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Deep Dive 7 Feb 2022 - 7 min read

We need men to evolve beyond casual sexism – but they’ve been scared off: How Australia’s agencies, media and brands are trying to re-engage blokes (if we can call them that)

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne
Adam Furness, Jasmin Bedir, Rod Prosser, Alissa Bartlett

Adam Furness, Jasmin Bedir, Rod Prosser and Alissa Bartlett: Asking men – and brands – to give a fck about equality.

Men are scared and lost in the push for gender equality – they don’t even know if it’s okay to hold the door open any more. As a result, the men are disengaging, progress is stuttering and the women are worried. Hence a month ahead of International Women’s Day, an alliance of Australian publishers and agencies are calling on men to “be the change-makers”, otherwise women are “just talking to themselves” as would-be allies muzzle themselves for fear of saying the wrong thing. 10 ViacomCBS sales boss Rod Prosser is on board; Impact.com APAC MD Adam Furness openly admits to getting things wrong in the past – costing him his job at Southern Cross Austereo – and says forty-something white men like him “are the problem” and need to become part of the solution. Now Fck The Cupcakes wants more men – and brands – to do the right thing, and are holding the door open for blokes to enter the room.

What you need to know:

  • Research suggests men are disengaging from the equality debate for fear of saying the wrong thing. They are confused, scared, and frankly, lost. They don’t even know if it’s okay to hold the door open for a woman anymore, per JCDecaux Chief People Officer, Alissa Bartlett.
  • But without men being “the change-makers”, women are just “talking to themselves”, hamstringing progress, says Fck The Cupcakes founder Jasmin Bedir.
  • She is urging men to join the fight and needs brands to get onboard and help fund a ‘short-form sitcom’ campaign that uses ‘The Office’ style satire to help men recognise casual misogyny.
  • 10 ViacomCBS, JCDecaux, ARN, Hoyts and Val Morgan are already signed up, alongside Innocean, Hearts & Science, PerformixMercerBell, Impact.com and DHL.
  • 10 ViacomCBS sales chief Rod Prosser is leading the call for more men to reengage, alongside Impact.com APAC MD Adam Furness – with both seeing firsthand the inequalities women face from men, and perpetuated by them, intentionally or otherwise.
  • Editor's Note: We highly recommend listening to the podcast discussion – this debate is insanely nuanced and captured in detail here. Moreover, our original headline to this article read: 'Women need men to evolve...' We've amended that to 'We need men to evolve...' It was pointed out that the original headline "frames the issues around sexism and misogyny as being a problem for women, not everyone". Although some women feel more strongly about this than others, we've amended the text and happy to acknowledge it could have been better. We hope the broader piece and in-depth podcast beyond the headline helps drive constructive industry discussion and progress.

I was the director of sales for Brisbane. I got sacked because I was told I was aggressive. No, not even ‘I was told’ – I was aggressive. And I was a cardboard cut out and I wasn't wanted in the company any longer. It was pretty much what I was told.

Adam Furness, MD, Impact.com

Innocean CEO Jasmin Bedir launched Fck The Cupcakes last year in a bid to fight casual misogyny. But Australian research actually shows that men are disengaging from the push for gender equality. Why?

“It's rather complex, but I’ll try to break it down for you,’’ says Bedir.

“If you see what's happening in the media, pop culture, society and in politics, it's either about assault and rape - horrible things that should be a crime - versus men thinking that they are doing the right thing. And it's that grey space in between [that we are trying to target]. Men don’t actually know what we want from them as women,” says Bedir. “And I can tell that you guys don’t understand it, which is fair enough.”

“So the space that we’re talking about is where men believe that what they are doing at the moment is enough. Just by simply not assaulting your co-worker or not being a horrible violent partner means that it relieves you from doing anything further,” she suggests.

“And that's understandable because I think all women [are] actually jealous of the lived experience of middle aged men, because you have had it quite a lot easier in so many ways than we would have had. And explaining that to men, what that actually means, takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of effort to unpack it.”

