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Where Are the Women (Redux)

by Farrah Bostic on August 7, 2012

The truth is, this topic makes me physically exhausted.

And cranky – have I mentioned how cranky I become when this topic comes up?  My boyfriend asked if I’d read something about Marissa Mayer by Dave McClure, and I snapped at him that I didn’t give a shit what Dave McClure thinks about Marissa Mayer, and that I didn’t really care about Marissa Mayer, or the color pink, either (color choices for this blog notwithstanding).

In that moment I thought, maybe he’s a better feminist than I am.

Maybe it’s the Olympics and the Mars Curiosity Rover and all the women who are leading both wins; maybe it is Marissa Mayer; maybe it’s the fact that a few good men are beginning to actively call for women’s participation in tech.  Maybe it’s that I’ve started a digital innovation strategy business and I keep getting asked if I’d like a job when I HAVE STARTED A DIGITAL INNOVATION STRATEGY BUSINESS.  I’m busy.  I have clients and family obligations and a sprained back and I thought we already covered this.

I mean, come on, 4As.  I know it’s the CreateTech conference. And I know that the ad business, already fairly Luddite when it comes to women, believes women in tech are vanishingly few (in the same way they believe women who are funny, or women who deserve a creative director’s title are vanishingly rare).  Still, fifteen percent participation of women on the speaker’s dais is not enough.  Seven percent representation of women on the committee roster is definitely not enough.  Why an organization would think that would be enough, when they’d already been given a hard time, TWICE, about industry events they’d hosted with not enough women, is beyond me.

This is the industry organization that is supposed to represent the advertising industry – to our peers, to government, to our clients.  These events are aimed at inspiring us, uniting us, recognizing our creativity and strategy, creating community and promoting progress.  But the ‘us’ in the equation is decidedly male, usually white, and often over 40.  I like white men over 40, don’t get me wrong. I’m related to some white men over 40. But they’re not inspiring me in this industry anymore, they represent an old guard of a struggling business model, and they’d be wise to be more inclusive of diverse perspectives and people.

[Oh, and some of them, as my female peers can attest, are downright disgusting.]

I considered emailing the conference organizer directly, but then I was stopped by imagining the excuses I’m so used to hearing: there aren’t as many female creative technologists; we asked everyone we could think of; the only woman we’ve ever heard of couldn’t make it.  Last year I fought these responses to get more women on the dais, more women judges, more women participating in the 4As Strategy Festival, and felt we’d made some progress.  The thought of repeating the fight again this year was… annoying*.

I mentioned this to a couple of my men friends.  The response: “I really don’t know any women who are creative technologists.”

But that sentence needs unpacking: “I really don’t know any women who are creative technologists.”  What does that mean?

  • Does it mean, “I don’t know any women”?
  • Does it mean, “I don’t know any women who are creative technologists in advertising”?
  • Does it mean, “I don’t know any women who are creative technologists like me”?
  • Does it mean, “I don’t know any women who are this one specific kind of creative technologist that I think they meant when they coined the term, even though lots of people call themselves creative technologists who are not that”?

So I tried something.  I said, somewhat huffily, “Don’t think of your ideal of what a creative tech is – look at the list of men who’ve been invited to be on the committee or the dais, and think of women who do what they do, or are at least as smart as they are about tech and advertising.”

A few seconds later he’d sent me the LinkedIn Profile of Christy King, the VP Digital, Technology R&D for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. So yeah, not only did he know of a woman who is a creative technologist, she does her work in a business that defines ass-kicking, and she’s in a hard-core technology role.  She just doesn’t work in an ad agency.

My initial reaction was, see was that so hard??

Look, there aren’t many creative technologists in the world of advertising; we couldn’t actually do a 2-day conference with the half-dozen pure CTs in the business.  So the conference organizers broadened the scope to look for “tech-makers and tech-thinkers” in that world.  Yet, if the scope is broader than the half dozen serious app developers in senior roles who work in agencies, then it should start to sweep up the many women who are both tech-makers and tech-thinkers.

I personally have a list of women, many of whom would qualify; and I’m sure if I ask more people, there’ll be more suggestions.  But in order to get these recommendations, we have to frame it as I did above – look at THESE men, and suggest a woman who does what they do.  Not your ideal of creative technologists, not the female version of you, and not a VP-level, female codemonkey CT who works in an old school agency.  In other words, suggest women who are like these men.  Suggest women who exist**.

Because the moral of this story is this:  Women are being evaluated against unicorns, not against men.

