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Fighting the culture of ‘pro-bro’: How can women in advertising be themselves at work?


By Katie McQuater | Magazine Editor

November 2, 2016 | 7 min read

Too often, women are putting on a mask in order to survive the male-centric ad industry. But perhaps it’s time to take off the disguise to tackle the cult of ‘bro’.

Elephant on Madison Avenue, the 3% Conference’s aptly named new research into the biggest problem in advertising today, highlights the hurdles faced by female talent as they take on institutionalized discrimination. Whether it’s being overlooked for opportunities because you’re not invited to boys’ golf days, being left out of meetings because you’re a mother, or putting up with sexist remarks from colleagues, superiors and even clients, it’s clear from the findings that women have the odds stacked against them.

But another complementary piece of research conducted by the 3% Movement in tandem with the Madison Avenue survey has uncovered the true depth of these issues, suggesting that the problem is complex, nuanced and requires more than just policy. It needs a change of culture.

The problem, this qualitative study found, is that the culture of advertising is fundamentally weighted heavily in favor of the men. And not just all men — it’s the white ones, the rich ones, the cool ones, and definitely the extroverted ones. In essence, as one of the respondents to the survey’s in-depth interviews astutely put it, it’s a ‘pro-bro’ culture.

The anonymous respondent said: “The client/agency relationship is pro-bro. Even though every single account person and client in the room is a woman. Somehow, the more older and more senior creative and account people in there act like a bro.”

Megan Averell, founder of The Insight Inn, the company that conducted the research, says the culture of ‘bro’ is being driven in large part by the “cult of personality” around creative directors. “The agency’s dependence on (financially) and therefore, reverence of those positions mean power is really concentrated with the executive creative director, who is almost always a man.”

Women in the advertising industry are being held back because they can’t bring their true selves to work. The culture of ‘bro’ manifests itself in so many ways, from seemingly harmless raucous humor to downright bad behavior towards co-workers. Fueled by the pressurized environment in agencies, the always-on client-serving culture favors the fearless.

And while that culture may reap rewards in terms of Cannes Lions hauls, it’s toxic for women. Take, for instance, the stats from the Elephant on Madison Avenue survey that nine out of 10 women have heard demeaning comments from male colleagues, and that just one in four women feel they have had the same opportunities as men.

Out of character

More worryingly, the survey also found a sense of ‘otherness’, different from the ‘agency fit’, can be damaging to women’s careers — 29% felt personal characteristics had affected their career choices.

Another theme to emerge from the accompanying qualitative research was that women were putting on ‘masculine hats’ and taking on certain behavioral traits to be taken seriously. This sense of women not being able to be true to themselves in the workplace was vocalized by one respondent who said: “I had to change who I was in order to survive. Everything was a battle. I had to yell at people all the time because I was being yelled at all the time. I didn’t even know who I was anymore.”

Conversely, even for women adopting more masculine traits such as assertiveness, the same rules don’t always apply. One of the interviewees described the conundrum: “When you are assertive you are a bitch. He’s a leader, even if that assertiveness is executed as an emotional child, having a tantrum. We’re not allowed to do that as women.”

Charlie Hurrell of MullenLowe London, who describers herself as a managing director, mum, wife and ‘professional plate spinner’, isn’t surprised by the findings. “There have been so many brilliant women in advertising whose success is an inspiration. But how often has this been the result of presenting an inauthentic, masculine version of themselves to play the men at their own game? And at what cost to their wellbeing and relationships?”

Things may be about to change, however, according to Hurrell. “A rising generation of female leaders are challenging the masculine definition of success by being more true to themselves and what makes women different. That’s different, not inferior.

“It’s difficult, though. I have a lot of sympathy with the fact that the research shows different rules often apply to women than to men. The classically more ‘feminine’ behavioral traits are not valued and can act as an actual block to career progression, so they get pushed down and hidden, which is a travesty.”

Roxanne Hobbs, founder of The Hobbs Consultancy which coaches companies on leadership and inclusion, says feminine qualities are often overlooked because leadership models have traditionally been founded on masculine traits such as power, control, dominance and reason. “As a result, we expect our leaders to show these traits, so when someone comes along with more feminine traits, such as collaboration, empathy, vulnerability, intuition, these aren’t recognized as valid leadership traits.”

Hobbs says this affects both men and women negatively, as the constructs of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are cultural, not biological. “It is just as possible for a man to be really competent at feminine leadership traits as a woman. Both men and women who model these traits are told that they need to act differently. And interestingly, many leaders are beginning to realize that these ‘feminine’ leadership skills are going to be the ones that are really needed in the 21st century.”

The courageous choice

So what can be done to tackle the culture of ‘pro-bro’? Both Hurrell and Hobbs are of the opinion that the world needs to redress what it means to be a successful leader. This could mean both women and men embracing more so-called ‘feminine’ traits. As outlined in her Ted talk on vulnerability, Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, argues that being vulnerable is actually the courageous choice because it involves admitting you’re not sure or need help.

Hobbs believes that the sooner businesses recognize humans are emotional beings, the better: “If we say there’s no room for emotion in the office we cut out a huge part of ourselves. We cannot drive long term behavioral change if we’re not thinking about the emotions that sit behind our behaviors. We are human. Male emotion is allowed, so why isn’t female emotion? Men are allowed to bang phones on the table and swear. But women aren’t allowed to cry? Please.”

Men also have work to do in understanding the issue and empathizing with female counterparts to redress cultures dominated by the cult of ‘bro’. Hurrell says: “Change will come from men being part of this debate around not allowing ‘bro culture’ dominate. Jamie Elliott, my previous chief exec, said being the only man in the room at a meeting made him feel very exposed and that was a really poignant moment or him. If more men can truly empathize with what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry, change might be more forthcoming.”

This article was originally published in the Q4 edition of The Drum's US magazine.

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