The upshot, she says, is: “We're so opposed in this conversation at the moment that one gender is either trying to hide and run the other way – and the other one is just running around in a room with their hair on fire.”

We're so opposed in this conversation at the moment that one gender is either trying to hide and run the other way – and the other one is just running around in a room with their hair on fire.

Jasmin Bedir, CEO, Innocean and founder, Fck The Cupcakes

Adland 'going backwards'

While most men are sickened by the endless stream of violence and aggression toward women, Bedir suggests it is casual everyday sexism that entrenches misogyny in the workplace by “perpetuating the bigger problem’’. It ’’all hangs together’’, she says.

“I can guarantee you that you [a man] wouldn't have been asked in the past whether you might open your blouse a little bit further for a client conversation,’’ says Bedir.

“I can guarantee you that no one's ever asked you if you are in a bad mood because you're on your period. I can guarantee that you wouldn't need to smile more in meetings to get your point across, or be called aggressive when a man saying the same sentence is called passionate.

“That's the stuff that is so deeply ingrained in our fabric that we've been living with this for a long time. And it is not changing. It's not going away, and it just seems to be acceptable most of the time.”

Has there genuinely been no progress in the media and marketing industry?

Essentially, no, says Bedir, “and in some instances we are going backwards.’’ The problem, she believes, is that women are “talking to ourselves … We are the only ones in the room at the moment.’’

Which is why Bedir and Fck The Cupcakes are corralling agencies, media and tech companies in a bid to re-engage men, creating a campaign that “focuses on men  – and giving men permission to come into the room with us”. The aims is to “unpack the benefits of a more equal playing field, what’s in it for them”, says Bedir,” because this is not just about women feeling more equal. This will have a significant impact on men also.”

Along with men, now they need brands to back – and crucially fund – the campaign.

Men are scared for various reasons. There are men out there with good intent, but just don’t know how to have the conversation, which is what this is all about.

Rod Prosser, Chief Sales Officer, 10 Viacom CBS

Rod Prosser: ‘Men must be the change-makers’

One man who didn’t need a second invitation to “join the room” is Ten sales chief Rod Prosser, who has witnessed first-hand some of the examples of inequality and casual sexism faced by women in the workplace reeled off by Bedir. Prosser, Impact.com APAC MD Adam Furness and PerformixMercerBell CEO Jason Tonelli are among the early posse of blokes getting on board. 

‘’Like many men, I walked into the workforce not really understanding the challenges women face on a daily basis just to perform their jobs in a fair and equal way to their male colleagues,” says Prosser.

“As a young man, I was completely naïve. But that quickly changed; some of the things I saw were quite a shock. What really opened my eyes was having worked for some really strong individuals – many of them women – and watching what those women experienced again on a daily basis and the challenges for them to forge ahead,” says Prosser.

“So men need to get involved and be the change-makers, otherwise we’ve only got half the conversation … and if we don’t galvanise that cohort, we’re not going to progress.”

Prosser – and the panel – urge men not to be afraid of saying the wrong thing, but to accept the permission being offered by Fck the Cupcakes.

“Men are scared for various reasons. There are men out there with good intent, but just don’t know how to have the conversation, which is what this is all about.”

Adam Furness: ‘Sacked for being a dick’, Damascene conversion

In early 2014, Adam Furness was sacked by SCA. Basically, he admits, for being a dickhead. He’s brutally honest about what went down.

“I was the director of sales for Brisbane. I got sacked because I was told I was aggressive. No, not even ‘I was told’ – I was aggressive. And I was a cardboard cut out and I wasn't wanted in the company any longer. It was pretty much what I was told,” says Furness.

“And I was like, ‘okay, it's not them, it's me and what's going on?’ And I went through a whole process. I had some mentors, I read a lot and I listened to a lot of podcasts and I learned a lot about best self and worst self,” he continues.

“My worst self is aggressive, arrogant, direct, is short, is sharp. And I go into my worst self when I'm fearful and normally I feel that I'm worthless or I'm failing. And so I flick to this kind of worst self.”

