Last week as I was about to step out onto a narrow one-way Manhattan street, a 20something guy whizzed by on a skateboard. He was so fast and so close that his backdraft tousled my hair. He was going the wrong way and if I’d taken the natural (legal) step, I would have hit the sidewalk and broken God knows what because HE made the decision that he was in control of my safety. I resented that even more than his wrong way, juvenile behavior.

Women don’t expect that every step will come easy. But we are justifiably angry when someone takes the choice or chance away from us—in our lives, our families and our careers.

This week’s ouster of yet another Madison Avenue chieftain points to the embedded pattern of top ad guys who are as confidently misguided as that guy on the skateboard. Saatchi Chairman Kevin Roberts joins the lineup of expelled leaders who’ve perpetuated the anachronistic old boys club in the ad business. The article quotes Jane Maas, an Ogilvy copywriter from the 60s and 70s and author of a great book called “Mad Women”

laying out the generations of misogyny in the industry. I would have thought that my mother’s experiences as a secretary in the real Mad Men 50s and mine as one of a handful of female agency CEO in the 90s were history by now. But not.

When I was a VP at one agency, a client noticed my red suit. In front of his team, he asked, “Is your lingerie red too?” When I was interviewed for a Senior VP role at a large global agency, the COO asked, “How do I know you won’t get pregnant?” I managed to make it to the top while holding on to my woman-ness, getting along with the guys through results, persistence and a good sense of humor. Some women chose to keep a low profile or become one of guys.  And some just left the business, as I eventually did.

This article tells the tale well but also reveals the problem. Only three women were quoted.  Absent were current female CEO’s or creative directors. Why? Maybe the Guardian was on deadline. Or maybe the senior women would rather not risk seeming too much in the bag for “the cause” or break ranks with the status quo over somebody else’s problem. Most likely, they were too busy to talk which may be reason number one.

What I found most unsettling was Roberts’ chummy contention that women opted out of the top jobs because they wanted a life. That’s actually true for some women and for many men. Fair enough. The travel, the hours, the punishing pressure would threaten anyone’s sanity. But Roberts glibly presented this as a closed case, true for all women and therefore the gender success inequity was inevitable. I would instead call it a ‘cold case’ that has been brewing in the bellies of agencies for decades, ignored as long as the leadership can get away with it.

I believe there are thousands of women who would take the heat and discomfort of the top jobs on a dime in order to grow in their profession. It’s not a spot for the faint of heart but if you love what you do and can manage to find a life, as in any top job, you ought to be able to make the choice to do it. But skateboarding through the gender divide… cutting off their chance to decide?  That’s not up to you, bro. It’s just not.

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June 14, 2024
by Mary Lou Quinlan

A look at an early production of WORK


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The God Box Goes Global!

“The God Box” has grown to include an app, audio book, philanthropic venture and solo show performed by Mary Lou across the US. Now The God Box Project goes global to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
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