How I lost my straight male privilege

Last week, as part of Cossette’s Pride celebrations, the agency’s Montreal-based vice-president of content Chris Bergeron visited the Toronto office to share her extraordinary story about being transgendered in the ad industry.

Bergeron has put together a talk called “Losing my Privilege: What becoming a minority has taught me about leadership”—she first gave the presentation in New York last month. The intent, she says, is to share what her experience of transitioning from male to female have taught her about being a business leader in a creative industry. “It’s one thing to imagine what it’s like to all of a sudden become a visible minority—or at least a visible sexual minority—it’s another to live it,” she says.

Speaking with Bergeron, it quickly becomes clear just how much her career and where she’s worked have shaped incredibly important personal decisions. Conversely, her experiences have provided a unique perspective about where the ad industry is today and where it can go tomorrow.

Transitioning from being a man to a woman is not just about a physical change. It also changes how you see the world and how you interpret others.

“If you’ve lived the life of a straight looking white guy, to actually walk down the street and all of a sudden people judge you, you understand what it feels like to experience a form of racism or a form of exclusion,” she says. “It feels as if the veil has been lifted from the world; it feels like it’s a bit of an uglier place.”

And in advertising, the privilege of not being judged has a profound impact.

“You have to be very loud to get heard,” she says of the business. “The most creative person, the brightest person in the room, the one coming up with the best concept is the one that’s going to be listened to. And then obviously that person is the one that has typically had the most opportunities, and probably then comes from the most privileged background.”

There are lessons to be learned in her story, not just about the importance of trans and queer equality in the workplace, but about the inevitability of change and the importance of growth and adaptation; about removing blinders and embracing truths about ourselves and those around us—abilities with outsized value in an industry built upon understanding human behaviour.

Yet Bergeron’s story did not start in advertising. Instead, she spent the early years of her professional life as a man in what she calls the “fairly macho world” of journalism, eventually running Voir, a leading alt-weekly in Montreal.

“I tried to fit in. I developed this sort of very alpha-male type of character,” she says. But eventually she started to look for ways to shed that persona in order to live her true life. She eventually decided to change industries, to find a place that would embrace difference and individualism. “I said, ‘Well advertising might be that.’ I remember visiting an agency and thinking ‘There seems to be a bit more freedom there,’” she says.

And at first Bergeron did feel a new sense of freedom. She started dressing more androgynously—“A bit of an ad version of David Bowie, but without the talent,” she says—before moving on to dresses and heels. But she soon discovered new barriers and “unwritten rules.” “The women started calling me ‘she’ and the men continued to call me ‘he,’” says Bergeron. As she proceeded further down the path, client issues started to pop up.

“It was along the lines of ‘If you see this client, you should go as male. If you see that client, you can be yourself.’” Another client told the agency in no uncertain terms that they didn’t want “that person” working on the business. “So then I had to work on the account, but not client facing, even though I had pitched the account and won it.”

Bergeron decided she needed to leave the agency and work as a freelancer to really become who she wanted to be. She started to live as a woman full-time in 2013. The next year, she was hired at Cossette as a woman; while the press release still used the masculine “directeur” instead of feminine “directrice” to announce her appointment, she immediately felt welcome.

“Even the HR people told me, ‘We will follow your lead on this,’ instead of my previous job, where the HR people had told me not to go to the washroom unless I started medical transition,” she says. “Here it was completely the reverse. It was ‘Okay, how can we help you in your transition?’”

The real breakthrough moment came before pitching a client Bergeron had previously worked on when she still identified as a male. Bergeron asked Cossette’s chief executive Melanie Dunn how they wanted to address this with the client. “I’m going to to present you as a woman, because that’s what I see, that’s what you are,” Dunn responded. That was the moment Bergeron knew she was going to be alright. “Not only is this woman telling me that I’m okay, but it felt—because she’s a CEO—that the system is telling me that I’m finally okay. And from then on I started the medical transition.”