It took time to work through the process, he admits, but it has shaped life since.

“I was like, okay, what is it that I deeply care about, what is my purpose? And where I landed was I really care about three things. One is evolving, so being less of a dickhead, a better father, a better husband, a better human. The second is connecting people personally, professionally, where they can help each other out. And then the third is teaching and sharing based on my many failures – and a few wins along the way.”

Hence, when Furness saw the call out from Ten’s Prosser that he was joining Fck The Cupcakes, he didn’t hesitate.

“I thought, this is something that I need to learn more about and I think I can help. And it sat to my core around evolving and around being able to connect people – and maybe I can share and I don't know enough,” says Furness.

“And I've also come to the realisation … I’m a [nearly] 45-year-old white, straight, affluent guy in tech. I'm the problem. So I need to be part of the solution. And I don't know enough. So I'm diving in and I'm feeling uncomfortable, feeling really vulnerable and I'm really nervous. And I think that's the point. I think that's okay.”

I've come to the realisation … I’m a [nearly] 45-year-old white, straight, affluent guy in tech. I'm the problem. So I need to be part of the solution. And I don't know enough. So I'm diving in and I'm feeling uncomfortable, feeling really vulnerable and I'm really nervous. And I think that's the point. I think that's okay.

Adam Furness, MD APAC, Impact.com

Reverse mentoring

Now leading Impact.com, Furness thinks older guys can learn a lot from the younger generation. He cites a misstep around another issue – racism and Black Lives Matter – that can be hard for people to fully understand and navigate.

“We realise we're imperfect as an organisation, we're imperfect as individuals – but we're having more and more of these conversations, and I get called out on stuff as well,” admits Furness, citing BLM and Black History Month by way of example:

“I was reading about it. We were doing some initiatives internally, and I was posting in our Slack channel. ‘Let's get behind this, and I'm like ‘Black Lives Matter’. And then I posted ‘actually all lives matter’. I posted that in our Slack channel. And two people independently Slacked me. One was a 23-year-old guy and the other was a 26-year-old guy. Both of them said, ‘Adam, you can't say that. We know your intent, but there's a movement around All Lives Matter. And it's actually against Black Lives Matter. It's not about [suggesting that] not all lives matter, but it's putting a focus on Black Lives Matter. And that's really important for this conversation’.

“I was so grateful to these two guys in my organisation that called me out on my incompetency,” says Furness. “And I'm seeing younger men really starting to think more about broader equality, certainly in our organisation. And I feel grateful that I'm being called out on these things – because it helps me evolve, and just get better.”

Every day I see examples of casual misogyny – which could be from women being labelled emotional because they show passion in meetings, through to just the other day, a man standing at the door saying, I'm not sure whether I should be opening the door to women.

Alissa Bartlett, Chief People Officer, JCDecaux

Casual misogyny: everyday problem, everywhere?

Alissa Bartlett, Chief People Officer at JCDecaux, says the company has put gender equality “at the heart” of its DE&I strategy with staff undertaking ongoing awareness programmes to drive change. But she says there is much lot of work to do, and her experience suggests even well-meaning men are falling foul of casual misogyny.

“JCDecaux isn't any different to other organisations or industries I've been in over the last 20 years,” says Bartlett. “Every day I see examples of casual misogyny – which could be from women being labelled emotional because they show passion in meetings, through to just the other day, a man standing at the door saying, I'm not sure whether I should be opening the door to women. Is that going to be perceived as the right or the wrong thing to do?” says Bartlett.

She shares another example experienced at a previous organisation.

“I was working very closely with a senior female leader who came into my office one day, crying. She's visibly really upset, saying that she just uncovered that the male leaders that she worked within her team had, without her knowledge, forged a pact not to swear in front of her ‘because she’s a lady’.

“Now while their intention, I’m sure, was to treat her with what they thought was respect, her perception was the opposite. She was being singled out, she wasn’t being treated equally as a leader … and she exited the organisation soon after,” says Bartlett.

