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The indignities of being a woman at work

Criticism Literally Every Woman I Know Has Gotten While They're Just Trying to Live

Today I’m sharing a little more about myself. Over 16 years in advertising, I’ve had a lot of ups, a ton of downs, and some complaints about how the working world treats all its employees—but women of all kinds, specifically. When it comes to working as a woman, just earning a living seems to be a liability. 

A row of grey, uniform cubicles in a depressing office space.

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I started my career in advertising in February, 2006, at the tender age of 22. Sixteen years later, at the (not so tender) age of 38, I’m building my own company. Why?  Because I don’t know a single woman in the corporate world who hasn’t been told she has an attitude problem.  Sixteen years worth of female colleagues, all of us – somehow – people with attitude problems. (Understanding how half the population’s behavior can be classified as “the problem” is a pointless exercise in legitimizing sexism.) 

One woman I know, J., has been reprimanded for taking notes in meetings. Not being the note taker and doing a bad job, but for taking her own, personal notes in her own, personal notebook. Because it made her look “disengaged.”  

One woman I know, S, was fired from a job at a non-profit because she didn’t smile enough. No, seriously.

A close up selfie of me on an old airfield for a car shoot.
Shooting a car commercial in the California desert in summer on miles of concrete at an old airfield. But look at that TAN. (jk)

A third friend, C, has been promoted into a level worthy of her experience, only to be undermined by a terrible client who refuses to respect her, and an extended team who has no interest in properly managing the client-agency relationship. Everyone knows this client is a problem, and no one cares what it’s costing C or her team. And the client is another woman. 

At my last job, senior management decided layoffs and furloughs were in order in the summer of 2020 – it just so happened that ¾ of them happened to be women. (Including 2 of the very few black employees on staff, period.) Meanwhile, it was an open secret that the CEO was shopping for a Tesla while he claimed there was no money in the budget to keep things operating normally. (How not to lead, 101.) 

I’ve personally been reprimanded for all number of ridiculous things. When I was 23, it was for leaving a meeting that ran over to go to another meeting. The person running the other meeting showed up 10 minutes late, and someone from the original meeting complained that I’d left for no reason. My boss brought it up months later, at my annual review, at which point there was no room to address what had happened. But I was a silly, young girl, so obviously I was in the wrong.

I’ve been reprimanded for not sharing enough of my personal life with coworkers, making it hard to know me.

At that same job, at an after-hours shoot for a local non-profit, our older account rep showed up smelling of alcohol, setting the client who attended on edge. When I asked the client if she wanted to take a look through the viewfinder of the camera to see what we were capturing, she snapped at me for reasons I’m still unsure about – and my drunk colleague complained to my boss about it. 

I’ve been reprimanded for having “a bad reaction” in a meeting where six months worth of intense work was abruptly canceled. What was my reaction? Keeping my face as blank as possible, looking down while I absorbed the news, and not embracing the news of my intense efforts being made obsolete with enthusiasm.

Not crying, not arguing, not huffing, or making a face, or rolling my eyes.

Just keeping a poker face. And the reprimand was from a boss known for screaming and flying off the handle in meetings regularly. 

I’ve been reprimanded for letting a celebrity show up in her own wardrobe on a shoot where the premise was two real musicians discussing their careers. My boss didn’t like that she looked “fat” in her outfit – the outfit the woman had dressed her own body in. The outfit she, herself, felt most comfortable in when she was told to dress like herself.

A photo of me holding a coffee cup in front of my face while chilling in a hotel 1000 miles from home for work.
Drinking bad hotel coffee, hair frizzy, bored and wishing I was at home after many days of being away.

In the working world as a woman, you're either a "bitch" or incompetent.

No, seriously, people have studied this phenomenon

Me and my partner Sanja goofing off on a shoot.
Me and Sanja, one of the best partners I ever had.

I’ve been reprimanded for advocating on behalf of a DEI committee I co-chaired with a woman of color. The CEO set up the committee himself, and then didn’t like what the members of the committee were advising, so he accused me of passive-aggression in a way that was clearly meant to bully me into silence. (Forgetting, I guess, that as co-chair, I was representing the other 9 people on the committee and their thoughts on the topic at hand.) This, by the way, happened in a chat where the head of HR was present. Only my fellow co-chair expressed surprise and outrage about his reaction. 

