Sexual harassment in the Middle East Ad industry: Breaking the Silence
Posted on February 01, 2018 | By Iain Akerman

Sexual harassment is prevalent in the region’s advertising industry, but why isn’t anybody talking about it?

The stories of sexual harassment that flooded both traditional and social media in the wake of the allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein defined the latter half of 2017. It proved a watershed, with industries and governments around the world reeling from the unprecedented reckoning with sexual harassment.

Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K, director Morgan Spurlock, English actor Ed Westwick, US senator Al Franken, political journalist Glenn Thrush, music producer Russell Simmons, TV producer Andrew Kreisberg, even Charles Dutoit, artistic director and principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: all were among those who faced an increasing barrage of accusations.

The darling of digital and broadcast media, Vice, wasn’t spared either. At the beginning of January its president, along with the company’s chief digital officer, was placed on leave after sexual harassment allegations were levelled against both of them in a New York Times investigation. An investigation that had uncovered four settlements involving allegations of sexual harassment or defamation against Vice employees, with more than two dozen other women saying they had experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct at the company.

Within the advertising industry, however, there has been near silence. Only diversity advocate Cindy Gallop has spoken out publicly, asking for the ‘Harvey Weinsteins of our industry’ to be exposed. Yet we know that the problem exists. In 2016, a 4As study in the US found that more than 50 per cent of women in the advertising industry have faced sexual harassment.

Gallop, who issued a call to action on Facebook, has been inundated with stories, not just of powerful men abusing their positions, but of HR departments firing sexual harassers without publicising why, and women who have been ‘culturally brainwashed’ to be complicit. Frequently it is women who are doing the covering up on behalf of networks and agencies.

The Middle East is no different. It is a region, after all, that contains Cairo, recently named the world’s most dangerous megacity for women.

Although the majority of incidences of sexual harassment go unreported by the victims or are covered up in some way, one case in particular stood out last year. 

 

THE BIG CASE

Last spring, a number of allegations were made by a handful of women against two senior members of staff at Memac Ogilvy Dubai. Those allegations were investigated, firstly by a team sent from London, who interviewed 36 members of staff, and secondly by two senior global representatives. Sanctions were eventually taken against both individuals, with one suspended and the other issued with an official written warning outlining the allegations against him.

Both subsequently resigned: the suspended individual in August, and the second in November, although the latter decision is not believed to be directly connected to the allegations against him. For legal reasons, none of those involved can be named.

Memac Ogilvy would not comment on the nature of the allegations or on the specifics of the action taken, insisting only that the necessary and right action had been taken. And although the agency talked at length off the record, it would commit to only a few on-the-record statements, all of which were attributed to Edmond Moutran, chairman of Memac Ogilvy.

“We are focused on creating a safe, healthy work environment for all of our employees,” said Moutran. “We take all complaints seriously and when a complaint is raised, we have a rigorous process in place to investigate and seek resolution fairly and in a timely manner.

“At Memac Ogilvy, we are creating a positive, creative, and collaborative environment of diversity, inclusiveness, and belonging in all that we say and do.”  

The majority of women contacted for this article would not talk, and even if they did it was under the condition of anonymity. Even heads of human resources would not comment, citing the “contentious” nature of the issue.

 

WHAT CONSTITUTES SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Fear, confidentiality, loss of work and the very real threat of being blacklisted makes sexual harassment an almost impossible subject to broach. Male sexual entitlement, the cult of personality within agencies, and the social and hedonistic nature of advertising itself only complicate the matter.

“I also observe in the industry that some women behave or dress even at work or at work-related events in a way which could be seen as quite inviting or provoking.”--Ricarda Ruecker, vice-president of leadership and organisation development at MCN

 “As everyone else, I am condemning sexual harassment wherever in the world,” says Ricarda Ruecker, vice-president of leadership and organisation development at MCN. “Men and women should be treated and treat each other with respect and professionalism regardless of their gender. I strongly believe that any cases of sexual harassment should be dealt with immediately, which also implies that people affected should speak up and inform HR about cases at once. Only then can they be dealt with.

