I was 18 and only a few weeks into my first job in PR when my boss pulled me aside and told me that my clothes weren’t suitable for an office and I looked like a college kid. Well I had been at college! Feeling vulnerable I took myself off to Top Shop around the corner from the office, and the next day turned up in a pencil skirt, tie neck blouse and two-tone, high-court shoes. Bending over the press cuttings table later that afternoon (these were the days when we had to physically cut out the coverage from papers), I felt a resounding slap on my butt…and the comment “that’s better” from aforementioned boss. My few years at this agency came to an end when two key things happened: another (male) boss asked me and three female colleagues to participate in an article about successful women in PR for a trade publication. Again, gullible as hell, we all were flattered and agreed. The piece came out with the headline “Sex and the PR persuaders” and among our esteemed leader’s quotes was “…fielding a sexy lady who makes the journalists eyes stand out in stalks makes the telling of it that much easier.” We all felt utterly humiliated. He laughed it off.
The other was when my key client confessed at the end of a national roadshow that the same boss had booked us into interconnecting bedrooms to encourage the client in pursuing me. Such was my naiveté that I spent the whole dinner talking in a panic about my boyfriend as the roses and champagne indicated to me that this was not a mere working dinner. He obviously felt sorry for me in the end, hence the revelation about the set up. I felt sick to my stomach. And I learned to have a keener antenna and a more streetwise attitude. And I quit the agency.
Other choice experiences include a married client making a physical pass at me and when I rebuffed him, he told me I should be flattered. Then there was a client (in Hollywood spookily enough) answering the door to his hotel room in nothing but his white boxer shorts. His team were nonplussed when I mentioned this – it was the norm and they colluded with his weird behaviour.
Then there was the radio DJ who was furious with me when I mentioned to his station manager that he was doing unmentionable things under the desk during the weekly show that my client and I attended. Let’s not forget the CEO of a PLC who asked me to track down a lingerie model who he liked the look of from a fashion trade magazine – not for professional reasons but to take to dinner. I explained I was a PR not a pimp. He looked genuinely confused.
There were endless situations on press trips where people took the attitude that what happens when you are away, stays away – one night my business partner had to rescue me from a man who set himself up outside my bedroom door.
These experiences in my 20s and 30s were the norm at this period of time.
Much later when I was appointed to Edelman’s Executive committee I was extremely touched by the messages from women in our company. They loved to see a woman get to the “top of the firm” – evidence it was possible and they could aspire to it. I totally underestimated the impact this Ex Comm announcement would have, and I was humbled and learned a great deal from hearing stories from many women who had experienced challenges throughout their career at a variety of companies and industries.
I remember our UK women’s network chair, Jo Sheldon, once asking a forum of female colleagues how many DIDN’T have a #metoo story of their own to share from their past. That she was met with resounding silence speaks volumes to the extent to which some form of harassment has impacted so many women, and likely across most industries. Last week I was proud to see our COO Matt Harrington expressing leadership’s shared accountability for creating a safe, healthy and mutually respectful workplace. And reinforcing how important it is to help employees speak up if they encounter behaviours to the contrary.
When I saw the Golden Globes ceremony and heard Oprah’s brilliant acceptance speech I felt it was a pivotal moment. She said “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have” as she expressed thanks to the women who spoke up and shared their (painful) stories. Shots of the Golden Globe audience showed women in tears as her words resonated in the elite venue.
The wall of silence is breaking and the insidious collusion of power and abuse is being revealed. There is undoubtedly more to come. And more changes to be made to reflect a new behaviour. Success and achievement should be determined by talent and effort. By equality and possibility. By contribution and brilliance. By the positive and not by corruption and bullying. And as Oprah says “I want all of the girls watching here now to know that a new day is on the horizon.” And to that we say, also in her words “amen, amen, amen.”
Jackie Cooper is a strategic advisor, Edelman.