Marcia Gloster: Writing Our Own Rules, and Roles

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“How did we wind up back in the Mad Men era at work?”

This question, posed recently by Guardian columnist Lucia Graves, is one that repeatedly
surfaced while I was writing my latest book, published in April. I Love You Today is a novel
loosely based on my years working in publishing and advertising in New York City in the mid-to-
late 1960s.

As I was writing, headlines about scandals at Fox News, Saatchi & Saatchi, and other well-
known media and advertising companies served as frequent reminders that gender
discrimination and sexual harassment are hardly a thing of the past. Surveys from two trade
organizations, the 3% Conference and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (the
4A’s), provided further evidence: more than 50% of women surveyed reported having
experienced sexual harassment at least once. For all the strides women have made in the
workplace in the past 50 years, it’s clear that we haven’t come all that long a way, baby.
I’m not fond of the phrase “women’s roles” as it reinforces the idea that we are expected to
behave in a particular way because of gender, but it is hard to deny that gender-based
stereotypes and opportunities have always been a part of our world. Witness the one in three
women who told the 4A’s that they had “not received desired assignments or promotions at
least a few times because of discrimination” and the 42% who said they had “not been included
in decision-making because of discrimination.”

When I arrived in New York City in 1963, the assumption that I would become a secretary was
practically a given, despite my degree from Rhode Island School of Design. In those days, the
prescribed roles for women on Madison Avenue did not include jobs in an ad agency’s art
department. The excuses I was given varied, but the worst came from a senior partner in a
prestigious agency who said they had never hired a girl because “the boys in the bullpen,”
where assistants typically began, would feel inhibited about cursing in front of a girl and
consequently their work would suffer. I was frustrated, but the phrase “gender discrimination”
was not in my vocabulary. Not then. It was just the way things were.

After turning down several secretarial jobs, I was hired as an assistant art director at Brides
magazine, which put me on the path to becoming an art director. As I gained experience and
seniority over the course of my career, I was treated with respect, but dismissive attitudes
lingered. In the ‘70s, I founded a boutique advertising agency with a female partner. When we
merged many years later with a larger agency run by men, it didn’t take long to realize that
we’d been brought in as token female creative executives. I was invited to many meetings for
which I was neither prepped nor had any reason to attend — except for the fact that I was
female.

The ’60s were a time of cultural upheaval and new freedoms, which allowed many of us to defy
stereotypes. To an increasing extent over those decades, we choose not to automatically
accept what we were told, but instead to make our own decisions and determine our own
paths. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that gender-based discrimination is ever present, and I’m
afraid that women in the workforce today will have to summon the confidence to make their
own rules—and roles—just as we did fifty years ago.

Marcia Gloster is the author of the novel I Love You Today and the memoir 31 Days: A Memoir
of Seduction, both published by The Story Plant. The e-book versions of both books are
available for only $2.99 for the entire month of September 2017.

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