“This is a point where I have some mixed feelings about the current movement. Everyone feels free to speak up now even if it happened a long time ago. Perhaps addressing the issue immediately would have prevented further damage to others. Yes, it needs courage, but it is for the right reasons.”

Many of those who have chosen not to speak out publicly point to the case of Erin Johnson as the reason why. Johnson, who was J. Walter Thompson’s chief communications officer, filed a lawsuit against Gustavo Martinez, the now former global chief executive and chairman of JWT, in 2016 for allegedly making consistent racist and sexist remarks. The case is ongoing, with WPP backing Martinez and JWT hiring crisis communications and reputation management firm Finsbury. Although Martinez resigned, it was reported last October that he is now leading WPP’s operations in Spain.

“The biggest problem is that the term sexual harassment is interpreted differently by different people and abused by some while over exaggerated by others,” says a senior executive who wishes to remain anonymous. “I personally haven’t been a victim or been put in a situation where I was intimidated or pushed into any form of harassment, maybe partly because I have a relatively strong personality that makes it risky for someone to try and harass me, and partly because I have worked in organisations where sexual harassment claims were taken very seriously so individuals had to calculate each step and bear harsh consequences.

“The definition of the term needs to be unified and awareness has to be raised to explain to both women and men in the working environment what behaviour is considered harassment and what isn’t. When and how a woman is supposed to raise a flag if she feels harassed. To impose an appropriate dress code for women and the use of appropriate language by both men and women.

“As bad as I may sound, and keeping in mind that I am a feminist, some thinking and behaviour by female ‘social climbers’ in a conservative region like the GCC is equally bad, if not worse, than the abusive behaviour of some men in power. This is where the line becomes blurry – between her invitation and his provocation – and the problem is deepened further.”

What constitutes sexual harassment, however, is clearly defined by most companies, with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stating: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

 

MORE THAN A CODE OF CONDUCT

“In our region it is an even more sensitive subject as many women are dealing with men due to their cultural and religious background less freely than possibly in Europe,” says Ruecker. “This needs to be taken into account by expat men moving here for work. They need to adapt in the way they deal with women, talk to women or even look at women in the work place.  

“At the same time, I also observe in the industry that some women behave or dress even at work or at work-related events in a way which could be seen as quite inviting or provoking. If I don’t want to be a victim I also need to make sure I don’t send out messages, which may lead to sexual harassment. I also can say ‘stop’ or walk away. I believe things don’t just happen to us, we might at times ask ourselves if we contributed in any way for this to happen.”

MCN, which is part of IPG, has a clear policy with regards to sexual harassment and encourages people to come forward immediately, says Ruecker. In October, IPG’s chairman and chief executive officer Michael Roth sent a memo to all IPG employees globally stating that it had a “zero-tolerance policy for all types of harassment” and ensured protection for whistleblowers.

But do such statements work? Do they overcome the intimidation felt by vulnerable young employees? Do HR departments help victims, or only aid in silencing complainants and reducing the fallout from cases of sexual harassment?

On a global level, women’s voices are being heard, believed, and acted on. The #MeToo movement, which emerged in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, has been instrumental in that change.

In the Middle East, however, far more needs to be done, with open and honest discussions concerning the prevalence and scope of sexual harassment a priority if progress is to be made and women are to be empowered. Industry gender imbalances that lend themselves to a system that fosters abuse of power also need to be rectified.

“Organisations need to do more to regulate and to assess,” says the senior executive. “Sharing with an employee a code of conduct to sign is not enough. It takes the blame away from the agency; that is for sure, but doesn’t provide enough protection. Companies need to design workshops for all their workforce and conduct open debates about the topic, where questions and answers can start shedding light on anonymous instances, and where employees can start holding their rights with their own hands. A code of conduct then becomes tangible and complete.”