In fact, it was an unseasonably warm November day in 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina, as my coworkers and I strolled into the designated "war room" at the office, armed with our laptops ready to create our plan of attack for our newest client.
Earlier in the week, we were told how to prepare for this meeting. We needed to do independent research, understand the SaaS product, and each come up with a handful of questions that would show the new client that we understood their market, product, and could be a partner that could step in right away.
Each of us was hand-picked and we were coming together to form a dream team, each of us with our own digital marketing specialty.
The salesperson – we'll call him "Anthony" – was also one of the company owners. He worked in the other office, so we didn’t see him on any kind of a regular basis. Our main interaction with him was a debriefing via Zoom whenever he closed a new client.
He started off this internal kickoff meeting with information about the sales process, who the main contacts were, and what the client was really looking for.
Then it was our turn to show what we learned
My coworker – let’s call her "Nicole" – was first up. She was our go-to digital marketing specialist and actually trained me when I was just a padawan.
“I think we should start off by asking about the market forces that have created a demand for this SaaS corporate giving product. Based on the way people look for employers to participate in corporate philanthropy more and more, it’s critical that we have a good understanding of the ideal buyers and what motivates them.”
Everyone gathered around Nicole nodded and wished we had thought of the same thing ourselves. She was spot on.
As Nicole was presenting her first question we heard Anthony fumbling with something on his desk. Almost immediately after Nicole was done with her pitch he responded:
“This really isn’t in line with what we should be asking.”
Almost on cue, a chilly breeze kicked in from the air conditioner that also simultaneously took the wind out of our collective sails. We all kind of looked around at each other wondering if we were able to see Ashton Kutcher pop out from behind a desk and tell us that we were getting punked, because his response did not make any sense.
Nicole was right in her assessment.
I saw her ferociously attacking the poor keys on her keyboard and then saw a Slack notification pop up on my own screen from Nicole:
“I’m not bringing up another one of my questions. He completely shut me down. Here are my questions if you think they’re worth pitching.”
So, I did.
When it was my turn to share my ideas, I read through Nicole’s questions, completely in-line with her original pitch that had been shot down.
Anthony exclaimed, “We need more employees thinking like this.”
With these references in mind, it’s fair to say that women make up at least half of the population of marketers. In a recent survey of 21 women in marketing, which included respondents from different organizations, agencies, and backgrounds, I posed a simple statement:
“My opinions are not taken as seriously or considered at work (internally and/or with clients) because I’m a woman.”
Respondents were prompted to choose one of the following answers: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, and strongly disagree – 47.6% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.
At the end of the survey, I provided a space for responding women to share any stories or additional thoughts on the topic.
More than a few responses articulated feelings of being ignored, silenced, if not outright dismissed.
”There have been moments (especially early in my career) when I have felt belittled by my male colleagues, and there have been many other moments when I’ve felt appreciated, respected, and given the same level of consideration as my male counterparts — but the key difference that I see is that this level of baseline respect is not always guaranteed for women in the workforce.”
“Earlier in my career, many of the male members were dismissive of me - very often interrupting or talking over me in one on one and group meeting settings. I used to chalk it up to they were just bad managers but then I started paying attention and speaking up to address it at the moment as it happened. There was a stark change and I began being treated as 'volatile' going forward.”
"I have run into men speaking over me a lot in my career and that very much bothers me."
"In my current role, my opinions are taken seriously, but I’ve been in positions before with both internal bosses & clients where I’ve been talked over & my thoughts are dismissed."
Going above and beyond to prove themselves
I also asked respondents to rate their agreement with the following statement:
"I feel as though I need to prove myself more in my job because I am a woman."
A staggering 80.9% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.
“So is it challenging to be a woman in marketing? Yes. It's a never-ending fight to prove that we could lead in that seat.”
“I think the biggest problem these days is that men don’t champion women for projects and roles they are qualified for.”
“I feel that with small business clients I've worked with I've had to prove myself more and ultimately am fired or ghosted despite success I've had marketing for them. At first I thought it was me and doubted myself, until I reached out to previous social media and digital marketing professionals that had worked with the same clients, and were also women, sharing the same experiences as me.”
Although the vast majority of surveyed women felt the need to prove themselves more than their male counterparts, not all respondents felt this way.
"Perhaps it's because in my previous career in sports broadcasting, where it was blatant I had to try extra to prove myself, but since I started working in marketing and with businesses three years ago, that has not been my same experience. More often than not, I find that my relationships with the clients I work with are mutually respectful. It is only when I don't show up to the relationship with confidence that the client or party I'm working with does not have faith in my abilities."
Appearance and perception can erode women feeling comfortable
One of the other big themes that seemed to underline how a lot of these women felt was based on physical appearance or coming off a certain way based on their actions.
Some noted comments highlighting the fear of how their physical appearance would distract from their work. Some women also spoke to feeling like they had to be hyperaware of what they say and how they act so they aren’t viewed a certain way by men around them.