I apologized, knowing full well I’d done nothing wrong. After 30 years of therapy, I’m not interested in playing passive aggressive in any situation, so I don’t make a habit of it. In fact, I go out of my way to not play passive aggressive, because I’ve only ever seen it make things worse and I just don’t care for the drama. 

(As a Libra I much prefer hearing about someone else’s drama.)

I’ve been accused of “cussing out” a colleague on another team who wanted to run content on a web property I’d been given nominal control over. We talked on the phone late one day, around 6pm, and I told him the content didn’t make sense on that platform. It didn’t fit, it wasn’t in line with the existing content there or our goals for the property. But I didn’t cuss him out. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever cussed out. In fact, getting righteously angry about anything makes me uncomfortable–I get a rush of feeling that literally makes me feel dizzy.

I’ve always been more likely to cry tears of rage than to yell or lash out on my own behalf. Can you relate?

A group shot of women against the backdrop of Los Angeles.

My boss, clearly having a crush on this much newer colleague, made me apologize to him, too. In writing. I would say it’s humiliating to have to apologize to someone for something you know you didn’t do (and that goes against your entire character), but the truth is, it’s humiliating just being a woman in the working world. 

It’s humiliating when bosses downplay your contributions and take credit as their own.

It’s humiliating when new male employees start in your department and introduce themselves to all the men in your meeting, and none of the women.

It’s humiliating when a third-party partner addresses an email to a mixed group of people with, “Hello gents” – despite the fact that you and your female partner are leading the project. 

Trying to build a career as a woman is an exercise in enduring humiliation.

That’s the experience I can speak to as a white woman, knowing full well it goes double for women of other races – not to mention our trans and non-binary friends.

So when news publications cover “The Great Recession” and the record-breaking quit-rates across the board, I get excited. When I hear that 5 million people registered for employer tax IDs in 2021 – 23% more than 2020 and 53% more than 2019, I get excited.  

Because we deserve better. We all deserve better.

Our brothers and sisters in abusive service jobs deserve better.

Our friends in back-breaking blue collar jobs deserve better.

Our teenage family members making a federal minimum wage that hasn’t changed in thirteen years definitely don’t deserve it.

But people with corporate jobs that demand unwavering devotion, all-hours email checking, and that we tolerate bosses who are at best, incompetent, and at worst, actively harmful, we deserve better, too. 

A shot of a street in Venice, California.
I worked all year to develop, sell and shoot a commercial in LA, only to watch it get destroyed when men above my pay grade started calling disastrous shots. Naturally, it got pinned on my partner and I.

We don't need to compare our abuse to know we all deserve to work and earn a living with dignity.

It’s not even about the money. I don’t care if I’m ever rich, if I ever own a boat. But I would like to enjoy my life – to spend time renting a boat with friends, not worrying about who’s blowing up my work email or Slack because their personal life is so unfulfilling, they hide in their work.

I would like to go to a funeral for a literal toddler and NOT have a boss calling me in the middle of the day, asking me if I can fly out the next day for a photoshoot for some ill thought up project idea. (Yes, this actually happened.)

Right? How much is my humanity worth? In a shitty job, it’s worth roughly my salary, give or take. 

When in reality it’s not for sale. It’s priceless. 

Yours is too. 

So I’ve made 2022 the year I start building something for myself – a business that’s mine and mine alone. One dedicated to helping lift up other women by sharing tools to help them create their own thriving businesses. 

I would love to hear your experiences in the working world below. 

What unfair feedback, undue criticism or just flat out sexist or racist nonsense have you had to deal with just to make a buck? And more importantly, what kind of future would you build for yourself if there was no limit on what you could do?

A white woman sitting outside, smiling at the camera.

Hi, I'm Lana.

I’ve spent 16 years in advertising, and now I’m using that knowledge to help creatives grow their own small businesses. Will that include you this year? 

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