In our See It & Be It Series, the 4A’s asks industry leaders—who are female or from traditionally underrepresented groups in the ad industry—to provide their personal stories, advice and observations on how to succeed in an industry that is overwhelmingly led by white men. Here is what Kat Gordon, founder of The 3% Conference, had to say:
Why do you think we’re still talking about opportunities for women and how women are portrayed in advertising when it’s 2016?
Because bias is subtle, unconscious and insidious. We think we’ve got the issue of women in advertising solved and then—boom!—someone rightfully points out that women barely had any speaking parts in the Super Bowl ads. Or a big sexual harassment lawsuit hits and the press points out that the woman was put on leave while the male was kept in his role. Or someone tweets to me that they’re at an industry conference watching an all-male panel. In each of these cases, it is in someone’s noticing an inequity and pointing it out that we are reminded how much work remains to be done. Yet it is in this publicizing that we turn unconscious bias into conscious bias. It simply takes time.
Do you think women, people of color, LGBTQ and people with disabilities face similar issues in the ad industry?
It would be wrong for me to speak for people of color, LGBTQ or people with disabilities since I don’t belong to any of those groups. I will say this: from conversations with colleagues and friends who are represented in these groups, I hear that they often face worse discrimination in the ad industry than white women do, and I believe them. But I want them to tell that story in their own voice, choosing their own words. Even as a woman, I can’t speak for all women. Not all women combat the same types of bias from the ad world. I see women who are mothers who are considered less productive than their childless peers (through a proven phenomenon called “The Motherhood Penalty”). I see older women facing ageism that overlooks their experience while assuming they’re out of touch with new technology or cultural trends. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all form of discrimination, which is why it’s so critical we give everyone a chance to tell his or her story. That’s why 3% is doing things like our Elephant on Madison Avenue survey.
What advice would you give a 20-year-old woman on how to succeed in the advertising industry?
Be an outstanding presenter/communicator. Full stop. Your ideas are powerful, but getting them heard is the single most important thing to your career’s advancement. I tell a story at many 3% events about how I was painfully shy as a new college grad. My boss paid to send me to a public speaking class. On the first night, you only needed to stand up and state your name out loud. I almost left because I was so petrified. But through that course, I desensitized myself to the fear of public speaking and today I love public speaking and have spoken to audiences of over 1,000 people. No one is born a gifted presenter. You learn to be one, and the only way to learn is to practice.
Would you want your own daughter to pursue a career in advertising? If not, why not?
Yes, I would. There’s never been a better time to be a woman in advertising. Clients are starving for agencies with female leadership. Consumers are starving for more balanced portrayals of life through a female lens. And agency culture is shifting to be less punishing to those who want to have families and a career. I just spoke at a conference called The Alliance for Girls and I told the audience: “If you’re creative and imaginative, the advertising world needs you, and we’re working hard to make it a place worthy of your future.”
What did you do to survive and thrive in advertising?
I did things on my own terms rather than following a prescriptive path. I started in market research so had an early familiarity and comfort with data. I then worked on the client side as a copywriter and saw how the whole anthill operated, business wise. Then I worked at several agencies where my creative skills exploded and I learned the art of selling work. Once I wanted kids, I worked as a freelancer, which gave me exposure to dozens of agencies and brands. And now today, my legacy is not in a piece of work I created, but in the vision I had for a more gender-equal industry. No one could have charted this path for me. I just followed my curiosity and calibrated things year by year based upon what I most wanted to learn and contribute at that moment. And let the record show that I never went to portfolio school. I took night classes at The School of Visual Arts in NYC while working at my first job.
Kat Gordon is a Marketing to Women Expert, Founder and Creative Director at Maternal Instinct and Founder of The 3% Conference.