“Don’t call us girls!”: Six female creatives trying to fix the industry
If a job's worth doing, sometimes you just have to do it yourself. That's what three young, female creative teams have decided as they look to reflect, redefine and rewrite an industry still struggling with issues of gender and equality. Amy Kean, herself no stranger to ad land horror stories, reports.
There’s a group of young women on a mission to fix the ad industry and we should all be ashamed of ourselves that what they're doing is necessary.
Creative teams Jas & Geo, Ellie & Elisa and Jess & Nina have taken the profession’s sloth-like pursuit of equality and fed it steroids, with a series of initiatives that shine a spotlight on the murky practices and behaviours of our beloved ad land.
This was at a time when calling women ‘stupid slags’ was beginning to fall out of favour, so the sexism was more subtle.
I can relate.
When I was younger I worked at a big agency. It was my first agency role after five years at a trade body and I was a little taken aback by the fast pace, long hours, and sexism. This was at a time (10 years ago) when calling women ‘stupid slags’ was beginning to fall out of favour, so the sexism was more subtle. An interruption here, an exclusion from a project there, comments about whether ‘that skirt’ was appropriate for a pitch, and so on.
Above: Leaving speeches, which were as insulting to some remaining staff as they were praiseworthy to the leaver, were commonplace.
Every time a guy departed the agency for a massive, disproportionate promotion elsewhere, another guy would give a big booming speech to the agency floor, providing hilarious accounts of all the women the leaver had shagged, naming names (each of these speeches normally ended with a young woman’s unconsolable tears in the toilet). At this agency a lot of senior men were known for preying on the younger women, and being a bully was a badge of honour. Maternity pay was piss poor and a lot of senior women acted like men in order to survive.
At this agency a lot of senior men were known for preying on the younger women, and being a bully was a badge of honour.
So, I launched a group! It was a group for young women like me to support each other, lobby senior management for better policies and maybe even find guest speakers who’d come to the agency and give us a boost. The point was for women to realise they weren’t alone in their experiences. I announced the project at an all-agency town hall and was overjoyed to receive a flurry of emails to join.
But the men didn’t like it. Well, some men. I was told that my tone was “all wrong”; that “I needed to be careful not to alienate half the workforce”; that “sexism is too strong a word”; that I was “trying to pick fights unnecessarily” and “creating a man-hating cult”.
It was too hard to navigate the swamp of negativity that sticking up for ourselves had unearthed. We were simply mired in misogyny.
Perhaps that last part was true, but the women who’d initially signed up with great enthusiasm were quickly mocked by their male colleagues, called bra burners, lesbians (seriously!) and eventually had to hide the group’s meetings from their diaries so as not to face the LAD WRATH. The group eventually disbanded. A decade ago it was too hard to navigate the swamp of negativity that sticking up for ourselves had unearthed. We were simply mired in misogyny.
Which is why I have nothing but praise, pride and admiration for the women who - not even a year into the industry - are entering on their own terms, telling us to stop the sexist language, to treat them equally and commit to doing diversity properly. Here are their stories.
Above: Jessica Kielstra and Nina Forbes' gender study returned 'stark results'.
Reflecting the problems
Jess & Nina [aka Jessica Kielstra and Nina Forbes] experienced gender bias before they had even set foot into an agency. As with all great experiments they began with a hunch; that they were being treated differently by agencies they contacted because of their gender. Gaslighting is rife, of course, and women are often told that stuff like sexism is their heads, that they’re overreacting, but Jess & Nina wanted to prove that it wasn’t just them, and that creative agencies have a clear gender agenda.
We thought there might be a few small differences, but we didn’t expect such stark results.
So, Gender Agenda was an experiment that ran across two weeks. They sent 40 emails with a link to a portfolio from ‘Emma & Hannah’, and another 40 emails with a link to the same portfolio from ‘Liam & Harry’. Everything the same, but the names and photos attached to the emails.
“We thought there might be a few small differences, but we didn’t expect such stark results,” said Jess & Nina, when their research revealed a huge discrepancy between the way the genders are treated. The men received better, more positive and informal responses, and received offers for seven crits, versus the women’s two.
The details of the study can be found here, and Jess & Nina are committed to educating agencies on how to be more balanced and consistent with their communications to male and female graduates. According to the pair, aligning themselves with gender equity is a deliberate move. They’re now junior copywriter and art director at Newcastle-based ad agency Cravens, but their fight isn’t over.
If advertising is a reflection of the world, it’s a reflection of a misogynistic one.
