Talent has no gender: Taking action at the 3% Conference

By Lindsay Rowe
VP Client Engagement & Strategy

October 28, 2015
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Only 3% of Creative Directors are women. 

That percentage has increased, but only marginally, since The 3% Conference was launched in 2012.

Through a mix of content, community and professional development, we’ve helped raise the number of female CDs to 11% while giving agencies a clear road map of ways to champion female creative talent and leadership.

This two-day annual conference aims to bring awareness and prompt change in an industry filled with women, but still overwhelmingly governed by men. After attending this week’s fall 2015 3% Conference in New York City, I reflected on my personal experiences working in the creative industry and how I’ve championed change for myself.

At previously held position — a role designed specifically for me within an agency creative department — I saw the challenges women face first hand. While I had the support of my amazing boss, his male colleagues on other teams couldn’t see beyond my gender. For instance, my work was good enough to be presented, but not by me. Instead, they selected a man to speak the words I’d written or explain the ideas I’d come up with.

Here are a few other micro-aggressions I encountered while in that role:

  • I was asked if I could perhaps “work on my voice.” (Sorry. I sound like a woman because I am one.)
  • I was asked to purchase more “slacks.” (But I simply prefer dresses.)
  • I was told that people complained about the business development process being “hard” with me in the lead. (Yes, it is incredibly hard to win millions of dollars of business away from other agencies that are aggressively trying to win millions of dollars of business. Something tells me it shouldn’t be easy.)

In truth, did it really matter if I wore pants to client meetings more often? Would it really kill me to use a more serious tone (in which my voice naturally deepens) when speaking to clients?

Probably not, I thought. But, making those changes, however subtle, made me feel inauthentic, and that feeling was a huge barrier to me doing good work.

When those concerns came to a head at my previous agency, I had to decide how I wanted to respond to some of the feedback I’d received. I felt that I could either acquiesce, or come up with alternative actions.

I decided to instead be aware of how people might perceive me while being completely unapologetic and confident in who I was and my work. Because for me, trying to be less feminine just isn’t who I am, and not being who I truly am means not doing the work that got me my job in the first place.

So I chose to stay unmistakably female and take a more confident stance whenever possible:

  • I still spoke in my same voice, but whenever possible, I sat at the head of the table.
  • I was still aggressive when I needed things from my colleagues, but I no longer made jokes about it or put smiley faces at the bottom of emails in which I was demanding better or different work.
  • I stopped discussing how I or anyone else felt a pitch was going, or whether or not they or I were frustrated or tired. When people expressed their feelings about a pitch, I responded with the straightforward facts of our situation and next steps, and explained the winning stakes in financial terms.

For me, these small changes seemed to resolve the issue. Confidence was the key and maybe it had been the real issue all along, but the feedback that I’d received was simply what people perceived as the root of the problem – dressing like girl, talking like a girl.


The 3% Movement isn’t about addressing a gender issue, but rather an industry and organizational issue that negatively affects everyone – either directly or indirectly.

If creative teams fail to give voice, power and fair compensation to the gender that makes up more than half the population and makes the majority of purchasing decisions, then families with women as the dominant or sole earner become disadvantaged, we become an industry that won’t inspire our best and brightest to join it, and we’re likely to miss out on some of the greatest and most creative work.

In short, agencies that make this shift in how their creative departments are represented will win. In turn, their brand-side clients will win.

At the 3% Conference, I heard the opinions of some of the industry’s leading minds. Here are a few of the quotes that most resonated with me.

1. On women being perceived as emotional in the workplace:

“Stop saying sorry. Stop crying to express anger and instead lightly tip over the copier machine.” – Janet Champ, Switzerland, Inc.

2. On confronting gender bias in the workplace:

“Find a stable balance between empathy and tenacity.” – Jessica English, Electronic Arts

3. On mentoring tomorrow’s creative leaders:

“I’m inspired by young creatives because they are oblivious to some of the challenges they face and that actually helps them. They have tunnel vision.” – Jessica Coulter, BBDO New York

4. On how to drive change:

“Modern Feminism must include men.” – Shelley Zalis, TFQ Ventures, The Girls’ Lounge

5. On taking risks:

“If you’re not trying to get fired every day, you’re not doing your job.” – Judy John, Leo Burnett

Game on. 

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