Why good men don't realize bad things are happening in their agencies

“It’s an isolated incident.”

“He was just a bad apple.”

“That used to happen, but it doesn’t anymore.”

Response to the recent harassment suit at JWT has revealed a major divide. Between those who see the pervasiveness of the problem and those who are incredulous that it could be anything more than a one-off problem.

You know who’s not divided? Women.

In research conducted last summer by The 3% Conference, 23 per cent of ad women reported they had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment. Worse, they reported in only 8 per cent of the cases that the perpetrator was punished.

That concludes the official research stuff.

Now let’s move on to the unofficial stuff: the emails I receive regularly, almost like a confessional for bad behavior in the ad world.

From women who were let go after announcing a pregnancy.

Who were invited at the last-minute to a pitch and told not to talk but to look pretty.

And who were sent texts saying "Who’s going to believe you? I’m an exalted creative director and you didn’t even go to portfolio school" from an executive creative director who turned a job interview into prom night.

It’s ugly stuff. And just because men in charge – many of them the best men out there – aren’t aware it happens, doesn’t mean it doesn’t.

It does. With alarming frequency.

Three years ago, on the stage of The 3% Conference, there was a moment that speaks volumes. Watch it. I’ll wait.

Worth noting: these are four of the best male creative leaders we’ve got in the ad world. They’re on stage as 'manbassadors' and deserve the praise. Yet when moderator Xanthe Wells, CCO at Pitch, asks about sexism in their agencies, they feel it’s something that "used to happen".

God love Xanthe Wells for how she fielded this grenade. She could have let it roll across the floor and left the pin in. But she gently reminded the men that their senior status means that others perform for them – and even hide things – and that she knows for a fact that sexism and anti-woman sentiment is very much a thing of the present. The crowd audibly concurs.

So if even the good guys don’t know it’s happening, what do we do?

For starters, enough with the policies. Let’s talk enforcement. Every agency has an anti-harassment policy. Yet it’s in the enforcement of those policies that things fall apart.

Agencies plan for fires. They rehearse for earthquakes. They’re ready for heart attacks in the conference room and even terrorist attacks in the lobby.

But what they don’t prepare for are moments when the threat is inside the company and quite possibly in the corner office. For when a charge of sexual harassment is leveled, it’s a keystone cop routine. And unpreparedness demonstrates the belief that it’s a distant threat, not a particularly dangerous one, and not worthy of a chain of command that will back up what the HR guide so clearly states in Times New Roman.

Enough with the finger pointing between holding company moguls. Let’s all admit that no agency or holding company is above reproach. Sexual harassment happens everywhere. Accountability for what we do when it happens – now that’s where the juice is. One of the key reasons 3% launched an agency certification program this year was to move from intentionality into accountability.

It’s time for every agency to admit the hard truth that sexual harassment is still alive and well in 2016. And only if we weed it out, case by case, will we create an atmosphere where "zero tolerance" means something.

Kat Gordon is the founder and CEO of The 3% Conference. The Drum's own Women in Marketing research revealed 60 per cent of female marketers have experienced sexism in the workplace. Read it here.

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