. Let’s fix this.


I'm stunned. I truly didn't anticipate the tough question (nor the writer's response) posed at the end of this cogent editorial. I'm challenged to find the word and the solution. It's gonna take individual and collective time and thoughtful effort to sort this out.

very interesting question........

It's because the men at the top fear you. We know how magnificently more manipulative women can be. That makes men feel very replaceable and it hurts our pride. Men don't like being shown up–even less so by a girl. So the higher ups foster a culture within advertising to keep themselves in charge out of envy and job security.

But what's the word you're at a loss for? Apathy? I don’t think that’s it. Maybe something closer to brainwashing. It's the culture of advertising crap we've all been force-fed our professional lives. It looks normal so it must be normal.

So yes the cause is sexism. And I mean this is all sincerity, I think what you feel is something equitable to the mental trauma of abuse.

Freud, you need therapy.

I'm the only male in a shop of seven women. I push them. They push me. I went the PRSA awards with the team last year. The ratio was 9.5 to 1 in female to male. I wondered where all the guys were. From my observation without any formal research, most PR agencies are female driven and owned. No lie. Perhaps, more women gravitate towards PR jobs in marketing and males to traditional ad shops? From an account management/account executive role ratio, I'm guessing more females have come out of CU than men (anyone have numbers?) - this is from 11 years at Integer. And if you do the math, eventually, those AEs become management (or MGMT for the hipsters) and then VPs and so on.


It's hard for me to relate to this editorial, since every job I've had in my professional career has had women at the senior level. The stats seem off to me, but maybe they're different if you're talking about an independent ad agency, or a corporation.

To continue the dialogue, you sound like a tom boy, if you will; & from one tom boy to another...I never had more appreciation! However, I agree with Randall and inorganik, there are just as many strong females as men in the world. I also grew up with many strong women in my life; which if you look back in history has changed dramatically.

Perhaps in such a specialized field; which gets even smaller at the higher levels, it seems a rareity, and which is true in corporate America. This is when people break out of the traditional office and start their own companies, ideas, etc. The field of marketing & advertising is being redesigned in over 30 Universities Nationwide to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the field.

I sincerely hope you have a great path to your own excellence & achievements!

I think some people are missing the point. This article isn't talking about women in PR or women in higher level positions in general. It is talking about women in Creative Director positions. And she is correct, there are not many. I have personally seen men below me rise to the top with little experience or performance to show for it, while the women get raises but no title promotions.

I do disagree however that these said women are held to lower standards. In fact, it seems we are held to higher standards. We have to be smarter and more creative just to get noticed. While our male counterparts on the other hand get praised for mediocrity. Gosh forbid they do something good creatively...then a parade is held in their honor.

Bitter table for one? Nah, I think a lot more women would be sitting at my table than just me.

@Writer Girl - In my own career, I've also found this statement to be true: "We have to be smarter and more creative just to get noticed."

Ie, I'm pretty sure that I've had to outperform males in order to be considered for the positions that they're naturally considered for by performing to status quo.

I've experienced this in both tech and advertising (tech is another industry with a notable male/female imbalance). I don't mind the challenge, and I like to think that I would perform to those higher standards even if the necessity to wasn't so prevalent.

...but the necessity itself is what needs to be explored.

I LIKE chasing skirts around the me something to do in between creative brainstorming sessions and 3 martini lunches.

I saw the point of the article is that there are not many women CD's and there are not likely to be. That is why I commented. That is probably why i tried to button my coat like a man, left over right, instead of like a women ,right over left, the other day. I think their should be women football coaches, aswell.

Women make the babies, men make the monies. Obviously I'm kidding.

Maybe its that the advertising industry in general is aimed at men. Most ads are geared towards a male mindset. You don't see half naked men on tv, and when you do, it's still sort-of geared towards men. For example, The Old Spice bodywash ad speaks as though it's aimed at women, but it obviously isn't. I'm not really sure why this is. Maybe it's cause women's rights are relatively fresh in the grand scheme of US history. Or maybe its rearing.

Or maybe there's really not any barriers and those moments of shock are just falsely interpreted. Anyone who does anything that's goes beyond the call of duty, male or female, will get lauded for it. Don't get weird about it. The SVP of Design at R/GA is a woman, my CD is a woman, the other senior designer I work with is a woman and they are all badasses. I'm equally blown away by what they do as the men who work along side them. No shifting levels of shock or awe dependent on sex. Do your work and make it good. Don't sweat the gear between your legs.

(I posted this comment on Felix's piece, before I read yours, but i'm reposting it here, because i think it merits this thread as well...)

I'm a female CD at a very large digital agency in New York. I'm also the ONLY female CD at my agency. I too have looked around and wondered, how come there aren't more women CDs in the business?

Yes, it is a boy's club in lots of ways, but that never stood in my way. It all boils down to your talent and your drive, your confidence and if you play well with others.

I agree with Erica that far too many women don't know how to accept compliments and sell themselves for fear of coming off as bitchy or narcissistic. But climbing the ladder doesn't have to be so nasty. You just have to have the confidence that comes along with years of doing rock solid work. It also doesn't hurt to be funny. A prissy sanctimonious woman will never rise to the top in this business. (I think I'm more raunchy with a fouler mouth than most men.)

I've had the good fortune to work under 2 brilliant, sharp women CDs who possessed the qualities Felix wrote about in his posts about good CDs. They had those qualities in spades, in fact. They were hilariously funny (really dirty funny too). And what they also had were the mentoring skills that helped me realize I could one day be in their respective positions.

I read a couple years back, "You really haven't completed the circle of success unless you can help somebody else move forward." In both my interactions with male CDs I work with and with the younger creatives (both male and female) on my team, I try to be a good example of what a female CD is so that it inspires the younger ones to have the confidence to 'move forward' as well as break down any notions that women bring anything less than stellar creativity to the table.

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