Women in marketing: how to power forward when ageism holds us back

Season 4 of 43% and Rising – the podcast about women in marketing – starts now.

New episodes will drop every Tuesday, so please do listen and subscribe on your preferred podcast platform, and invite your friends to listen too. Also, please drop me a line if there’s anyone you think would be a great guest.

Throughout the recording of the new season, one topic repeatedly came up in every conversation: age.

It struck me how our industry somehow manages to deliver fresh obstacles for women at every single life stage.

It’s like gendered discrimination whack-a-mole – every time you achieve a level of confidence and proficiency, you age up and a whole new set of problems spring out of the ground.

So the question is ‘How do we break down these barriers, create a fairer system, and empower women in our industry to keep rising up and doing amazing work?’

Starting out

What’s work like after you’ve got your foot in the door? The answer isn’t as simple as it should be.

Olivia Mae Hanlon (Founder and CEO of Girls in Marketing) spoke in her episode about how hiring a talented but inexperienced 19-year-old felt deeply against the grain of typical hiring practices, despite it being a fantastic decision she has never looked back on.

Likewise, Raina Roberts (Sales Director at StackAdapt) talked about self-deprecation in mostly male spaces in her early career, recognising her own tendency to minimise her great ideas in group settings.

With Olivia Day (SEO Lead at DigitalLoft), the conversation focused on the pressure to adopt a work persona and appear older and more authoritative in leadership situations, taking a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ approach to beat imposter syndrome.

And as Clair Heaviside (Co-Founder and Creative Director at Serotonin) notes in her episode, it can be difficult when you’re starting out to know what a good working culture looks like or what expectations you can rightfully have – especially when there’s pressure to join in with a boozy, blokey culture in order to get ahead.

It all comes down to a fear of being judged ‘too young’ – either to take the lead, manage a team, or even run a successful business. Early success, it seems, does not always translate to being taken seriously at work.

Climbing the ladder

As we move into our 30s, the next challenge rears its ugly head – fertility.

The ticking time bomb of potential fertility and maternity leave, and the often devastating impact this has on a woman’s career progression and earning potential, means that the question of whether or not to have children is very often a loaded one for women in the workplace.

Of course, it’s not all bad news – Maria Winn (CMO at Mitie) is testament to that, successfully founding her own business and then taking the helm of a national marketing department after her own maternity leave.

But as Olivia Mae Hanlon notes in her episode, there’s still a real need for workplaces that genuinely accommodate women’s lives and responsibilities. With the average woman taking on so much unpaid care work, proper maternity leave, flexible working and childcare provision are still too hard to come by.

Reaching the top

Just as you reach the apex of all your accumulated expertise, a new horror is waiting: ageism against our most experienced women.

The workplace taboo against menopause is only just beginning to be broken down, and more needs to be done to normalise talking about the menopause and the challenges it can create for women at work.

And then there’s the ageism against older female founders like Cindy Gallop (Founder and CEO of MakeLoveNotPorn) – even with the best business idea in the world, you’re going to struggle to secure funding against younger male counterparts.

It’s no wonder, as Cindy points out, that we now have a mass exodus of our most experienced women from the ad industry, as they become worn down by the years of misogyny, discrimination and harassment.

It’s a bit bleak – how do we change that?

We are all contending with deeply entrenched structural issues that make our lives more difficult than they need to be, operating within a system that wasn’t built by us or for us. And – as with all problems of a complex nature – there isn’t a straightforward answer.

Most of the guests this season are creating incremental change from within the industry.

Maria Winn for example shares her advice on gaining commercial savvy through a breadth of experiences across a business; growing in confidence, getting comfortable being herself at work and becoming an expert in the art of tricky stakeholder management.

Likewise, Clair Heaviside broke free from traditional ad industry culture and founded her own agency so her team could feel comfortable and at ease in a truly creative environment.

And Raina Roberts and Olivia Day are both committed to pushing themselves out of their comfort zones and seizing the opportunities that amplify their voices.

Some guests endorse something a little more drastic – like Cindy Gallop, whose advice is to ‘get the fuck out’ of an industry that is rotten from the top down and build something for yourself instead.

Either way, I think it’s safe to say we’re all getting tired of pretending that the issues aren’t there – or that they can be solved by women alone.

For me, the best thing we can all do is simply to keep talking about it. Women at every age must keep sharing their experiences, wisdom, and frustrations – and let’s see how many other people we can bring along with us.

Season 4 of 43% and Risinglisten and subscribe now.

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(Header photo: Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash)