Ally Is A Verb (And Other Things Men Need To Hear)

December 26, 2019

Sai He

Sai is a self-taught creative who loves to dream up brave & intimate ideas that make you feel things. When he's not doing just that at work, he's making music, memes, and mischief. Does he keep his hands full because he like having heaps to do, or because he's staving off existential dread? Yes.

On my first day interning at a Big Ad Agency, I was introduced to everyone in the creative department. That’s when I met a Creative Director named, John. And then another. And another. And another.

When the “John-slaught” was over, I counted more male Creative Directors named John (four) than female Creative Directors total (two) in the 500-person office.

So as Wade Davis — a former NFL player turned activist — delivered the 2019 3% Conference keynote and addressed how there are currently more Fortune 500 companies helmed by men named James than women total, I was reminded of my Baby Yoda days. Witnessing the insane imbalance as a wide-eyed intern threw me for a loop. No one else batted an eye. And even if they did, what could anyone much less the 21 year-old plebe working on banner briefs in exchange for college credit — do about it?

In the four years since, I’ve unwittingly benefited from being dealt a testosterone-laden hand. While a junior, I made more than my art director partner. At another agency, I was enshrined as one of “the lads”  their de-facto boy’s club — after my first week. Most recently (and egregiously), I discovered that my salary was 40 percent higher than that of a coworker with twice my experience.

"We can all claim ignorance while signaling allyship."

For the men reading this, nothing I’m saying is particularly groundbreaking. We can all rattle off personal experiences that sound like a game of telephone. We can all claim ignorance while signaling allyship. We can all make the understandable case that each of us is too insignificant that it’s on our bosses, and our bosses’ bosses — to roll out sweeping, systemic change.

But when we all pass the buck along, where does it stop? As the recent ad agency salary spreadsheet shows, all the talk of allyship in recent years hasn’t moved the needle much, if at all. In an industry that concepts zany vending machine activations by the truckload, there’s still no vending machine dispensing opportunities in exchange for lip service.

"You don't get to name yourself an ally."

Davis succinctly summarizes this performative wokeness: “You don't get to name yourself an ally. You actually have to do something in order to be an ally.” When we deflect it forward, all we’re doing is maintaining the status quo. “What are you willing to give up to achieve gender equality?” he posited to the men in the audience.


Davis can talk the talk, because he’s also leading the charge to upend the status quo. In recent years, he has consulted for major players like the NFL, Google, VICE, and Netflix on diversity and inclusion issues. Additionally, Davis has partnered with the United Nations to build a “Men’s Gender Equality Development” leadership program, collaborated with Time’s Up Now on workplace curricula, and launched gender equality initiatives in conjunction with Planned Parenthood and HuffPost. He is truly doing the most.

Equally impressive is just how far he has come. Davis recounted the time he was hired as a director for a nonprofit that works with children, despite having zero experience working with children: “There were some women who worked there, who had many more years of experience, who actually had degrees in this type of work, and I was their boss. Imagine that!”

Wade Davis

It’s not hard to envision the issues that inevitably arise with a premise that doubles as a perfectly mediocre CBS sitcom. Indeed, Davis recalls one such incident: “There was one young woman who worked there, and I gave her a directive. She did not agree with the directive. And I was trying to de-escalate her. I looked at her and I said, ‘Sweetie. Calm down.’”

The audience let out a collective groan that reverberated through the ballroom. Davis paused to acknowledge what everyone was thinking: “I told you I was an idiot.”

He described what happened next. “She looked right back at me and she said, ‘Don’t ever call me sweetie.'" To which Davis gave a retort typical of trying to move on without understanding why something is wrong.

“But I’m a good person! You knew my intent! You know me, c’mon!”

His supervisor, Lillian Rivera, asked him why he thought the young woman responded the way she did. “I gave [Rivera] a bunch of ‘blah, blah, blah,’” said Davis. “She grabbed this book and told me to go read it.” The book in question? Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by Bell Hooks, a precursor to the rise of intersectional feminism in the late 1980s. 

Davis read the book with an air of indifference. “I had heard of the word ‘feminist’ and I was like yeah, that’s great. Women and Gender Studies. Yeah, I get it. Women, you deserve equality.” Davis reported back to Rivera, who asked him again about the young woman in the incident. “I gave her the exact same answer and she laughed.” So Davis read it again. Rivera asked him again. Davis fed her the same word salad. Rivera laughed again.

Davis grew exasperated. “Just tell me what you want me to know,” he begged. Rivera responded, “If I tell you, it won’t become personal.”

Halfway into his third read-through, it finally clicked. “I realized this book is about me. What Bell Hooks was articulating was an experience that I had no clue of. All through my [schooling], I wasn’t given many books to read about women. Most of the stories that I had heard were about men, I had understood how men built the entire world. But I had yet to understand what the impact that women had.”

Davis then demonstrated how women are excluded from the historical narrative, and how it shapes our values. “We as men don’t grow up seeing women as ourselves. We don’t grow up seeing women as our reflection. We grow up seeing you as our attendants, that you attend to our needs,” he explained. “What is the impact that you are educated in a world where women are not seen as your competition?”

"Power is taken away from women."

The impact is that power is taken away from women. That power is then transferred to men in the form of privilege. Over time, the effect snowballs, becoming normalized and internalized. As a result, women must arbitrarily prove themselves when men in the same situation don’t. This imbalanced dynamic plays out in ad agencies every day, every way.

It plays out when a juicy creative brief is handed by a Creative Director to “the boys” because he trusts that they’ll crack it the first time.

It plays out when a man gets credit for repeating something a woman said earlier.

It plays out when a woman is propositioned by a man in power who asks her to “prove” how much she wants the job.


So how do men advocate for gender equality? For Davis, it boils down to one question:

What are you willing to give up?

Rather than treating it as a rhetorical thought exercise, Davis pleads for us to internalize the question, to make it personal: “You have to give up something, because you’ve gained so much in the process.” Davis then rattles off a few examples:

“Are you willing to give up that friend who actually says a lot of problematic things?”

“When you're in a meeting, and you hear one of your male colleagues regurgitate something a woman just said, are you willing to actually stand up and say ‘Hey, she just said that’?”

“Are you willing to give up the fact that you get a promotion or you get hired for a job, just because you're a former NFL player?”

"The status quo works in [men's] favor."

For many men — including those of us who are self-described “allies” — it can be hard to ask ourselves these questions because it might not feel like we ourselves took anything away. After all, we inherit this privilege the moment we enter the world; it’s just how things are. We’re oblivious to how our lifelong privilege affects those without it. The status quo works in our favor.

Why is it easier to deflect and dismiss and carry on as usual than to do some introspection and making the issue personal? According to Davis, the reason is fear. “Fear is why we don’t have gender equality in the workplace right now. Fear is why men don’t come to [The 3% Conference].”

"[Men are] afraid of an even playing field."

We’re afraid to lose our unfair advantage. We’re afraid of an even playing field. Davis says one of the ways we project our insecurity is by asking women to make the business case for gender equality. It’s an asinine ask — what’s the business case for men to run the world? — but time and time again studies have shown that women-led businesses perform better than those led by men.

Even though the business case for women has been made, why are there more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies named “James” than women overall? Why were there more Creative Directors named “John” than female Creative Directors at my old agency?

Fear is one helluva drug.

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