An open letter to women in advertising from Sue Higgs, group creative director at GREY London

An open letter to women in advertising from Sue Higgs, group creative director at GREY London

Dear All,

I am a woman who’s worked as an advertising creative for just over 30 years.
I’ve raised 3 kids latterly, for the last 12 years, on my own.
There are no medals for this, as I write.
I’ve done ok, I’ve survived, picked up a few awards and made some good work.
And kept three kids alive, which is more than I could do with hamsters.
I’m not writing this for people to say, you’re amazing.
That’s not the point of this piece.
I’m writing this because finally, I can.
Most of my career, I’ve lived in fear of being fired.
Of being found out.
Some of this is a creative thing.
Some of this is a woman thing.

When I started in the analogue days, I was the first woman hired in 3 years, amongst 50 white men.
You had to sort of ‘become a man’ to fit in, or at least be the woman they wanted you to be.
Drinking, smoking, bad jokes were de rigueur.
Some of it was fun.
Being asked to sit on various male knees and worse, not so much.
The female secretaries hated me, well the idea of me. 
I was a threat.
There were no female role models.
The few that were around, were not keen on young females.
The women were generally fairly alpha.
More murdering than nurturing. 
I worked double hard to earn my place, to be validated.

I got perved on by a creative director regularly but was too scared to say.
I thought I’d lose my job.
There was no ‘conversation’. 
No HR.
It was called ‘personnel’ then.
It was there to sort out stuff like wine allowances and bonuses.
You know, important stuff.
I was told if I caused any fuss I’d never get another job cos the boys all talked to each other.

I moved on and got pregnant at an agency that had never had a woman have a baby.
What an accolade that was. Not.
I had to fight like no one should need to fight to get a deal.
Eventually I had to go to the CEO's office to demand one.
But I was marked down.
My male partner insisted I should not get a bonus because, you know, despite drinking all afternoon, he did all the work. 
All of it.
I moved on.
I had another baby and didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant.
It was easier. 
I didn’t get the ‘well you’ll be no use then’ eyes.

Then, the bare faced cheek of it, I had my third baby.
And I started to get chippy.
It was all a bit much.
I started to feel aggrieved.
I was doing my work, winning awards yet I was not getting anywhere.
But there was no audience for it, no conversation.
I was labelled the ‘feisty’ one.
The vocal one.
I had an opinion.
And a woman with an opinion?
It wasn’t liked.
So account teams stopped talking to me and spoke to my male partner.
Waited until I’d left the room.
And if that doesn’t make you paranoid, nothing will.
I’ve had to work twice as hard to get half as far.

A few years later, happy days, I became a single mother.
And the sole breadwinner.
It’s no understatement to say that’s quite scary.
No role models. 
No support.
No vent.
No audience.
No nothing.
How did I do it?
I got up.
Easy when there’s no option.
Flex working?  
What would people think of me? 
Weak at best.
I had to pretend to be like everyone else to keep up.
In spite of everything, I was there with my children as much as possible.
I believe I did it at the expense of my career.
(Sidebar: I’m not sure you can have it all, but you can own your choice.)
But I’m proud I was there.
I saw the plays, assemblies, and shows.

Then somewhere around 2013 things changed.
Almost overnight it was ok to be a woman.
Rather than being a pain, womanhood was celebrated. 
Weird at first but, bloody hell, welcome.
Praise the Lord.
Finally. 
So what can I tell you? 
Your kids grow up so quick.
Meetings will always be there.
Those priceless memories won’t.
Be loud, be proud.
It’s not acceptable to feel second rate for fulfilling a biological role.

Nurture a bit of ego.
Just a little bit to protect you from those who have loads.
Own your opinions.
Do it in spite of the others.
So the good bad old days are gone.
Whilst it’s not perfect now, it’s a darn sight better than it used to be for women.
And there’s some wonderful women role models now. 
But there’s still a way to go.
No one should ever go through what I did again.
But I’m stronger for it.
So, I get it and I’m right beside you.

Published on: