Welcome to Women Who Innovate, a podcast series presented by Randstad Canada as part of their Women Transforming The Workplace program. We explore winning strategies for navigating the ever-evolving labor market through a series of thought-provoking inspiring interviews with bold and passionate women who are shaping the workplaces off tomorrow. Hi, I’m your host Jennifer Hargreaves and today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Chris Bergeron, Vice-President of Content Experience at Cossette. We hope you enjoy this episode.
Jennifer: Thanks for joining us Chris. Maybe you could start by giving us a brief introduction. What do you do at Cossette? And what is Cossette?
Chris: So, Cossette is one of the largest ad and communications agencies in Canada. We have large clients across the country and specifically what I'm doing is leading a new discipline in advertising that has been around for only a few years now, which is content. There's a lot of desire for brands and companies to tell their stories in a more editorial way and talk to their consumers in a more conversational way. So that's what I do daily.
Jennifer: You started your career in journalism.
Chris: Exactly. So I started in the mid 90s as a freelance journalist, mostly covering entertainment and culture, all the way until 2010. And then I made the switch to advertising for reasons that were more personal than professional, let's say.
Jennifer: Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What attracted you to the industry?
Chris: Well, I’m transgendered and a bit of a late bloomer. I started my transition very late in life, you know in my late 30s and 40s for my actual medical transition. I was looking for a field where there was a little bit more room for self-expression in the way I dressed and the way I spoke and the way I showed myself to the world. At the time, journalism was a bit of a boys club, I have to say. And I was the chief editor of a publication called Voir, which was a very well-read weekly in Montreal, Quebec City, and Ottawa. We had magazines all over the east coast and when I started transitioning, at least started expressing in a more feminine way, I realized that I was perhaps losing a little bit of my credibility and perhaps I was being kicked out of the boy’s club. Ultimately, I was let go, so I told myself: “Well, if I'm going to reinvent myself, I might as well reinvent myself in a field that’s new to me, where people don't know me and don't have pre-established notions as to what kind of person I should be.” And so that's why I changed industries. Also because advertising seems to be a place where ideas and concepts and imagination are valued. I had visited a few agencies in the past and I had loved the atmosphere. Yes, it's very stressful, but there's a sense of easygoingness that I really liked and I thought: “okay, well, this is perhaps the world in which I can try that.”
Jennifer: And did you find that to be the case?
Chris: Very quickly. I think I was certainly allowed from the get-go to dress the way I wanted. And so, I was certainly much more feminine than I had ever been in my attire. However, in agencies we deal with clients and sometimes there’s a willingness not to shock clients. And so, I was asked on a fairly regular basis early on in my career, and this was before what I would call the Trans Revolution, before we saw trans icons in the media and people talking about the topic. So, people didn't know how to handle all those situations. I didn't know how to speak about it either. So, on certain days, I was asked to dress as a boy to not, I guess, shock clients. And on other days, if the clients were a little bit more open-minded, I was allowed to be myself. And so, I felt in that sense, boundaries were being set. I didn't have absolute freedom of expression at the most basic level. In a sense, it almost felt as if I was serving at the pleasure of straight white males.
Jennifer: Right. So, Chris, you've presented numerous times a talk called ‘Losing My Privilege: what becoming a minority has taught me about leadership’ and in it, you explain how being suddenly propelled into the reality of a visible sexual minority has profoundly transformed your perception of the workplace and your vision of leadership. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Chris: A lot of people are, I suppose, I would say born minorities and so they see the harshness of the world from very early on. And perhaps they are in a sense, it's a little sad to say, but perhaps they’re a little bit more well equipped to deal with it because they had to deal with that so young in life. That wasn't the case for me. I knew instinctively that being trans was going to be, or at least living my life as a trans woman, was going to be difficult. But I didn't expect it to be that difficult. I didn’t expect the insults. I didn't expect death threats online. I didn't expect being treated as a sex worker as I'm walking down the street, with cars driving slowly by me asking me how much. I didn't expect any of these things. I didn’t expect the backlash, or at least I didn't know how it was going to feel. There's a difference between theory and practice and the practice of this life is quite difficult. And so, that, combined with heavy doses of estrogen, has probably made me generally a better person. I would say that, hopefully, I listen more than I did back in the day. I’m more open to others. I try to be more caring. I am certainly more fragile than I have ever been, more vulnerable than I have ever been. That sense of vulnerability, and the fact that many aspects of my life are a struggle affects the way I see other people and the way I talk to my teens. I try to be less authoritarian. I used to be a bit of a dictator when I was a chief editor and perhaps, sometimes, I still have those reflexes because it's a way to impose a sense of authority and get things done. But I’ve noticed that that character trait is diminishing as I'm going through these things.
Jennifer: You said in advertising that you have to find the right insight to create a successful campaign when in fact, it's also personal bias. When did you come to realize that and how we have to double check if our own insights are actually true or if we're just imposing our views on the world?
