Nonetheless, she persisted (part one): female leaders on their biggest challenges

To celebrate International Women's Day some of the industry's greatest female leaders share how they overcame their biggest challenges.

Nonetheless, she persisted (part one): female leaders on their biggest challenges

Successful, talented, honest and generous: the advertising industry is not short of world changing women; role models who offer a glimpse of what the future could be if the industry better flexed to retain female talent.

In the first piece of a two-part series, some of those women give their honest accounts of how they overcame their biggest challenges to find success on their own terms.

Helen Calcraft

Founding partner, Lucky Generals

"Do not retreat when you have been wronged"

One of the biggest challenges I have faced in this industry was moving on, after becoming someone who called out a boss for sexual harassment.

I didn’t call him out willingly or quickly; he succeeded in making me feel utterly disempowered and miserable for well over a year. Looking back on it, the fact that his behaviour was counter culture (and the very fact that I worked for such kind people in an environment where women were celebrated and promoted) made it all the more difficult to speak up.

Being the object of sexual harassment makes you feel isolated and confused. I took it very personally. I wondered if I had done something to deserve this treatment. After all I was young, blonde and vivacious. I wore short skirts. I enjoyed being a woman.

But sexual harassment is not sexual attraction. It is bullying. It is an abuse of power.  And it is not your fault. 

Blowing the whistle doesn't necessarily feel good, even if it is the right thing to do

It wasn't my fault that this person offered me an ice cream, held it out for me, then grabbed my head and pushed my face down onto it when I stepped forward to accept it. It also wasn't my fault that I didn't have a sense of humour about things like that.

Now, compared to what so many women have suffered, my experiences were not at all bad. But at 23 I felt embarrassed, diminished and I felt like failure. And I dreaded coming to work.

I think my all-time low was when, at the end of a meeting, he told me to get my haircut if I wanted to get promoted because (and I quote), "you come to work looking freshly f...ed and it is very distracting for the men in the agency".

I did not have the courage to report him, but I couldn't work for him either. So I went out and got a new job instead. I chose to run away, rather than confront. It makes me so sad, but I think women are still doing this today; fading from view, letting their own careers suffer, retreating – when it is they have who have been wronged.

I was lucky. My CEO did not accept my resignation. He said it made no sense to him, given that everything was going so well. Only then did I find my voice. And thankfully he was hugely supportive and decisive.

Blowing the whistle doesn't necessarily feel good, even if it is the right thing to do. I decided to stay, but it was hard to come to work in the same office and face him every day after his formal warning. And I personally had to fight hard to ensure that it did not define who I was professionally.

I became the youngest woman they had ever promoted to the board, and then the youngest person to be made new business director. I like to believe I did that by working incredibly hard, by being myself and by choosing to keep my head up, not down.

I still wear short skirts and I still enjoy being a woman. Oh and for 20 years, I never cut my hair.

Caitlin Ryan

Regional director creative shop, EMEA, Facebook

"You are good enough"

I remember the exact moment I saw it.

It was 2010, it was late, raining and I was sitting in the back of a cab, pulling out of Waterloo Station.

I was heavily pregnant with my second child and had been in Paris bedding in our new Eurostar account and subsequently had missed three bath times in a row at home.

And there it was in black and white, written large down the side of a bus for all the world to see.

My dirty secret, my shame, my guilt.

"Career women make bad mothers."

Seeing it there in writing was bad enough. Knowing it had come from the brains of people in my industry made it worse.   

I could intellectualise the thinking behind the Outdoor Advertising Association ad. It was deliberately provocative to stimulate debate, to prove outdoor advertising worked, to make headlines. Yada yada yada.

All I could see was what I thought was the truth. All I could see was my greatest challenge.

The cab driver, watching me in his rear vision mirror, asked me what the matter was.

I told him. I want and have a career. I am a bad mother. And now everyone in London knows it, as it is written everywhere.

"My friend," he said. "Love is love. Even animals know the love and protection of their mother. You are not a bad mother. You are a good mother. You are good enough."

Over the eight years since those bus adverts and my chat with the cabbie, I have often muttered his words to myself as I juggle being a mother and having a career, dropping some balls, picking others up. "My friend – you are good enough. Love is love."  Believing this has been my greatest challenge. I don’t feel the guilt like I used to but I still find I become much more resilient just by repeating his words and knowing, that of course, he is right.

And so this is my message to all working mothers this International Women’s Day.

Don’t let anybody in this industry suggest that you are a bad mother.  You are not a bad mother for wanting and choosing a career.  