And that’s why there are so few visible women in tech.


* Almost as annoying as seeing that this year’s 4As Strategy Festival theme is remarkably similar to the theme of the workshop I gave at the Festival last year, though I was not asked to participate as a speaker or organizer by the 4As this year.  Despite that, a lovely man, Faris Yakob, suggested to the chair of the Creative Technology committee that I be asked to be a judge for the Strategy Festival awards this year, for which there is, at least, decent gender parity among the judges.

** When I spoke wth the organizer of the Planningness conference before the 2011 event, the response to my criticisms of a dearth of women speakers was hyper-specificity: “yes, but do you know women who are experts in game design, systems thinking, network theory?”  It seemed like a test – but it was one that was remarkably easy to pass.  That’s because when you get specific about what you’re looking for, it gets EASIER to find a woman like that.  She actually stops being a mythical creature and becomes a person with a resume, a career, an education.  Give me the parameters, and the variable to solve for is now, often, just the name.



1 Max September 5, 2012 at 8:38 pm

I don’t give a crap if where new technology comes from, who comes up with the great idea, or what proportion of women are involved in tech.

Do what you love, and stop over-thinking everything. If you don’t love being a creative or technology, then don’t do it. If the opposite is true, your ideas will be judged and appreciated on their merits, not on your gender.

2 Annie Castellano August 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Thank you for writing this, and for fighting for change.

Will you be at the 3% conference in September?

3 Allison Kent-Smith August 13, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Nice post. I have a unique role as Director of Digital Development at GSP (soon to launch my own digital/tech education company smith & beta). All I do, all day long, is source the best industry talent for teaching the best classes, workshops, and education experiences. I’ve done this for years. Starting at CP+B, launch of BDW, GSP, and now for myself. There are many women that should be recognized, invited, noted, and ASKED to participate in these conferences. The advertising industry is not where you look. That’s not where the talent is going and for good reasons. It’s unfortunate and we need to EVOLVE. This conference is yet another good example. There are many “creative technologists” – why don’t we start with truly defining the ever-evolving role. It’s now less about code and more about strategy, behavior, and the possibility. I’m happy to add some names to your list, along with my own. Keep up these posts, it’s good for all of us!

4 Nancy Hill August 8, 2012 at 5:30 pm

and, the speaker list has changed (as it will continue to do until the day of the conference) just as it always does. don’t think that this isn’t constantly on my mind. appreciate you calling us out, but want you to have all the information:


5 Nancy Hill August 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm

you have no idea just how exhausting it is…


6 Farrah Bostic August 9, 2012 at 12:44 am

Nancy, I appreciate the struggle – I hear the exact same issues with getting women to speak at conferences in the tech and startup scenes as well. In fact, I’d guess it is the same set of issues getting women to mentor, chair committees, sit on awards juries, speak at conferences, program conferences in every industry.

What I’d offer up however is this – the starting list of women might be, well, flawed. It might be names that are really tough gets – that are the same handful of women who *always* get asked. It might be that you don’t have enough names to compensate for the cancellation rate. And it might be that you need people outside your existing committees (who have no doubt already committed to too much) to help you get a speaker’s list of people who aren’t necessarily all regulars on the speaker’s circuit, or don’t have a new book out, but who are impressive innovators and charismatic speakers who could inspire and intrigue your conference attendees.

And then it might be that women speakers in this industry, because (especially agency side) they are underrepresented at conferences, need a bit more nurturing and development to get up on a stage and speak in front of their peers. A commitment to getting more women and overall diversity takes work – Rachel Sklar can tell you it’s not easy, but the work is so worth it.

I don’t care about this issue only, or even mostly, for my own needs. I care about this because I used to be in love with this industry, and because I mentor women who are in love with it the way I once was. I had a boss once, who when he hired me said that he didn’t want to be the guy who got in the way of my dream. I don’t want to get in the way of these women’s dream, so what I’m saying to you is – PLEASE let me, or Diane, or Cindy, or Colleen help you and the 4As and these committees get better at this. We can help.