Chris: Well, it comes from experience, quite a bit. Right? I'll give you a very concrete example. Recently, I was working on an account that had to deal with health. I was looking at some concepts and I told the creatives that this feels like it's been written by healthy people. So, people that don't have the experience of what it feels like to depend on medicine, to depend on a relationship with a doctor or pharmacist in order to feel well. And I think in advertising, it's a very difficult position because creatives and strategists and writers and all of these people have to find a way to relate to people with whom they don't necessarily share life experiences. And so the trick, these days, is to figure out how we can get as much diversity as possible. We need people with many different ways of living on our creative teams, so that we can have access to more insights. I can see in my day-to-day life how my appreciation and experience of very basic things has completely evolved through my transition. Health is definitely one of them. I rely on the medical system to complete my transition. I take all sorts of medications on a daily basis. And that has completely affected my relationship to my health, to performance, to so many things like that. My set of insights have completely changed on that topic and I imagine that if I were to live another experience, my insights would change. My insights. have changed in terms of the place of women within society. Certainly when you live it, it changes. Now that I'm less of a dominant species, I tend to see more of the cracks in people and I tend to see more of the places where people need support and perhaps the places where brands would benefit from being kind or giving a helping hand when they can. So, I tend to look at problems with that view. How can we be helpful? How can we connect? How can we build communities? How can we build bridges? These are all questions I didn't ask myself before. I ask them a lot more now because of my own personal evolution.
Jennifer: It sounds like you're bringing a new layer of empathy into the whole process.
Chris: Definitely, definitely. And sometimes, it's seen in the work. Sometimes it isn't. Because, you know, this is teamwork and, also, I tend to bring that pretty systematically to the table. But sometimes you need an ad that’s just a nice joke about potato chips, you know? Not everybody wants a sob story all the time. So sometimes, my colleagues say: “Could you please calm down with your heartfelt telenovellas? Can we just do a spicy chip?” So that empathy is not right in every context. There are contexts where I think it’s a strength and there are contexts where I have to work and say ”Listen, perhaps this is not my cup of tea. You should get somebody who's really good at cracking those kinds of jokes.” That's why you need diversity in the creative sphere.
Jennifer: And what role do you think that organizations have to play in the context of diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
Chris: Well, obviously, right now we've been focusing on it a lot, at least in Communications, in my industry. We've focused a lot on representation. Representation is important. So making sure that in our ads, you see people from different backgrounds, whether that’s cultural or physical or even sexual orientations and gender and all of that. But to get representation right, you need the proper insights. And the proper insights will only come from hiring diversity. And right now, there's still a problem across the board. I would say in television, advertising, journalism, and so on. I don't think we represent, in our staff, what the Canadian reality is. I am not sure that a third or half of our employees and our talent are things other than you know straight white Anglos or Francos right now, sadly.
Jennifer: So there is still some work to be done.
Chris: There's a lot of work to be done around that and then there's also some work to be done about customizing the conditions of work to these particular experiences. I’m lucky to receive some sort of special treatment in the sense that occasionally, I stumble, because physically, it's very difficult, due to the hormones. I mean every woman will know what hormones do to a body. Imagine, it's almost as if I had the same levels of hormones as the first trimester of pregnancy, but all my life. So sometimes, you know, I have to throw up every couple days. It’s not terribly fun. And so sometimes I gotta stay home. And sometimes my head is spinning and sometimes I need to sit down for a minute. It's just the reality of transitioning and my employers understand that. They're looking at ways to change their insurance program, so that people like me have a place as well. At least the right words are being used, right? It's also about catering to the experience of the company, so that everybody feels at home, you know, which means, well, you shouldn't feel bad about taking a break for religious reasons. You shouldn't feel bad about taking a break because I need to take a couple of weeks off to get an operation. You shouldn't feel bad about all these things. It's about building that level of understanding on a more granular level so that the system is not built for certain types of people, and everybody else has to conform to what these people are living.
Jennifer: Yeah, that's sort of taking it beyond the diversity argument into the inclusion piece, which is about creating safe places and it's not just a nice thing to do. It actually makes a lot of business sense. Right? I love what you said in one of your articles that it's a bit like being a boxer and that you can do your job so much better, and be so much more creative, if you're not fielding punches all the time when you have an open and creative space and where you feel safe to bring your ideas to the table.
Chris: Exactly. To use that metaphor, it is like we're boxers. I mean everybody who works in a competitive industry has to win their little boxing match, right? But if you're a minority, you actually have to get out of your house and start punching people on the street because people are punching at you. And then you have to do it as you get into the stadium or the gym, and when you’re in the ring, then when the game starts. Then you have to start punching your way back all the way back home, which is absolutely exhausting. To me, my work sometimes is super stressful, obviously, but most of the time my work is my safe space, in the sense that my transness is a footnote to my day when I'm at work. It's not when I'm at home and my neighbour doesn't want to look at me. It's not when I'm on the street and I get stared at. It's not when I'm taking a cab and being misgendered. All of that time, everybody I cross on the street, I feel like I'm coming out every single time because they look at me. They see something different. At work I don't have that feeling, I don't have that fear. So I can use all of that negative energy that I typically use to protect myself and build a wall between me and the world. I can take that and try as much as possible to channel it into my work and have more energy to hopefully solve the problems my clients are coming to me to solve. So, you know, it doesn't happen all the time because sadly sometimes something bad that happens in my real life and my life outside of the office will bleed into my day. So my mood will be affected by it. But, still, work is my safe space. Much more than any other place, including my home, because at home then I'm alone and I think about my life and it gets a little bit more depressing.