You are a good mother.

You are good enough.

Gabriela Lungu

Founder, WINGS Creative Leadership Lab

"Pigeonholed? Spread your wings and fly high"

It was on International Women’s Day when I saw it – the "female empowerment" global campaign. A few of my male co-workers were pictured, looking me in the eye from a series of self-promo ads, saying thoughtfully that their female colleagues’ workplace issues – my exact workplace issues – were their issues as well, and that they were determined to change things, and to support women like me to take the lead within the company. All the trade publications I respect wrote about it, raving about it, calling it "powerful" and "poignant". All I could think of was that this was the epitome of hypocrisy.

It happened less than two months after I had resigned from the creative director role, after less than a year in the job at that ad agency. The agency where I had recently had many arguments because of some of my male colleagues’ misogynistic attitudes, pigeonholing and condescending behaviour, that had ultimately caused me to quit my job (a great job otherwise, working on a dream account). To add insult to injury, the campaign contained one more piece of information, ironic for anyone who had experienced working for that agency: the pledge of the network to increase women in leadership roles by 20% in the next five years. For an agency with nearly no women leaders (I was the only woman CD, for example) this was complete nonsense. 

I loved doing the actual job, the thinking, the ideas, the pitching, the craft

In the ad network’s defence, the whole 8 March initiative didn’t originate in the office I worked for, but in another, where a brave woman was leading the business; the executive creative director of the campaign was also a woman. But the campaign was global; so here they were, my former colleagues, participating in something that conveniently made them all look like supportive manbassadors, progressive feminists, instead of the "Mad Men" some of them actually were. Almost every headline of the campaign rang true: fresh wounds adding to the 1,000 other cuts from my days in the agency.

I took a career break after leaving that job, to let thoughts settle and feelings heal. I did consider never working in the sector again. I’m a senior creative executive, and usually a self-confident, strong person, and yet there I was asking myself if it was really just a break, or if I’d always feel a little broken…

Luckily, I put myself together quickly, realising that this was the very first place in 20 years of work (and surely the last one) where I’d experienced such a thing, and that I can proudly say I didn’t let it happen – I wasn’t a victim, I called it out, and fought it all the way. I remembered that the biggest supporters throughout my career (even at that very agency) have been men – a different kind of men, and I have a deep respect for them and their trust in me. Most importantly, I recalled that I loved doing the actual job, the thinking, the ideas, the pitching, the craft. So I regained my motivation to work in this domain, but I chose a different path, and reinvented myself in a way that’s better for me.

I’ve become a whole lot more vocal against gender discrimination, and for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, getting involved in pro-equality initiatives, knowing that I can’t expect things to change if I don’t personally contribute to creating the change.

I’ve also realised I might be better off flying by myself rather than searching for the ideal flock. In the past I’ve been a successful entrepreneur in my home country, so I decided to fly solo again, this time internationally – to create for myself, within the industry I know and love, an environment where I could fully use my energy and drive to achieve my purpose, where I can add value and feel valued, and where my talent and my skills can be properly leveraged and – why not? – celebrated. We all deserve such a place.

As the saying goes, "with brave wings she flies" – and that’s what I do: I fly all around the world with my new firm, the creative leadership lab called WINGS, to support creative high-flyers and help them to soar. Never to be pigeonholed again. Some of us are no pigeons. We’re even eagles at times. And we’re definitely never inert statues for pigeons to perch on at will.

Rania Robinson

Managing director, Quiet Storm

"Become the master of your own destiny"

There’s no denying this is a tough business – now more than ever. Getting into the industry and staying here is not for the faint-hearted.

As a young starter, I never felt being a woman held me back. Naively, I believed if you worked hard enough you‘d have as many opportunities as your male counterparts.

That was until I became a mum and discovered many men at the top thought that once women become mums, their priorities change and they’re going to be less committed to the business. Having seen successful women before me frowned upon for leaving on time to pick up their kids, be marginalised after returning from maternity leave and slowly become invisible in the organisation, I knew motherhood was at odds with some people’s idea of being a driven and ambitious career woman.  

When I had my first child, my priorities did indeed change. I was no longer prepared to work at organisations where I didn’t have the same opportunities as men, where I was going to be judged on how many hours spent in the office rather than what I achieved either in the office or at home after putting my kids to bed.  Where I was going to be seen as a mum first rather than the ambitious career woman I still was. Particularly given how hard I’d worked to get into the industry in the first place, not having a degree, which was and still is a prerequisite for many employers.

