Girls Do Cry. And Guess What? That's OK
"Advertising either makes you mighty or it kills you … Tears at work should signal passion, commitment and humanity, not weakness." —from Seducing the Boys Club by Nina DiSesa, the first woman chairman of McCann Erickson New York
When I started my ad agency in 1996, I read Nina DiSesa's book. It had such an enormous impact on me that I still recommend it today to young women striving to make it in the world of advertising.
While it's primarily a guide for how to work in a male-dominated industry, what it really taught me was how important it was for women to embrace our "womanness," how to meld our so-called feminine characteristics—nurturing, compassion, intuition and listening—with the celebrated traits of our male counterparts—among them, competitiveness, decisiveness and combativeness—and still be very successful.
But as an agency CEO, I ask myself: How exactly do I teach this? How do I empower my team to understand the concept, albeit foreign, of embracing our feminine side and at the same time fighting for what we want? From my experience, supporting women in the workplace can take many forms, but ultimately it is about creating an environment that allows women to show up to work fully as themselves.
At our agency, creating a safe space for women is essential to the mental health of our whole team. Every agency today likes to crow about its culture of cool, with bean bag chairs, ping-pong tables and beer on tap. (We have two out of three of those.) But are we as an industry—one known for its long hours, creative-on-demand and speed-to-market—really committing to the mental health of our people, especially women? Are we giving women the space to embrace that which makes them uniquely powerful, to embrace all those traits like nurturing, compassion, intuition and listening?
When leaders prioritize authenticity, vulnerability and a space for working and collaborating that provides psychological safety, we can make not just better places to work, but also better advertising. In an industry that has always trended toward the masculine, I would contend that it's beyond time we leaned into our feminine side.
What does that mean? Well, let's start by telling women it's OK to cry. It doesn't make us weak. Rather, it gets it all out: the frustration, the sadness, the anger, the empathy. We are seeing a shift in agencies beginning to offer more inclusive benefits and spaces for women, and while this is a positive trend, a lactation room alone will not solve this problem. As leaders we need to be mindful that the culture within our walls matches the one we highlight on our websites.
For example, a small group of our employees, men and women, recently gathered to talk about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We wanted to know: How did we feel about it? How should we respond? Should we respond at all? During the meeting, women cried. They felt safe, nurtured, comforted. They were not judged for being vulnerable and raw.
That is the culture that I strive to foster. Three in four of my workforce is made up of women. Mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, all needing a work environment that allows them to meld the feminine and the masculine without completely burning out or going utterly insane. Agencies still have so far to go, however.
Building a business led by women, made up mostly of women, and where classically feminine traits are encouraged and celebrated, not suppressed, creates a positive employee experience all the way around, for women and men alike. It's not just the right thing to do—it's also business imperative.
Whether they are ready to admit it or not, agencies that make women check their femininity at the door will struggle to keep up with the audiences they are trying to reach. Our job as advertisers is to connect with people, and advertisers that keep women at an arm's length in their offices will inevitably distance themselves from consumers that identify with those women.
When women feel safe to share feelings and unburdened with the responsibility to mask themselves in masculinity, the work will get better. When women are free to be themselves, we can lead more powerfully, create more passionately, and approach situations more intuitively. The collaboration among teams, the energy throughout the office space and the output of work will improve every time.
Let women arrive fully. Give them room to feel, and sometimes, to cry. Your agency will be all the better for it.