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Lisa Hickey

Lisa Hickey
November 06
Publisher, CEO
The Good Men Project
Part of The Good Men Project. CEO of Good Men Media. I like to create things that capture the imagination of the general public & become a part of the culture.

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FEBRUARY 6, 2012 5:27PM

A Female Asshole is a Bitch: On Equal Opportunity Name-Call

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Why do we seem to have a problem with people who are clear, direct and assertive?

I was sitting in the audience at my first advertising award show, and creative people who were my heroes would parade on stage to get their silver bowls. I watched and grew aware that everyone who walked up on stage was male, so I started looking out for the women creatives--art directors, copywriters, creative directors --to walk on stage. None and none and none. Finally a woman’s name was called, and barely had she stood up to begin her walk down the aisle when the stranger to the right of me whispered, “I heard she’s a bitch.”

I let it slide, continued to watch as several more guys walked on stage, to murmers of “wow,” “so creative," “what talent.” Finally another woman’s name was called, and as she walked up on stage a voice from somewhere to the left of me rang out, “Too bad she’s such a bitch.”

I had just started my first job in advertising and was dumbstruck. How could it be, I thought, that the only award-winning creative women in New England were both bitches?


It took me a while to figure out that creative guys were called assholes and creative gals were called bitches and really it was equal opportunity name-calling. Male creative-types were also called arrogant, ego-maniacs, jerks and babies, while women were called…well, bitches.

The reason was not some deep-seated personality flaw in the men and women who went into advertising. The reason, I believe, is that coming up with a creative idea, and seeing it all the way through to its end point, that point where it gives you the right to walk up on stage and receive a silver bowl – is hard. It’s a process where you have to have ideas – tons of them, good and bad, be willing to be told the bad ones suck, be willing to be told you suck, politely tell other people that their ideas suck, persuade a cynical client that your idea makes sound economic sense, work with other artists who want to add their stamp to your idea and then see your idea all the way through to execution – a months long process. The whole time people are telling you: “that won’t work” “the client will never buy that” “You’re too edgy. Again.” “You’ll get fired if you do that.” “You’ll get fired if you don’t do better than that.”

And throughout that process you need to constantly say, “yes, we are doing this” and “no, we are not doing that” even when you don’t have the authority, the ranking, the skill set, the resources, or the power. You have to say such things with absolute clarity and conviction, and leave no room for anyone to disagree with you and thus water down your idea.

And if you’re a female, that makes you a bitch.


Five years after that award show, I’m flying in a glass-bottom helicopter high above the Los Angeles sound. We’re looking for a barge that has a lone car with a guy on his laptop sitting in the middle of it. No, I’m not in a dream, I’m in the middle of a million-dollar television shoot. I have headphones on, and I’m miked to both the cameraman and the pilot. “Can you veer a little to the West and do a fly-by on the right side of the barge?” I have no clue what I’m talking about.  I’m only there because the actual commercial director had vomited from airsickness before he was able to get the shot, and as he stumbled out of the helicopter, retching, I hopped in before anyone would think it was a bad idea. The commercial I was about to shoot would go on to garner accolades at some of the most prestigious award shows around: Cannes, Clio, The London Show—as well as being part of an exhibition at MOMA. The client, Lotus Software, was less than six months away from being sold to IBM for something on the order of $3.5 billion, in part because of the success of the launch of the product we were shooting the commercial for.

But I knew none of that. All I knew was that I’d had to sell my idea to over a hundred people just to get into that helicopter. And I knew, that, regardless of the fact that I was giving directions to a pilot––or, more likely, because I was giving directions to a pilot––I had to be decisive, crystal clear in what I wanted and completely in control of the situation. Even if I had no clue what I was doing.

We had time for one more shot; we were racing the sunlight. “Ok, now fly straight over barge as slowly as you can.” It sounded about right. “Roger that,” replied the pilot.


Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, has a fascinating look at the causes of plane crashes. What he tells us is that plane crashes rarely happen the way they do in movies--you know--with the explosion of an engine part with a fiery bang. Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of “an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.” Those difficulties, which could have been corrected at any time, are then compounded by pilot errors--one after another. The typical plane crash, says Gladwell, involves seven consecutive human errors. And those errors are invariably errors of teamwork, communication and a lack of clarity and directness.


I learned about the value of being direct in communications from--go figure--directors. Commercial television production directors, to be exact. There’s a reason they are called directors--they direct people. And when they speak, boy are they direct.

“Get me a 6-foot stepladder, a 50 watt halogen lamp, and place it in socket number four.” There is an implied “now” at the end of every sentence. It always takes only one very quick production assistant to change a light bulb.

Commercial television production directors are called “assholes” on a regular basis.


It’s an odd cultural twitch, this tendency to call people who speak very directly assholes (if male) and bitches (if female). There are circumstances where there is simply no time for niceties--like when you’re on a production set and a single minute could cost you $1,000 in overages. But in other cases, it might be because by speaking very directly you are making it crystal clear that you are leaving no room for the other person to argue with you. You are effectively shutting people out, not paying attention to them, not caring what they think.

But here’s the thing. At a certain point, if you have made a decision, that means you have stopped caring what other people think. You can only take other people's input up until the moment that you decide. You can’t actually make a decision without owning it.


My tendency is to be nice, kind, polite. I believe, that on a macro level, it’s a good business strategy. People want to work with people they enjoy working with. When you are giving birth to a creative product, you often need hundreds of people or more to pour their heart and soul into it. My preference is to embrace and respect what every person brings to the party, and share all joy, all credit, all accolades with those who help make things happen.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t make decisions, often unpopular ones, own those decisions and accept the consequences when things go wrong. You can’t move forward without that ability.