I had to work twice as hard to prove my attitude, commitment and drive more than made up for my choice not to go to university. I was told many times I didn’t have what was required to do the job. Which in my opinion needs empathy, imagination, resilience and common sense – none of which a degree necessarily teaches you. And I wasn’t going to be told that being a mum was going to affect my ability to do a brilliant job.

So, I decided to go it alone, first going freelance in 2005, then running my own agency in 2012 to be the master of my own destiny. Where I could dictate my working hours and not have to choose between my work and my children in order to get on.

I’m sure I’m not the only woman who has experienced this. It may explain why we’ve lost so many talented women and there aren’t enough in leadership roles. And until more positive steps are made to change outdated attitudes and support working mothers, sadly, those stats aren’t going to improve anytime soon.

Ade Onilude  

Founder and CEO, Women in Marketing

"Accept change; this will be the norm"

The biggest challenge for me was after over ten years in the relative comfort of  WiM being supported by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM ) from 2004 to 2014 to decide after a year out to return in 2016 as an independent community interest company. With me as the CEO the onus was on me to make it work. There were many sleepless nights thinking about what WiM would represent; how it would be received by the industry; how would it be supported/sustained; and this is an ongoing challenge.

On a personal level, the challenge has been creating, believing and holding on to the vision, embracing resilience and adversity. Most importantly have the right support network of people to give advice, listen, and help implement the plan and develop the organisation. 

Life is a journey,-there will be ups and downs. Don't sweat the small stuff! 

Finally for WiM it's been having the right platform to engage and grow the WiM community. For me that platform has been Twitter. I have met so many influential individuals who have become part of the WiM story. WiM's global reach and influence have to, in a large part, be credited to the relationships initiated on Twitter.

I have to also give credit to the WiM team, advisory council members and profiled influencers for supporting the WiM journey.  A key person in the global development of WiM has been Antonio Lucio, the global CMO of HP, who has been a personal mentor of mine for over five years. You need sponsors, mentors, allies, role models that "walk the talk." I'm deeply honoured to have Antonio's support and vision in the ongoing development of WiM.  

I would tell my young self that life is a journey; there will be ups and downs. Don't sweat the small stuff!  

To build resilience you need to embrace lifelong learning as knowledge is power. Accept change; this will be the norm. Get out of your comfort zone. Connect, share, collaborate and engage.

To the industry: inclusion is not a trend, the business case has been written in numerous global reports. Embrace sustained action.

Jo Coombs

Chief executive, OgilvyOne UK

"We can only do our best"

Many women, in fact many parents struggle with balancing work responsibilities with the real job of raising their children.  For me the struggle was actually becoming a parent in the first place, a struggle that many women face while trying to get on with their day job so that no one notices. As my friends and my sister were all having children around me it became harder and harder to hide the pain of not having my own.  Eventually I realised I needed to do something different, I needed to accept a different path and so I began the process to adopt.  

In response to not having children I had invested my time and energy in my career, and luckily Ogilvy gave me all the opportunities to learn new skills, do great work and push myself to the limit and rewarded me by promotion through the ranks.  It was just as I was promoted to managing director that my adoption journey began.

I had confided in a few close clients and colleagues about the adoption process and they had been very supportive, even introducing me to others who had taken this path.  However once approved it can be a matter of weeks between having no children and suddenly being called "mum".  No nine month expanding bump, while you and others get ready.  No six months for my employer to make plans for my cover.  We had to be on standby for me to go within weeks.  Unfortunately, the time between being approved and finally being matched with my two wonderful children ended up being 18 months.  So for 18 months we were never more than two months away from me being gone.  Tricky when you are planning client leadership, pitching, divvying up initiatives that might last six months, or trying to hire a maternity leave cover.  But Ogilvy was constantly supportive and ready with "plan B" should the amazing finally happen.  After months of disappointment and one adoption that fell through at the very last minute, I was finally matched, and within two weeks I went from an amazing but rather surreal baby shower at work to meeting my son and daughter for the first time (both the best and worst day of my life, but that’s another story).  

Now three years later, I’m the CEO of OgilvyOne and I’m a single mum of two.  The challenges of doing both are real every day, but so are the rewards. I’m a big supporter of Mother Pukka and her FlexAppeal initiative – for everyone not just parents.  I try to set a good example; we can only do our best, no one is perfect.  But my number one piece of advice for building and keeping your resilience is sleep.  Without it I lose perspective, with it I have become an expert juggler.