Living life as a transgendered person is a bit like being a boxer, says Bergeron. Except the fight starts the moment you leave your house: You have to fight to be heard, to be respected, always on your toes, never letting your guard down. And it’s exhausting. “I think the quality of an employer is whether they realize that. And what steps they take to alleviate the pressures of society, so that at least when you’re at work you’re in a safe space, and you’re not fighting.”

It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s good for the business, she says. “When people like me stop having to fight, what happens is that energy now is used to manage people, to come up with ideas and actually do the work… all of a sudden we have the right to focus.”

Attitudes towards transgender and diversity are undeniably different, and Bergeron sees encouraging signs about broader progress toward greater equality and inclusion. “There’s a sense of rebellion from woman, which I think is fantastic,” she says, citing the efforts of Montreal’s Femmes en Crea to have a woman chair Quebec’s prestigious Crea awards for the first time. “There’s really a sense of ‘We’re not going to take the bullshit anymore.’ We are pushing ahead. Adapt or die,” she says.

There is also growing client pressure on agency leaders to be more focused on real change and growth, and less worried about the self-aggrandizing behaviour so often demonstrated within advertising. That suits Bergeron fine.

“Maybe it’s the estrogen or something, but I am now less inclined to care about advertising as a competitive sport,” she says. “I think I’ve been metaphorically beaten a bit by society and received a couple of punches; it’s made me softer and perhaps a little bit more focused on what counts.”

What counts, she says, is doing work that truly engages with people, and gaining deeper understanding of what motivates clients and customers—what they really care about and how they actually live their lives, rather than just trying to imagine or guess. “[That was] something I used to do quite a bit when I was living a very privileged life,” she says.

Today, she’s more likely to interrogate her owns ideas and beliefs about her work. “It’s important to double check if your insight is actually true, or are you just imposing your views on the world,” she says. “We like to talk about insights in advertising. In fact, it’s often personal bias that is pushed up to a concept. So I don’t trust my personal biases anymore because they’ve changed so much.”

While the industry remains “a very scary place,” for trans people, she says it’s getting better, and she feels more comfortable at Cossette.

Is that because times have changed, or is Cossette simply doing a better job than her previous employer of creating a work environment where she feels safe and valued? “I think Cossette is particularly good at this,” she says. “Because our president is a woman. Honestly I would just leave it at that. So many of our VPs are women… There is a level of empathy that you cannot find in a place where everybody’s an alpha-male trying to push their own agenda.”

But do we know for sure male bosses are less empathetic, or do corporate power structures—typically dominated by men—simply reward individuals who are less empathetic? Is she sure that more women entering the senior ranks will mean more empathy in the workplace? What if the power structures endure and it’s the women who change to thrive within that dynamic?

Bergeron doesn’t think that’s how it will happen. “It would be a lie to say that all women are empathetic and men are jerks,” she says. And she knows her own more positive experiences with women leaders could be about herself and not them. “Maybe I’m less nervous around them, maybe it’s just my own insecurities, but I have definitely had an easier time connecting with women. I feel like sometimes they will ask me how I’m doing. They will ask personal questions more, and they are interested in the [transition] process. I’ve had female CMOs who were worried that I’m traveling too much to go and see them. I had to take a couple of months off, I was unwell, and a female CMO sent me a book at home. I don’t see the guys doing that.”

But overall, Bergeron says she is optimistic about progress being made; that a new generation of managers is coming up that realizes the importance of diversity and inclusion—although there is still work to be done.

“It’s not about creating a rainbow logo [for Pride], or whatever. It’s what do you have in place with your HR people to make sure that everybody has a voice,” she says. Real change takes concrete action not just talk, but it also takes understanding, open-mindedness and a desire to be better. For Bergeron, it is also about forgiveness.

She has been closing her presentation with a quote from the bible: “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”

“Which I love because they keep throwing the bible at us to tell us we are wrong,” she says.  

It seems a very generous sentiment for those who have not been so generous with her. “I think it’s a survival [tactic],” she says. “If not, you just go through life very angry.”

David Brown