It’s a story line, straight out of Mad Men: When Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk entered the male-dominated advertising industry in the early 1980s, they faced a barrage of gender barriers designed to halt their career ascent.
Case in point: when Kestin, who had been working on what she calls the “girl” accounts, expressed interest in working on her ad agency’s marquis beer account, she was told by a male superior “you can no more understand beer than I can understand tampons.” Even when she was given permission to work on the account, she was prohibited from entering the room on the day of the presentation, told her presence would make the client uncomfortable.
The title of their new book of career advice for women, Darling, You Can’t Do Both is actually a quote from Vonk’s previous boss and highlights the dilemma many women face when climbing the corporate ladder of choosing between a career and family.
Despite gender barriers, Kestin and Vonk went on to become one of the most influential creative duos in advertising. Their work on Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign produced a viral video “Evolution”–a one minute, 15 second video uncovering the amount of makeup and Photoshopping that goes into creating a beauty shot of a model. The campaign garnered international attention and won 19 awards. In their book, Kestin and Vonk debunk the many myths they were told in their early days climbing the career ladder in a male-dominated industry. They share three of those myths here:
Kestin tells the recent story of a young female associate who went into a job interview wearing her wedding band and was told by the hiring manager that he couldn’t hire someone who was about to have children. Discouraged that these attitudes continue to persist in today’s corporations, Kestin and Vonk say they’re living proof that women can have it all but say women need to speak up and ask for what they need in order to be successful on both fronts.
Both Kestin and Vonk credit their partners who shared family responsibilities with their ability to be successful at work and argue women get in their own way by not having the conversations that would help them get ahead. “A lot of women who worked for us struggled to make things work [because] they never had the dialogue with spouses,” says Vonk.
Kestin says despite the popular belief that having children holds women back from career ambitions, becoming a mother made her better at her work. “I became a way better time-manager,” she says. She also credits motherhood with giving her more empathy and objectivity and peaked her interest in mentoring. “It made me more anxious to see a next generation do well,” she says.
Kestin and Vonk say women often succumb to the fallacy that they have to work 24/7 in order to keep up with men in leadership roles. “The sense that women won’t give the job their all is pervasive in companies,” says Vonk.
Although men also succumb to this belief, Kestin and Vonk say women are particularly poor at setting boundaries. This was a lesson Kestin had to learn early on in her career. After a year of working long hours trying to prove to herself and others that having a child wouldn’t affect her work, Kestin realized she’d missed nearly the entire first year of her son’s life.
She needed to make a change and began to block off Sunday evenings. The result was she was not only happier, but actually became better at her job. “If you don’t have a life, what are you bringing to work?,” she asks.
“What we observe to be success is the male version of success,” says Kestin. “Men, in the past, have had women at home taking care of the kids and the home part of life so they’ve been able to go in that straight line from the job to the promotion to the office that they’re trying to achieve.” The assumption that women’s careers should follow that straight line to the top, Kestin and Vonk say, is a fallacy. They argue women’s careers often look like a journey that twists and turns in multiple directions leading to the top, rather than a straight line.
Although they argue women need to carve their own career path, they also say women need to make their ambitions known. At various points in their careers, Kestin and Vonk were each offered the role of Chief Creative Officer at their Toronto advertising agency, but turned down the position because it didn’t suit their life circumstances (both had young children). “What’s worth bearing in mind for any woman is that when you’re making a choice like that to turn down a promotion is to say, ‘I can’t do this right now [but] I really want to get to this place and here are my career ambitions,’” says Kestin.
Kestin and Vonk ended up accepting the role of chief creative officer as a duo, believing working together on the role would be their best shot to do the job well while still allowing them to maintain their family lives. The decision highlights another key ingredient to Kestin’s and Vonk’s success in overcoming gender barriers: asking for what they need to be successful.
“Women are still socialized to believe that it doesn’t become them to be too assertive,” says Vonk. While women often shy away from asking for what they need for fear of reprisal, Kestin and Vonk say they’ve often been surprised in their careers that asking for something they felt would make them better at their jobs resulted in more wins than losses and, ultimately, helped them achieve greater success.