“I'm meeting with a client today and his boss (male) and sales manager (male) for the first time, and I find myself thinking-- maybe I should change my shirt, look more professional so they take me more seriously, how do I establish leadership early on in the call, etc. Or even the thought of, maybe I should stand for this meeting, it'll make me seem more trustworthy/reputable. And to be fair, if I was a guy, I have no idea if I'd be feeling the same thing. Maybe I would, who knows.”
"I've often felt as if I've had to tone down my passion or vehemence around specific work-related topics or ideas when in the presence of men, because I will come off as too aggressive. I wish I could say this was in my head, but I've had specific instances (even very recently) where I've been told, 'i just feel like you're attacking me,' by a male superior.
That level of pushback gives me such a high degree of anxiety, because I have to double, triple, and quadruple think everything I say, so I'm not too much, too aggressive, or too opinionated. Why am I penalized for my passion? Why is it criminalized when I disagree with something, with the same assertion as men? It's unfair."
"In my current role, my opinions are taken seriously, but I’ve been in positions before with both internal bosses & clients where I’ve been talked over & my thoughts are dismissed. I’ve also been in positions where I’ve been told I’m ‘intimidating’ & need to ‘lighten up’ when I’m truthfully just buckled down, trying to get work done, & not caught up spending all my time socializing with coworkers.
When I once calmly explained to my director that I was being overloaded with work at an agency (I had responded to 5 RFPs in a row, was performing a huge audit, & managing more than a full-time load of dedicated clients while my male peer wasn’t being tapped for any new work), I was told that I was being ‘emotional’."
"In a previous career I was the only female in leadership for an extended period of time. I often had more excitement for the job and approached it with more optimism. I wasn't jaded as many of the others were. As a result I was treated differently, often told I needed to learn things or that I was 'cute' or 'excited.'"
"As a woman I also have to deal with not being taking (sic) seriously because of my looks, something that’s also been pointed out directly."
"While I was studying my master’s degree, I was on a council of 10 students. We frequently had business lunches together with the school staff as we were the student representatives. During one of these lunches, I was told by the dean that I should smile as he was addressing the group."
"Before working (at my current company), I always made it a point to wear pants and a blazer to client meetings, networking events, etc. I had dresses I loved but wearing pants made me stand out less as a woman and made people more likely to focus on what I was saying and not who I was."
Blatant outright bias isn’t the main issue
Some of the personal stories shared above show moments where any fly on the wall would have felt like something was off. More of them however seem to be more covert or coded, much more similar to microaggressions than outright and obvious bias.
This was something that a couple of women that I interviewed were able to provide additional clarity around.
"Often in my line of work, it's more about the microaggressions than any outright favoritism. My business tends to highlight excellent work on our all-hands meetings and more often than not, man-led examples of work are shared and discussed, despite the same quality being maintained by women in the same role. I don't think there are any obvious gender divides in that manner, but I find male roles doing the bare minimum are often celebrated more so than women doing the same things.
I've also recently run into maternity leave issues. I believe that no one should feel bad because they had a baby at an unideal time and that companies need to work with women that are struggling with issues from finding childcare or severe post-partum."
Equally gendered pay came up a few times in my survey response. This could be due, in part, to men holding more management positions – a problem in its own right, but also something that’s been turning around.
But still, some women shared stories of men hired at the same time holding the same position and being paid more:
"The biggest example of unjust treatment though was compensation. After 14 years, I was making close to $10,000 less than a male with almost identical experience. We were hired 2 months apart but I actually had more years in management."
"I know I’ve been underpaid compared to male coworkers with less experience, which is partially my fault for being insecure & undervaluing myself while men plow ahead without questioning their worth. There are so many more opportunities for hard-working women today, which is incredible, but we’ve still got work to do."
A few final thoughts
There was one response I was waiting for in this survey – a thought I had myself and shared with my editor right after I pitched the idea for this article.
“Honestly, and this is nothing against the concept of the article, but being a woman in marketing is watching an article about 'women in marketing' get written by a man...”
She isn't wrong.
I'm a privileged white guy writing about the experience of women in marketing. These are not my experiences. These are not my stories.
We all, however, should be learning. And listening.
So, my hope here is that you are all met with the same refreshing moment of clarity I had as I initially read through the thoughtful honesty of the women who came forward to share their stories and personal experiences. The kind of clarity that moves you to take action, to elevate others, to create space.
I also hope that, in publishing this, this is a moment where we can also listen and learn – myself included.
For instance, I was blown away by how many women mentioned their physical appearance and demeanor (and any related commentary) – there was no specific prompt around that topic, and yet it was one of the dominant themes articulated by the vast majority of responding women.
There is a lot of information to digest here. Yes, what I've presented here is only 21 stories from 21 women. But there are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands more just like them all around the world – maybe even in your workplace.
If you're a business leader, I would encourage you to create space for women (and others) to share their experiences. For example, anonymous NPS or employee surveys can be a great way to open the door to the radical honesty that can bring about real change.
Then, listen. Really listen.
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