Jennifer: Chris, what do you think would help change attitudes towards transgender people? Is there a way that we can evolve past the fighting on the street and the punching?
Chris: Well, hire them. Hiring us would be a very good start because if you live with us every day you realize that we are very normal people and we try to have very normal lives. And yes, we are a little bit beaten up. That's for sure. I mean, we have a lot of battles, all of us do, but that might make us better in so many ways. I like to say that trans people are stronger than most people because we have to deal with a lot. I like to say that trans people are more resilient because we have to deal with a lot every day. I have to say that we're more creative because we had to invent ourselves and reinvent ourselves a number of times in our lives. Those are good qualities to have as an employee. So I would say hire us. Do not be afraid of the reputational risk of having somebody who looks like a woman in a man's suit or a man wearing a dress, at first glance. You have to go beyond that and you'll be surprised how quickly people forget about gender stereotypes. Not only open your arms and accept those people, but actually be a partner to their transition and actually see them evolve and blossom into the thing they wanted to be. I think that’s something very enriching for the people that are allowing that to happen … I know a lot of my colleagues feel a sense of pride that I feel safe here. They actually get a good feeling about that and they are proud of that. When I gave my conference to my colleagues, everybody in the room was crying because I think they understood that they each had a role to play in the fact that I am happier today than I have been in the past. So there is a payoff. There's a payoff in terms of business because we are quality people and there is a payoff in the sense that it actually is nice to do the right thing.
Jennifer: How do you see the future for women of all sexualities in the workplace?
Chris: Well, I think I think now are beginning to understand that women come in all shapes and sizes and orientations and identities. And I think women, in the traditional sense, let's say cis women, have the opportunity to build a broader coalition. For a long time men were pretty exclusive bunch and I just came back from a conference in Chicago last week, the 3% conference, which are people in the advertising industry, focusing on how can we get more women on board and more women at the VP level, in the C-level, and the creative director level, all of that. What was beautiful was that on stage you had a cross of people talking about their cultural realities, people talking about the variety of their gender expression, people talking about sizeism. All these things. I think women understand intersectionality, the fact that the issues of one community have an effect on others and that, basically, we are all fighting similar battles. So I think women can be coalition builders and they are the ones that will make the world of business more diverse, more open and more creative. I think they are going to be the leaders of most industries very soon. And everybody will be better for it. And I think everybody will have better working conditions and more money.
Jennifer: And better products!
Chris: Yes. Men are terrible managers. They're horrible managers. I mean sorry, guys, but I've been one. I know I mean men really…
Jennifer: I loved what you said in one of your articles as well about the sense of rebellion coming from women and you talk about the coalition and I'm seeing it as well. I'm just seeing massive amounts of women from, as you said, all sexualities, all races, all types of different backgrounds coming together and supporting each other and it's inspiring.
Chris: It really is, really, I mean every time I'm in a room with women and we're talking about these sorts of topics, like diversity inclusion, there's a real sense of let’s do this together, let's not wait, we're going to change the world right now. A lot of women are talking about starting their own businesses because they're tired of waiting for the world to change and for people to catch up. They’re like: “You know what, I'm going to be rich on my own. I want to do my thing on my own, and I'm going to create this right now, and I'm going to build the next empire.” I think that's fantastic. I am hopeful that unless we have some kind of weird ecological catastrophe like some kind of giant tidal wave, but outside of that, I think we may be in a better place than we think. Right now if you look at the media, if you look at social media... there is a lot of hate, there is a lot of tension, there's a lot of aggression, but the resistance is organized. It’s ready to go. In the next couple of years we're going to finally tip over into a world where more people have a say in shaping codes and the reality of life.
Jennifer: I love that and you've left me with a warm fuzzy feeling.
Chris: Oh good. Wow.
Randstad: So, that's good. I actually read a book that said women have gone beyond liberated now and now they're empowered. In my industry, what I’m seeing is so many women are leaving organizations and they stopped waiting for somebody to come and help them and for the companies to change for them. They are taking that power and that control back and are building.
Chris: We are not damsels in distress anymore.
Jennifer: No, that's absolutely 100% true and I love it. Okay. Well, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. And I really enjoyed speaking with you, Chris.
Chris: Thank you so much.
Women Who Innovate is a podcast series produced by Randstad Canada as part of their Women Transforming The Workplace program. We hope the insights provide you with a deeper understanding of the role that women play in transforming workplaces and inspire you in your own journey.