7 Diane Cook-Tench August 7, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Farrah, great rant. I’m sad to learn that this conference was run the same way as so many in the past have been run, and by past I mean even those ad conferences run 10 or 20 years ago. I like white men over 40, too. Still, at times they seem to be rather fixated on themselves and their worth at a cost to their firms not to mention their personal education and growth.
There are more women than men in the business in the US. There are also more women who’ve graduated with degrees in marketing for a very long time now. More and more clients are decidedly female. There should be no trouble finding young female CT’s in advertising or out of it. The VCU Brandcenter has graduated many. Looking to these young women CT’s with just a few years experience, will produce exciting speakers, too.
Before launching the Brandcenter, I worked as a creative supervisor and was also the youngest member of The Martin Agency’s Board of Directors. At the time, the only woman in a group of 10 people – a group of white guys over 40. Initially, I turned them down. I didn’t think they’d want me there because I’d tell them the truth. They insisted that that was the reason they’d asked me to join the Board in the first place. So, I joined. There were about 600 employees and the floodgates of agency women with issues opened up. Many women felt that they’d had no real voice before. When I presented some of the issues that had bubbled up to the other board members, they were greeted with surprise. Few of Board had considered that there were problems with female staff members. I pointed out that every member of the Board other than me was married to a woman who stayed home full-time to manage their families and create comfortable homes for them. I’d always dreamed of having a wife but it was just a dream.
The men didn’t work weekend after weekend only to come home to dirty laundry, no food in the house or a sick, and a needy child. In many basic ways they didn’t lead that life and simply didn’t consider its day-to-day consequences.
Like many ad women, the women of the agency balanced tough schedules, lots of long distance meetings, weeks away on production trips, and more. No one at the top of the firm thought twice about asking these women to pull back-to-back all nighters even though so many were raising small children, some as single mothers. Flash forward a few years and nothing is all that different today.
Until the industry seriously looks for ways to help all its employees find a bit more balance, women are going to leave it. They also won’t make time for conferences because the cost to their small amount of personal time is too great. Lack of time and balance made me decide to pursue an academic path. My boss, Mike Hughes was shocked and wondered aloud why I’d leave. I was at the height of my career, why would I want to leave?
I thought it was a no-brainer. I had a chance to take 15 years of knowledge and do something new with it in an environment that wasn’t dependent on massive travel, weekends spent working at the office, and client issues.
I’d encourage anyone to take advantage of your great early years and experiences. Get creative with more than client work; get creative with your life and career.
Today, my youngest daughter is in college and I’ve just launched my own communications firm. I’ve got another big startup idea that I’m pursuing and I’ll use everything I’ve learned from my time in the industry and my time connected to top industry professionals and the school’s talented alumni to make it work. There are wonderful people in advertising. Some of them happen to be men. Many happen to be women. I’m thankful to all of them for the education and help they’ve given all the school’s students and me over the years. You’re so bright Farrah. You’re connected to so many sharp people. I am excited to see where all of it takes you next. Hopefully, it won’t be to one of these maddening conferences.

8 Kat Gordon August 7, 2012 at 1:20 pm

A worthy rant, Farrah. Posts like yours have convinced me to start a resource for female creative directors to make themselves decidedly “findable” so there is no excuse not to invite them to serve on award juries, as conference speakers, and as interviewees for ECD jobs. We will be adding a Directory feature to The 3% Conference website soon.

As for the 4A’s, I do want to point out that they were an early supporter of The 3% Conference and their CEO, Nancy Hill, is speaking at our event. I applaud you for keeping them — and our entire industry — accountable.

9 Martin August 7, 2012 at 2:24 am

I have worked client side for years and still marvel at how agencies only see themselves in the equation. While women remain vastly undervalued and under represented at many organizations I can report strong and dedicated (to the digital and social revolutions) working in banks, telecoms, technology, alcohol and food companies. Agencies only see themselves and quite frankly clients notice the navel gazing. Want to find the creative tech leaders of both the now and the then? Stop looking in your own industry.

10 Farrah Bostic August 7, 2012 at 9:11 am

Martin, YES. How many times have any of us sat in a room where the client is a woman or team of (mostly) women, and the senior agency team is (mostly) men? I know many women who, when ‘mommy-tracked’ on the agency side skipped to the client and enjoyed great success. And the navel gazing is an enormous problem for the industry (and one with slightly more complex underpinnings than mere ego, but still) – it’s as if people in the industry had never heard of anyone outside it.

And to be honest, I find myself questioning the wisdom of spending more than $1000 to attend a conference where not only women will be in the minority, but likely clients will be in the minority as well. There’s limited new business value, as much as there is limited new idea value. Agencies talking to other agencies tends to have a reinforcing effect, not a revolutionizing one.

Maybe this is why clients have been flocking to SXSW, CES, TED, etc.

If you have suggestions of women on the client side who are doing great digital work, I would LOVE to add them to the list of #adwomentowatch.

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