My Experience as a Woman in the Ad Ops Industry

by Lila Hunt, on Jun 11, 2021 9:00:00 AM

I recently joined the Ad Ops All Stars podcast with Kathleen from Clean.IO and she asked me “What is it like being a woman in ad tech?”

TLDR; the struggle is real. 

As a yoga teacher and student I try to check my privilege on a regular basis. I didn’t start from an equal place of opportunity like many of my peers in the industry. Looking at me, you may assume I come from a pretty regular, affluent first world family. 

Without going into details; I don’t. 

But at the same time, I had many more opportunities afforded to me than most of the people in my socio-economic peerset. I had a smart mamma and while we experienced a challenging pit stop in our grand journey, I at least had a good support system at home by proxy of my mom and brother. 

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It was through these tough years I developed my grit and work ethic. Little did I know my peerset would grow to include ivy league new yorkers, silicon valley geniuses, and the best talent at the biggest tech companies all over the world. 

I often found myself asking, “how did a lower class kid from small town Canada end up here?”

Surely, these people must have a proverbial je ne sais quoi that I did not. In my early career, I discriminated against myself long before anyone else ever had the chance.

Little did I know in this big bright world of fancy scotch and cigarettes, I would not stand out for where I came from but rather for my fundamental biology. 

I was immersed in a world of white business men and all the egos and politics to boot. I was also in my mid to late 20’s, looked like I was barely old enough to work and sounded like a thirteen year old on the phone. 

As I navigated this completely foreign world I quickly began to learn I was as capable as the people around me, if not more due to my understanding of technology and systems. I was thrown at this world as the “technical one” which came with its own set of challenges because of what I am rather than what I know. 

On the podcast, I drew upon an analogy to describe my experience as a woman in tech:

“I’m driving in a competitive race car race. Everyone else is given the same advantage which is a top of the line race car fully gassed and ready to go.

I show up in my Mazda 3. 

How will my competitors perceive me? They laugh at me, dismiss me and then carry on as if I'm not even there. They may scoff “oh you’re cute, get out of the way and let us do our thing.” I’m irrelevant because my car doesn’t look or sound the same as everyone else's fancy race car.  

What they don’t see is that I actually have a better engine under the hood, better tires and a better crew. I’m keeping up with the fancy race car, I’m making gains and people start saying “who are you, where did you come from?” In real life, I have actually had people turn their heads after I speak and say “who are you?;” which tells me my relevance was fundamentally unexpected in the first place. 

My better engine is my technical background. I know enough about how systems actually work to know how to make money in this industry. 

My better tires are my work ethic. I work harder because I have to. My relevance is unexpected and sometimes flat out unwelcomed which means I have to be on my game at all times. There is no room for error which is a distinct pressure that I feel minorities experience more than the majority demographic. 

My better crew are those random people in life who say “you know what, I'm betting on the underdog, the payout on those odds are interesting…” These people are in the background. They aren’t jumping up and down asking for big ups. They are intelligent, confident and respectful leaders who aren’t threatened by others’ success. 

Now, what happens when the underdog starts winning the race? It’s shocking, exciting for some, and threatening to others. Our industry is competitive. There are going to be people put off when they lose pace in the race. They may even start throwing tacs out the window. I learned early on, I can’t change the bumps in the road, even when they are maliciously laid out. I just have to keep driving smart and winning races.”

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Kathleen also asked me what my current career challenges are and I couldn’t offer anything material. I am privileged. I have a great job through one of the most unstable market shifts of my career. My current environment values intelligence and high performance. Women in tech have made a lot of gains compared to the start of my career. The definition of professionalism has changed dramatically. I don’t win every race but atleast I feel like I belong in the driver’s seat in the races that matter. 

What an accomplishment for a lower class kid from small town Canada, for a woman in a male dominated industry, and to be honest - for anyone. 

Now that I am in a position with influence, I try to actively create opportunities for people around me and essentially pay forward my advantages in life. I don’t want someone like me to hold back because they were labelled, discouraged or withheld opportunities. What “someone like me” looks like today is probably not the same as I looked back then. It takes a watchful eye, introspection, honesty and active decision making, which is why I do yoga instead of driving race cars.

Disclaimer: I know nothing about professional race car driving aside from what I learned from playing video games in the 90s.

Topics:AdOps StrategyAd Ops All Stars

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