“So I think this concept of unintentional casual misogyny is clear – and I think that is why we have to get these concepts out in the open.”

So what should blokes do?

So is it wrong for blokes to hold the door open for women, or is it misogynistic to refer to women as ‘the girls’?

Bedir and Bartlett say if in doubt, ask – and start the conversation.

“There is no one answer … And it's actually stopping before I take that action and saying, I'd really like to open the door for you, that's something I've always done. How do you feel about that?” says Bartlett.

Either way, Bedir says she doubts women will “take to the streets because they are holding the doors open for us,” and underlines that it’s not just men who get things wrong.

“I’ve made a mistake to call the creative guys [at Innocean] ‘the boys’ and that might also not be okay,” admits Bedir. “But I think because we are having such a regular dialogue, you can actually just go, sorry, was that stupid that I just called you that? Should I do that differently? And then you get an answer.”

Asking every woman whether it is okay to open the door for them might prove impractical. Prosser and Furness pragmatically suggest it might just be safer to open the door for all genders. But Bedir says the point is to get people talking about what is okay, what is not, and how to move forward.

“I found it incredibly hard, even within my organisation, to have a conversation because the men were getting really uncomfortable about it and they were a little bit scared. So what does it mean for me? What am I supposed to do? Am I doing something wrong? And that comes from a place of really not knowing what's right or wrong," says Bedir.

“And once they understand what we want from them, that we actually just want them to join us and ask questions around things like parental leave, like maternity leave... And when someone says something that might not be appropriate, giving them permission to do that, that we have got their backs. We're not going to rip each other apart. We just got to hold each other accountable. And that includes myself, women as well, because we're not perfect either.”

Every organisation has to decide for themselves, but I don’t have a problem with [gender equality] quotas whatsoever.

Jasmin Bedir, CEO, Innocean and founder, Fck The Cupcakes

Female quotas and a singular focus

The push for equality can become even more confusing – and polarising – when other factors are brought into play, with gender neutrality causing governments problems as they mull replacing words like “women” and “mothers” with terms like “birth-givers” and “pregnant people”, and “breastfeeding” with “lactating parents”.

Such well-intentioned initiatives have already caused real world harms in Australia. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, a Federal Health Department guide for pregnant and breastfeeding women regarding Covid-19 vaccination and its impact was edited last year to remove the term “women”, introducing errors into the scientific accuracy of the material in the process.

Bedir and Fck The Cupcakes, however, don’t want to go there.

“That’s a whole other ballgame. There are myriad problems we need to tackle. This initiative is at the moment purely focused on levelling the playing field between women and men, and that’s it.”

In that regard, she has no issues with quotas to make sure more women get jobs in industry. “Every organisation has to decide for themselves, but I don’t have a problem with quotas whatsoever.”

Ten’s Prosser broadly agrees, but says quotas can also undermine the principle of merit.

“We have a duty as a broadcaster, as do the rest of the media, to really reflect all of Australia. For us, that's both on screen and behind the screen, whether that be internally with the makeup of our departments,” says Prosser.

“So if putting targets and quotas in place to make sure that we are reflecting all of Australia [achieves that goal] well, then we should do that – and we've made some great progress within our business around that,” he adds.

“But I think that the word quota sometimes sounds harsh. And I don't think that it feels rewarding when people get promoted into a position because you've got a quota. I think it's how it's framed. But I'm a firm believer that we need to reflect all of Australia.”

Brands: Back women with some budget

Fck The Cupcakes has significant support from media agencies and owners to back its campaign, set to launch in late March across channels and (when live) via be-the-change.com.au Now it needs brands to get on board – and put their hands in their pockets.

“Get involved and give us your reach, work with your teams internally and just endorse the activity at a broad scale” says Bedir. “Media dollars obviously help, but at the same time, we’re looking for production funding to get a broad campaign off the ground.”

Adam Furness echoes that call: “We need $150,000 to get production up and running. So we really need some investment from brands. We've got a bunch of brands already on board, but we need more.”

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