No longer anonymous: the Australian creative industry is a misogynist’s playground

This article is based on lived experience. It references emotional abuse, grooming, sexual assault and rape within the Australian creative industry. It refers to data from reputable sources that can be referenced throughout.

If you or someone you care about needs support, please contact 1800 RESPECT at 1800 737 732. In an emergency, call 000.

Writer Ella Campbell takes a stand and sends a message to Australia's advertising culture.

The time for anonymity is over. We must be brave. Australian advertising culture has to change. A report released earlier this month by shEqual, gently titled ‘Perceptions of Gender Equality in Australian Advertising’, has unearthed some truly damning findings about our industry.

The report highlights that women are still experiencing sexual harassment, assault and discrimination in the workplace at disturbingly high rates. To make matters worse, we are also highly likely to encounter negative consequences for speaking up against this behaviour.

The promise of repercussion lingers like a bad dream just beyond the email to HR. Will I lose my job? Be shunned by the team? What will happen to my reputation? These are very real and very terrifying thoughts to confront when you’re being tormented in a place that’s legally meant to keep you safe.

shEqual’s findings are further emphasised in Mumbrella’s 2017 series of interviews, with women who experienced sexual harassment in creative workplaces, and Cindy Gallop’s emails filled with ‘appalling’ stories from women around the world. All those who were interviewed by Mumbrella or contacted Gallop remained anonymous, out of fear of the consequences.

I would have done the same. I was filled with fear for so long that I could barely move. In fact, I have remained anonymous for years. Not speaking up publicly, not talking openly. This was a natural response to a threatening situation.

That time has passed. After all I’ve experienced, I don’t care much about the supposed ‘negative consequences’ or what some men and women will likely think of me for writing this. It’s time for me to speak my truth, because I can’t live with myself knowing what other women are going through, even as I write this.

From a soft landing to a harsh reality

More than a decade ago, a fresh-faced 20-year old landed her first job, working for a kind man. His agency celebrated creative thinkers from all walks of life. If you were good at what you did you were given opportunities and applauded for your talent.

Over the years, she was lucky to have other male mentors in her life who helped her grow. She worked well with other agencies where creativity flourished, as did the staff. Eventually, this girl discovered that her boss, mentors and those businesses were exceptions to the unwritten rule. The creative industry, she came to realise, is broken. It is filled with a sickness that spreads from person to person, from business to business, silencing those who could speak up and harming those who are vulnerable.

Of course, the girl was a version of me who I grieve and miss dearly. She was young, innocent, excited and deeply curious. She was also a perfect target for the misogynists and predators of the Australian creative industry. She didn’t know that the comments about her appearance devalued her thinking, or that attending a pitch because there needed to be a woman in the room was the sign of a toxic work environment. She pushed down the feelings of uncomfortability that came with being groped by a senior executive at a staff party or being told that the CEO wants to sleep with her. That’s just the way things are, she was told.

Coming to realise it’s not my fault

It is not overstating it to say that my time in the Australian creative industry has led to emotional and physical debilitation. Mental health and addiction recovery is my full time job, for now. I used to blame myself. Why did I stay in toxic workplaces? Why did I try to stick it out when my gut was screaming to run? Why was I the target? My belief was that there was something wrong with me.

There wasn’t.

The men who caused the damage were the problem; powerful individuals who were charismatic and deeply manipulative. They knew how to dangle the carrot, when to use the stick. I didn’t stay because I wanted to; I was trapped, caught between the promise of glorious success and recognition, and insults to my intellect and body. As a result of my extended time in the industry, I was emotionally abused, harassed, discriminated against, groomed, sexually assaulted and, eventually, raped.

It’s time to set our seat at the table

Unfortunately, my experience isn’t unique. As shEqual’s report and Mumbrella’s articles confirm, a significant number of women encounter this kind of disgusting and damaging behaviour. A coworker once said to me, “How can we have a seat at the table when we’re the ones on the menu?”

This is the crux of the problem. It is also the solution.

It is up to all of us who have been pushed down to come together. To push back. We must build our seat to sit as equals, no longer the banquet. This may mean starting small. Talking to a safe coworker, then finding others who have been through similar experiences. Use the safety of a collective to create change.

Take a leaf from Nike’s book. A group of women took an anonymous survey after HR ignored their complaints about harassment in the workplace. As HBR reported, the survey got to the CEO, the perpetrators were fired, and compulsory bias training was introduced.

What to do if you need help

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual assault, harassment or discrimination in the workplace, here are a few suggestions on what to do:

  1. Get support from close friends or colleagues: Find people who you truly trust and speak to them about what happened.
  2. Contact an external organisation: If you or someone you know needs urgent assistance, contact an outside organisation like 1800 RESPECT.
  3. Report sexual assault: You can do so anonymously online, or if you feel you have a strong support network and are stable enough, you can formally notify authorities.
  4. Report bullying, harassment and discrimination: Contact Worker’s Compensation if you have been injured physically or mentally, and The Fair Work Commission for all other matters.

My message to you

Women who have experienced abuse, harassment, assault or any damaging behaviour in the workplace: you are not alone.

The time to change this industry is now. Once separated by silence, we can connect through strength and clarity.

The solution: Together we can.

Ella Campbell is a writer.


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