To change the game, remodel the locker room

March 8, 2021 | Share this article

Become part of the solution, not part of the problem, says Melissa Fein. Here’s what she has done to try and level-up inequality since becoming CEO at Initiative.

“I had to resign clients that had antiquated gender practices, such as not letting me present without a man accompanying me… as recently as 2019!”

— Melissa Fein

Every year around International Women’s Day our industry shares countless ‘Don Draper-esque’ horror stories to contextualise the change we’ve collectively championed. These raw and real tales serve to reinforce the need to stand-up and challenge any behaviour we see as unequal (or worse), even if deemed ‘normal’ by today’s standards.

Sadly, an unavoidable by-product of these stories is the demonisation of men. This worries me, as speaking as someone who grew up in AFL locker rooms travelling the country (my father was heavily involved in an AFL club), men aren’t just the problem…it’s culture. It’s culture that normalises toxic masculinity, I saw many men easily make bad decisions because it was accepted behaviour. When I started my career in media, the ‘locker-room culture’ I came into was confronting.

It became normal for men to coerce a female sales rep to take them home, alone, in a cab, because “you can expense it, but I can’t”. Politely fending off ‘roaming hands’ became a skill many of us regrettably had to develop. It was normal to have a mandatory male leader in all important meetings; women simply weren’t trusted to get men’s business done.

Importantly, many women adopted a protectionist layer of ‘if you can’t beat it, join it’ which helped them, but hurt others. Embracing toxically masculine mannerisms to protect their careers; they were bystanders to younger women being put in uncomfortable situations.

For me, the most uncomfortable experiences of my career were not gender-specific – they were ‘alpha’ specific.

Boot, other foot

As an industry characterised by intimate relationships, big investments and capitalist ideals, there is always going to be a tension between personal ethics and corporate needs. As a sales rep in my early twenties, I felt hamstrung to call out toxically masculine behaviour, especially if it was about someone who could make or break our sales targets.

Fast forward to today and I am so glad that the locker room culture of the industry is dying out. No more gin clubs. No more ‘twin peak’ lunches. More encouragement to call out the intolerable.

The power dynamic in our culture is shifting with more women in leadership roles than ever and more male champions of change stepping up.

But that does not mean we should lift our foot off the accelerator. As shown by insights within the recent UN ‘When will she be right?’ campaign that Initiative has proudly supported, the pandemic has resolidified a lot of the challenges women face in the industry and has pushed our plight back decades. We have to keep fighting and being proactive in challenging for change.

On becoming CEO of Initiative I was determined to ensure our locker room had the right culture for true equality. It meant I had to reshape internal dynamics, resign clients that had antiquated gender practices (such as not letting me present without a man accompanying me…as recently as 2019!), and address any existing gender pay discrepancies.

All of which set the foundations for success, but it’s the everyday, more normalised actions that have driven the greatest change: Loudly encouraging mothers, and fathers, to leave to break the stigma around leaving early for family time; providing the keys of change to our people who help lead our extensive citizenship programs and steer our broader Diversity, Equity & Inclusion commitments; and empowering everyoneto speak up and have a voice across the agency, regardless of title or gender.

This also applies to the wider industry. As we return to a post-Covid world and entertainment starts to return, I am not naïve to think ‘roaming hands’ won’t exist, so we must ALL continue to call out unacceptable actions and work as a collective industry to abolish this ‘alpha behaviour’.

Whilst pushing for a more equal future should be a 365-day endeavour, I’m so grateful International Women’s Day exists as a marker to review our locker rooms and keep pushing culture to be as progressive as it should be across our workplaces, industry and wider community.

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