“If advertising is a reflection of the world, it’s a reflection of a misogynistic one,” they say. “If advertising is part of shaping society, we have a duty to address misogyny. We have made the choice to be vocal about sexism in the industry, but we are also vocal about sexism in the work we produce as an industry. We are proud to be associated with calling out sexism, because we aren’t finished calling it out and changing it. This is just the beginning for us.”
Above: Ellie Daghlian and Elisa Czerwenka offer an alternative to using the word, 'girls'.
Rejecting weaponised words
The industry still hasn’t quite got its head around micro-aggressions. Why? Because it’s a faff to change the way you speak, especially if you’re a man of a certain age who doesn’t like being told what to do. But Ellie & Elisa [Ellie Daghlian and Elisa Czerwenka, both freelancers at BBC Creative] are done with the overt infantilisation of *checks notes* all women, by calling them girls. The word is weaponised, to say the least.
The English language has a lot of words. Can you really not think of anything else?
“People KEEP calling us girls! And, like, we're not,” say the creative pair. “It's definitely on the micro end of the aggression scale, but it makes us sound like children, and as if we don't know what we're doing.” So, because older male creatives clearly have limited imaginations, Ellie & Elisa have built an entire website with 100 alternatives they’d prefer people to use; like 'homies', 'cereal killers', 'troupe', 'y’all', or 'icons'.
But isn’t this a case of ‘pick your battles’? Absolutely not: “We’re aware of this ‘you can’t say anything anymore’ narrative,” say the pair, “which is why we came up with so many alternatives. The English language has a lot of words. Can you really not think of anything else? You’re supposed to be creatives! It’s not even comparable to male teams being called ‘boys’. ‘Girls’ is such a loaded word which has historically been used to bring women down.”
If you’re as good as you think you are, there’s nothing to be threatened by.
Are these young creatives frustrated that the ad industry still hasn’t managed basic fairness? “Is it insane that we’re still talking about this stuff in 2021? Yes!” But Ellie & Elisa are confident the tables are finally turning. “The gates that have kept so many out for so long are opening. We are going to turn this industry on its head. The quality of talent is going to soar because it will be filled with the best in the world, not the best white men in the world. If you’re as good as you think you are, there’s nothing to be threatened by.”
Above: Jas Nandoo and Georgette Fischer are taking on the lack of diversity awareness one brief at a time.
Rewriting the ad industry
Jas & Geo [Jas Nandoo and Georgette Fischer] are in their final year at the University of Lincoln and are mimicking the way the ad industry works - in order to make the ad industry work better - via one of the most integral, yet underrated (and imperfect!), parts of the advertising process: briefs. Whilst grandiose gestures may appear to bang the drum for fair representation based on various Protected Characteristics like gender, race, sexuality, age and disability, if the education isn’t there, and the respect for underrepresented groups isn’t lived and breathed, then what hope do we have?
We should all be talking about racism, gender inequality and misrepresentation.
So, the creative team has launched The Diversity Collection. “[It contains] briefs that we’ve written to get young creatives learning about issues currently being swept under the rug,” say Jes & Geo. “Because we should all be talking about racism, gender inequality and misrepresentation.”
Their collection of briefs are for teachers to share with students, and agency or creative leads to share with teams, to get them thinking about diversity with the audience truly front-of-mind. Tasks such as ‘rewrite the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad’ (amazing), and ‘create a campaign to support the LGBTQ+ community all year round’ aren’t just prompts for curiosity, they’re the stuff we all should have been doing for years.
Like their peers, Jas & Geo found the process enlightening in all the wrong ways: “Whilst writing these briefs, we’ve realised that the ad industry just isn’t quite there with diversity. Every brief we’ve written is a topic swept under the rug - and there’s a lot of them. We’ve learnt that people want to see the change, but almost don’t know where to start.” But are Jas & Geo surprised that not much has changed? Not at all. “The changes are almost predictable. Whenever there are topical events, agencies and brands seem to jump on the bandwagon, just so it can be ticked off the list.”
We’ve learnt that people want to see the change, but almost don’t know where to start.
That it’s six women who are putting themselves out there to inspire change isn’t surprising. And that they’re doing it so publicly will be a massive help for other women to realise they’re not alone in their experiences. But, you know what I’d love? To see some young male creatives getting involved, too, using their creative prowess - and privilege - for good. If that happened, then we’d know for sure that the tides were turning.
Let’s see, I guess. The floor’s open.