Winning As A Woman In A Male-Dominated Field

After facing sexism, Erin Sarofsky rewrote the rules—and is winning clients like Verizon, Coke, and Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Erin Sarofsky knew that she was entering a male-dominated field when she decided to work in live action and video production, but that didn’t protect her from some rude awakenings.

Early in her career, a casual conversation with a colleague’s wife revealed that she was earning 40% less than her male counterparts, despite playing a major role in more than $10 million in accounts. She was told that her voice sounded like a little girl, "asking Daddy for permission." And when she objected to the salary discrepancy and the sexism she encountered on the job, she says she was labeled "the difficult one."

In 2008, it was time to go out on her own. She had moved to New York City and longed to return to Chicago, but thought she needed partners to make such a big career move. She found two other skilled video production professionals to help her launch a studio in the Windy City. They primarily produced live action, animation, and computer graphics for agencies.

Sarofsky says the partnership soon became strained when one partner expected to be able to take a full-time job and still collect his third of the agency’s income while she did most of the work. It ended acrimoniously when Sarofsky said she was going to finish their obligations to current clients and then go off on her own to freelance.

Striking out her own

Within a few months of being solo, she got a call from a contact at an advertising agency offering her company a big job for General Motors. She told them she wasn’t part of a company anymore, but the agency rep didn’t blink.

"They said, ‘Erin, it's you anyway. Just go get yourself a different producer and start a new company,’" she recalls.

The GM job was a $250,000 piece of business, but it wasn’t "happily ever after" quite yet. Even though she had the contract in hand, it was 2009 and banks weren’t lending much money to small companies—especially brand new ones. GM was in the throes of the government bailout and had 90-day post-delivery payment terms. Sarofsky drained her 401(k) and negotiated deals with "everyone I worked with to manage cash flow," she says.

Those years of being treated unfairly and learning how to stand up for herself gave her the grit she needed to bootstrap her company during the recession, she says. Those experiences shaped everything about how she runs her business today, from hiring and managing employees and vendors to negotiating project fees and terms.

The Only Woman At The Table

It’s also not lost on her that her first big account was an automobile account—another male-dominated sector, GM’s recent appointment of Mary Barra notwithstanding. Sarofsky says she’s comfortable acting like "one of the guys." Still, even when she takes out a group of 10 male clients for a steak dinner and she signals to the waiter to give the bill to her to pay, there’s that omnipresent bias.

"You could just see the shock because not only am I the one paying the bill, but I'm also the youngest one at the table. I could either just act weird about it, or I can make a comment about my ovaries and make it a joke," she says.

Today, the company boasts a roster of successful projects including beating out four well-known competitors to product the main title sequence for Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was released in the U.S. on April 4, 2014—four days before Equal Pay Day, which highlights the salary gap between men and women by marking how far into the new year women typically have to work to earn the same amount as their male colleagues did the previous year.

Captain America was a significant win in a sector of films usually produced for and by men, she says. Other credits include title sequences for the television shows Happy Endings and Shameless, among others, as well as advertisements for brands like Smirnoff, Verizon, and Coke.

Still, it bothers her when she sees women selling themselves short or not demanding what they’re worth. She says that when she interviews men and makes them an offer, they almost always try to negotiate a higher salary while women rarely do. She wants to see more women learn to stand up for themselves in the workplace and become more confident negotiators.

Bottom Line: "I used to take what I was offered, too. Now, I know what I’m worth and I’m not going to accept a penny less," she says.

[Image: Flickr user Steven Leonti]

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