Published in Jan-Feb 2022
I am fully aware that this article may get me cancelled, especially as it may be up on the internet forever and someone will eventually read it and think it the kind of inappropriate antiquated thinking that is the downfall of the Pakistani ad industry. My apologies in advance.
However, as a air quotes mad man, I can’t help but notice that women don’t have it easy in our nook of the woods. They are misunderstood, misrepresented, misjudged and… (insert cringe pun about Miss Advertising here). See what I did here? That, my fellow gentlemen, is how we inadvertently trivialise the firebrand women working in our industry. They become the butt of jokes, intended or otherwise, and are subject to constant sexism.
Thus, I decided to pick up on some common traps that men fall into and how to avoid them. Lest you hear about this from your female colleague and assume that she is just letting her hormones get to her (see? I did it again!), let me lay it out for you, so you don’t taint this advice with gendered skepticism. Here are 18 happens-in-every-agency moments you should be extra careful about.
1. What harm is there in paying an innocent compliment?
Inherently there’s nothing wrong in telling someone they look good. However, given the spotty track record men have with women in the workplace, it’s better to keep conversations as professional as possible. What may be a passing remark might be construed as an uncomfortable situation by the person you are addressing.
2. How are things going with your husband/fiancé/boyfriend?
They are how they are, and you shouldn’t butt into a couple’s private life unless they have initiated that conversation. Asking women about their significant other is a landmine; it will seem like you are fishing for cracks in the relationship, even if that is not your intent.
3. Let’s meet after work to sort this out?
How about no? Let’s keep work at work and not embark on an off-site adventure that may put the woman in an awkward spot. Given our cultural dynamics, a casual catch-up at the coffee shop can be perceived by others as inappropriate.
4. Use your womanly charm to sell the idea.
This one is a legacy piece from the Mad Men days of advertising show-and-tell when client-facing women were treated as more show and less tell. The mad woman is not a decorative item, and she won’t become a patsy for substandard ideas.
5. Man up and deal with it.
More than just in advertising circles, the thought process that women are somehow emotionally weaker and therefore break down more easily than men, is wrong. If a person is pushed to their limits, gender has nothing to do with it. Fix the process, or fix your expectations.
6. Why aren’t you married yet?
So that I don’t have to deal with sleazeballs like you on a day-to-day basis, but unfortunately this conversation is forcing me to do it. Asking about someone’s marital status is a big no-no, but not many men have received the memo yet. Don’t worry about it at the interview stage and leave it alone during work as well.
7. Sex sells. Let’s integrate a beautiful woman to spruce up this campaign.
It sucks that sex sells, especially in our part of the world, where random billboards by big brands have nothing but a pretty girl holding up a product. However, forcing that reality on a woman, who may feel strongly about challenging this norm, is just plain cruel.
8. Don’t be such a feminist about it.
Wait. Just because she’s a woman you label her a feminist? And even if she is, it’s a set of beliefs she subscribes to, and who are you to coerce her into thinking differently? How would you feel if someone questioned your beliefs? It’s best not to throw around this accusation around, willy-nilly.
9. This is your kind of brief.
We often put people in a box according to preconceived notions. In this case, when you put a woman in a box alongside detergents, cooking and other such ‘homemaker’ brands, you do yourself a disservice. Insight mining is different, but prescribing briefs according to gender is not just bad for work culture, it’s bad for business.
10. LinkedIn connects.
Luring women into non-work-related conversations by dangling prospective jobs or projects has been exposed on Pakistani LinkedIn name-and-shame posts now and then. Reaching out to someone for work is fine, just don’t derail the conversation to the personal domain.
11. DMing forwarded messages and ‘funny’ content.
The jokes and memes you think are funny may not land as well for the woman you are sending them to. A harmless forward, (according to you) is another unwelcome advance for her. If it’s so interesting, send it to the whole group, why don’t you?
12. We work long hours. Is that okay?
Two problems here. First, why would you think she is any less of a ‘hard worker’ than any other applicant. Just because she is a woman, do you think she won’t be as career-oriented as men? Secondly, and more importantly, fix your work culture. Long hours are bad for productivity, period. For both men and women.
13. The lead on the client side is also a woman, so you will get along fine.
People are more than their gender. They have personalities, styles and a unique view of life. Lumping two people together because they belong to the same gender and assuming it will be a winning relationship on that basis alone? Wishful thinking.
14. Where’s your dupatta?
Unless there is a strict dress code that is communicated before a woman joins, it is never a good idea to dictate what a woman should or should not wear. Don’t force her to wear the dupatta, and don’t force her to wear ‘modern clothes’ either. In case you have such draconian policies, it may be time to rethink them.
15. Good girls don’t smoke.
And idiot men don’t judge. Then again, we are both bucking the trend here, aren’t we? It is never a bright idea to impose your version of cultural norms on a woman who is already subjected to a hundred different expectations, thanks to our patriarchal society.
16. Will your SO be okay with this?
The woman you are talking to is a rational individual with her own preferences. She isn’t subject to the approval of her significant other. Even if she is, it’s because that is what she wants, not necessarily because she is tied to the permissions of her partner. Avoid this line of questioning.
17. Are you on your ‘special’ week?
Yes, for these five days, she’s especially allergic to inappropriate conversation. This one is a double-edged sword. Because menstruation is such a taboo topic in our society, you will not know whether the woman in question appreciates your being extra considerate or not. The safer route is to avoid the topic unless it’s initiated by the other party.
18. This is the industry culture.
Ugh. I have been trying to shake this so-called advertising culture label for a while. Is it necessary that women (all people actually) in the media and advertising be perceived as alcohol-fuelled rambunctious party-hards? Freethinker doesn’t translate to ‘loose character’, and even if it does, why do you care?
Political correctness, as Mad Men has shown us, is a by-product of the zeitgeist. It could also be that by pointing these things out, I may be making a massive blunder. I may be guilty of making some of these faux pas myself. I am willing to take the risk. If you want to ostracise me from the old boys’ club, now is the time. Meanwhile, be nicer to the women around you. You will find that walking in their shoes may not be as comfortable as you think. Oh no, I did it again… didn’t I?
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.