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IWD Special 7 Mar 2021 - 4 min read

From boss ‘tit cricket’ to ‘enlightenment’ in twenty years

By Amber Collins - CMO, Australia Post

If you spent any time in the advertising scene in the ‘90s, then little of what follows will surprise. But when Amber Collins tells stories of her work life back then in adland to people who weren’t there, they look in disbelief. What she thought was normal then was completely wrong now.  Here’s her 'journey of enlightenment'.

My boss thought nothing of playing 'tit cricket' with me. When I was least expecting it, he’d reach out; and depending on where his hand landed on my breast he would call out 'four!' or ‘six!’

Amber Collins

1990s London adland - clothes on, mostly

1990s London advertising was often said to be ‘the most fun you could have with your clothes on'. Clients spent big, we produced creative work that was the envy of the world and days were long and hard, interspersed with large amounts of dining and drinking.

All day lunches were not unusual and boozing ‘til the pub closed was par for the course. Hundreds of young people worked away with the promise of a rapid promotion and the glamour that came with it - corner offices with permanently stocked fridges and unstinting expense accounts.

Staff parties with 'unlimited everything' were legendary. It was also a highly sexualised workplace where very little was out of bounds. 

In fact, my boss thought nothing of playing 'tit cricket' with me. It was a simple game: when I was least expecting it, he would walk past me and reach out; and depending on where his hand landed on my breast he would call out 'four!' or ‘six!’. Did I tell him to **** off? Most certainly. Did I think this was unusual - not at all.

Like most industries and organisations, advertising was full of the legends of those who came before us. But, beyond the stories of account wins and triumphs at awards ceremonies were the countless retelling of the sexual exploits of our leaders. "The boss brought her in to fire her, but they ended up having sex in his office then, of course, she didn’t lose her job, in fact I hear she was promoted." 

No questions

As you can gather, for the most part, men were in charge. Again, I never questioned this at the time. It was not unusual for the four or five levels of management above us to be exclusively male. There were women, of course. In fact, some of the female legends of British Advertising were on the leadership team, but they were openly referred to as the 'Muffia'.  

Why did I think nothing of it? I suppose I knew no different. It all seemed part of the rough and tumble of the industry. Did I think to speak to a young girl in my team who was having a relationship with a senior married leader? No, I did not. Did I confront him? I'm ashamed to say, I didn’t. It seems that within the prevailing culture of the time, I was blind to the issue. But today, the idea that I would let this happen is incomprehensible.

When I moved client-side, there was a different lens. I remember a merchandise manager calling me and my communications colleague “girlies" in a meeting. The most senior person in attendance apologised for him afterwards but many of the dinosaurs who roamed the hallways didn't take women in the workplace very seriously. There were few women on the executive team and you could cut the testosterone with a knife.

Seismic change

Over the past 10 years however the change in attitudes and behaviours has been seismic. Although still not fairly represented more and more women have risen in the ranks. None of us also wanted to see what had happened in our time happening again to those starting out - male or female.

This change, of course, brought its own challenges. Some of the dinosaurs felt that women were ‘getting special treatment’ or dismissed Women in Leadership programs as 'knitting circles'.

I clearly remember two talented young team members suggesting we start a program to teach less enlightened colleagues the value of a diverse workforce.

I'm sure that wouldn't have hurt but I felt it would be more effective simply to ignore them and devote their energy to striving for their own success. I was convinced that this was the best way to bring about the evolutionary extinction of these dinosaurs.

Enlightenment landed

Waking up to what I had erroneously accepted as the norm over the years and finding my own voice on this journey has been enlightening.

Keystone moments in my career when I publicly challenged the way I was being spoken to by the most senior male in the room or asked seasoned leaders to apologise for how they spoke to members of my team built my confidence and the old world became a little more distant every time. 

At Australia Post now, as in most large organisations, the code of conduct, pay parity and the company values exist to provide guardrails, but, in reality,

I’ve learned that culture is the royalty here. Fostering inclusion, respecting individuals and their differences, supporting flexible working for all and encouraging women and men to take parental leave will do much to drive equality and diversity.

Are we there yet? Absolutely not. Does ‘tit cricket’ still exist? I hope not. But it is truly up to all of us to keep questioning our inherited structures and the status quo to make life better for everyone not just this International Women’s Day but every day. 

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