Why I never ever wear dresses to work?

Stevie Maple Archer, Creative Director

Before I made the choice to become a creative in advertising, I knew that it was a male-dominated occupation.

It was information I simply couldn’t avoid. My own two eyes could see that most clients were men, most agency leaders were men, and most agency creatives were men.

But as a girl who was raised in the ’80s and ’90s by two working parents, I was told I could be anything I wanted. I had the Spice Girls and girl power reinforcing that notion. Oprah was the queen of TV. Sally Ride had gone to space. And even the fourth Karate Kid movie starred Hilary Swank.

The lack of visible female representation in advertising did not faze me. Besides, I grew up with two brothers. I curse like a motherfucking sailor. My friends are often guys. And I’ve always been the kind of girl who could “hang.” So if I had to be one of a few girls in an advertising agency then I would.

To the industry’s credit, as a young copywriter my femaleness didn’t feel like a restraint. My creative directors judged me on the merit of my work. And I got just as many opportunities as my male colleagues. In fact in some cases, I probably got more. Because I worked my ass off, and because I was as comfortable writing for manly lawnmower brands as I was for female fashion brands, whereas sometimes the boys were not.

Those first years in advertising as a junior writer, I never felt limited by what I looked like on the outside. What mattered was what was inside my head.

It took one board meeting in 2012 to forever shatter that young, naïve delusion.

That year, I worked on a major rebranding campaign for a Fortune 500 company. It was the kind of company with lots of decision makers, and for many months my agency did many rounds of work. Each round of work meant a presentation to the client’s marketing team. My ideas were always part of those presentations, and because I’m a strong presenter, I was part of them, too—delivering the scripts, selling the ideas, having strategic conversations about the changes.

After about seven months, it was time to take the campaign to the board of directors— a group of twelve men and three women.

Because my work made up a large portion of the campaign, and because I had successfully presented it so many times before, the CMO and SVP of marketing specifically requested I be the creative to present it to the board.

I was honored they wanted me for such an important role, and I was panic-stricken.

Not because I was nervous about the work, or how I would do. But because I didn’t have anything remotely appropriate to wear to a conservative company’s board of directors’ meeting. (As a creative, for years I had gotten through client meetings with my designated “client clothes” which consisted of my least-worn pair of dark jeans, and a black button-down shirt. If the meeting was REALLY important I’d leave my black hoodie at home.)

But I couldn’t walk into a fancy wood-paneled room and expect to be taken seriously by fifteen executives in suits looking like I’d just walked out of a Madewell clearance sale.

So I bought a dress.

It was a really nice one, too. It was made out of that sophisticated gray business suit material and everything. I instantly went from “Urban Outfitters reject” to “Marissa Mayer on the cover of Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women issue.”

At the meeting, my executive creative director briefly introduced me, and then I stood up in front of the massive oval conference table and presented all of the work. My agency’s president and CEO wrapped up and everyone clapped.

After the clapping ended, the board members stood up and began to mingle. They shook the hands of my agency’s male CEO and male president. They pulled my male executive creative director aside and asked him clarifying questions.

Meanwhile, I stood there smiling and nodding my head politely at the board members’ comments. I attempted to circulate a little, looking for a conversation to join. And I ultimately resorted to doing that thing where you just pretend to be a part of the conversation even though you’re kind of behind the group and no one is really talking to you.

Finally, one of the female board members tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention. I quickly readied myself to answer her important strategic questions and deftly address her creative comments.

And then she said to me, “That’s a very pretty dress.” and walked away.

That was the only comment I received from any of the board members that day.

And while it was meant to be a compliment, it cut deep. I couldn’t believe that I had stood in front of that room and delivered a multi-million dollar rebranding campaign (that I knew every detail of inside and out) and not one person could find anything to say to me beyond how pretty my outfit was.

I tried to rationalize it afterward. I told myself it was a VERY pretty dress. I wondered if maybe I hadn’t presented well enough. I second-guessed my hesitation to butt in on more of the board members’ conversations. I told myself it was natural for board members to make more effort to talk to other executives. And I blamed myself for subconsciously doing whatever it was I must have done to convey I wasn’t critical to the process.

But then I realized the only subconscious thing I had done was to be a girl in a dress.

And I’ve never ever worn that dress, or any other, to work again.

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