On more than one occasion, I've been nearly fired for being “too nice”. Here’s an actual conversation from one of my reviews:

“Lisa, sometimes your desire to be kind and polite when giving direction gets in the way of clarity.”

“Oh, I understand what you’re saying, sorry… but I just think that it might be…”

(interrupting) “Lisa. Sometimes. Your. Politeness. Gets. In. The. Way. Of. Clarity.”


Malcolm Gladwell goes on to look at actual communications in the cockpits of flights just before they crashed by examining the black box recordings. It turns out, one common reason planes crash is because the First Officers are afraid to be seen as assholes to Pilots, Air Traffic Controllers, and other crew. “Asshole” is not the word Gladwell uses, but the point is the same. For example, instead of saying to the pilot, "Turn 30 degrees right to avoid the thunderstorm ahead" a First Office on a Korean Air flight said "Don’t you think it rains here more? Uhm, I think maybe we should turn left or right." In a well-known crash over the Potomac, the First Officer is heard saying to the captain, as he watches the de-icers through the window: "Boy, this is a losing battle here, trying to de-ice those things, it gives you a false feeling of security, that's all it does." That was one of three “hints” he gave the captain, trying to get the captain to understand he was worried about the de-icing. He should have said instead, "We cannot take off until we are properly de-iced." The First Officer has that authority – but often someone in that role mitigates emergency situations because they are trying to defer to the Pilot. In fact, LESS crashes occur when the First Officer is flying, even if the captain has much more flying experience, because the captain is not afraid to actually give orders. As Jackie Summers points out: “Someone’s got to be an asshole.” The pilot is clear that is his role.

A crash of Avianca flight 052 into John McEnroe’s estate points out just how fatal a lack of directness can be. Gladwell examines a this exchange between a First Officer, an Air Traffic Controller, and a Pilot:

Klotz: “Climb and maintain three thousand and, ah, we’re running out of fuel, sir.”

As Gladwell points out, no mention of the magic word “emergency”, which is what air traffic controllers are trained to listen for. Running out of fuel means nothing without that word. All planes, by design, are about to run out of fuel as they land.

Air Traffic Control: And Aviancia zero-five-two heavy, I’m gonna bring you about fifteen miles northeast and then turn you back onto the approach. Is that okay with you and your fuel?

Klotz: I guess so. Thank you very much.

Captain Caviedes then turns to Klotz.

Caviedes: What did he say?

Klotz: The guy is angry.

Within five minutes the plane does, in fact, run out of fuel and crashes, killing 73 people on board.

As Gladwell notes about the First Officer’s communication: “Angry! Klotz’s feeling are hurt! He is moments away from disaster…in his mind he has tried and failed to communicate his plight, and his only conclusion is that he must have somehow offended his superiors in the control tower.”


When I’m clear, I act with certainty.

You can’t lead without making a decision. If you are still allowing other people to change your mind, you haven’t made a decision. And until you make a decision you can’t lead. You can’t save a plane that’s running out of gas. You can’t direct a commercial. You can’t run a company.


So can you be direct AND kind? Is it possible to lead and manage and speak with the utmost clarity, with authority, with certainty – and still have others feel as though they are 100% invested in the process? Can you make the most unpopular of decisions and still have people walk away happy?

Do I HAVE to be a bitch?

Clarity and directness improve with practice, and I practice every day. When I send an email, I usually edit each sentence three times.  Just. To. Make. Sure. I’m Clear. At the same time, it’s more important to me to truly try to understand what others are saying than to be polite for politeness sake.

But most importantly, to get to that clarity of voice I use a “conscious moral compass” to drive clarity of thought.

Here’s how it works. When I am making any decision worth making, I first count to four. The four is you, me, we, the world. That is, I won’t make a decision unless I factor in all four of those. “Me”, well, it’s my decision I’m making – and I need to take responsibility for that – whatever happens. I need to own the decision. But “you” – if you’re there, if you’re across from me at the bargaining table, or you’re a partner in what we’re doing, or you’re a part of the story – then your wants and needs are considered too. At some point it might become zero-sum, but let’s start with the assumption we can both get what we want. “We” is that which is bigger than me and you -- it’s the company we work for, it’s Lotus who wants to be sold, it’s the community, it’s the entire family. Any larger group or structure who might benefit from the right decision or suffer the consequences of the wrong one. Then there’s the world – the world that I’d rather give art to than spam, the world where one’s very existence is important, the world that holds the greater goodness I want to be a part of.

Those four considerations become part of an algorithm in my head that shape all of my decisions and all my actions. You, me, we, the world. The four points on my moral compass. Get clarity around each of those, and the rest is easy.


I never got to walk on stage to accept my awards from that tv shoot. I was already onto the next thing---in over my head as a creative director, juggling a fourth child and work and a whole slew of new creative ideas that had to be thought of and nurtured and executed. The trophies got delivered to my house and went straight to the attic. I’m pretty sure someone said, “bitch” when I didn’t show up at the awards show. I’m good with that.

photos: Lotus Notes TV commercial screen grabs. The series of three commercials can be seen here.


This post first appeared on The Good Men Project. 


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If they just made the whole plane out of the same stuff as they make the black box it wouldn't matter what the pilot drank for dinner.
Then that same approach could be applied to the rest of our life and we could all take off the helmets and enjoy the experience.
If it makes you feel any better, Lisa, you are not a bitch. You sound very intelligent and funny too. Creative work is a cut-throat business, and like you said, it is very hard. Good luck. This is a righteous read. R
Thanks alsoknownas and Thoth,

I like taking off my helmet and going along for the ride. It's funny how creative is so cut-throat, when it's all about the ideas. I like the way with social media, you can just be your own creative media channel outlet agency.