I Was Told I Had a Chance to Go to the 3% Conference

This year marks my 20th as a designer in Chicago. Naturally, when hitting a major milestone like that, I’ve been going through a bit of review of my life, career, and home base. So, when I heard The 3% Conference was coming to my neighborhood, it felt like a cosmic opportunity to take a long, hard look at our industry, the role I play, and how Chicago ranks as an inclusive creative community.

I was told I had the opportunity to attend The 3% Conference. As excited as I am to be reconnecting with friends and colleagues, I keep cycling through three distinct career-shaping moments. The first awakened my place amongst feminist and allies. The second confirmed that space, and started a trajectory towards serious political action. The third confirmed that the most privileged of us have so much more work to do.

The first moment took place during the apex of the dot-com era. There seemed to be more than enough creative jobs to go around, more women on my teams than men, and certainly more racial and sexual diversity than I had been exposed to in my tiny blue-collar Ohio town. So, for a few years, I felt included, represented, and empowered. Until I was overlooked for a promotion from designer to Art Director — a job that I had been doing for a year. The person who bested me: a white, middle-aged man who had never worked on a MAC and didn’t know Photoshop (I taught him how to use a MAC, I taught him how to use Photoshop).  When I asked the CEO why I had been overlooked considering his clear lack of knowledge, I was told: “He is older than you and he has a family. You have plenty of time to become an Art Director.”

Moment number two came years later after returning from maternity leave. I was working with a woman I greatly admired. She was kind, good-natured, fair, and truly a great mentor. She pushed fiercely for exceptional work and fought for her teams. I was struggling to get a promotion while trying to balance an 80-hour work week with an infant at home. It wasn’t working and I was burning out. When I came to her in tears, warning her this was absolutely not sustainable, I was told: “That’s the job. You have to decide if you want to be promoted or not. I chose not to have kids because I know how this industry is.”

The third moment came after I decided not to settle for this antiquated notion that one needs to choose between a family and a career. I found a great place that seemed to not only have a healthy work/life balance but also set an expectation that we protect our teams from burn out. As I settled in, more and more young talent started approaching me and pointing out inequalities, asking for greater representation, and more opportunities for real change. I felt safe speaking out on their behalf and, while it ruffled some feathers, it was well received for the most part. A generous man, who happens to be a close friend of mine, congratulated me for being part of change for the better. He vowed he would continue to advocate for equal representation in the workplace. But, then I was told: “That’s why we hired you, because you’re a woman and a mom.”

The stumbling Art Director that beat me out of the role, the woman who believes an 80 hr work week is part of the job, and the man that hired me because I am a woman are, to this day, friends of mine. Sincerely, each is a mentor that I keep in touch with. And that is because of one choice.

My choice to speak up.

I told them NO. I told them, “this is offensive and here is why.” Each of these people heard me, understood, and continue to have open dialogues with me around the subject. We don’t all agree, but it helped me realize that these moments weren’t representative of some nefarious plan to attack me personally as a woman, as a mother, or as a feminist. We are all products of an industry where female creative directors only make up 11% of the workforce. And, even less of those Creative Directors are people of color. (And, omfg, I have never met a female CD over 55).

Those three statements, while difficult to hear, gave me a moment and platform to participate in real change, no matter how small. Refusing to be passive helped move me forward. And we all need to keep pushing. And I recognize these situations might seem more annoying than offensive to those of you going through more difficult struggles–especially when I reflect on the lengthy horror stories that have been relayed to me first hand. Like mustering the strength to report predatory behavior to HR only to be told “it’s a grey area”. Or the women who legitimately have to fear for their careers knowing they are by far the minorities in this fight. Yeah, in comparison, these three moments feel less offensive. But, I was told to use my privilege to bring create change.

Because I have been so privileged, I’ve never really been a fan of women’s groups where we only speak into the vacuum. I’m not sure how we evolve. I seek audiences that include a opposing point of view. So, I applaud the 3% conference for encouraging more men to advocate on our behalf, for offering actionable solutions, and selfishly, for coming to Chicago.

I was told The 3% Conference was going to bring it — and I really hope it does.

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