∙ Special Melbourne Edition ∙
Freelance Art Director and Illustrator
Landing for a period of time in Melbourne, I found myself with a fantastic opportunity to meet some local Boss Ladies. Would their experiences be vastly different to those I lunched with in Stockholm? What skills and knowledge have women needed here in order to reach leadership roles? I was excited to start digging in my very first Melbourne Boss Lady lunch.
I’ve been living in Stockholm for 5 years and prior to that, I had a two-year stint in Copenhagen. I finished my degree off somewhere in the move between the two countries which meant that, I didn’t know the first place to start looking for local Boss Ladies in this city. Melbourne is bigger, noisier and less patient than Stockholm and I assumed that it might be the same in connecting with women here. But I was proved wrong. In fact, this Boss Lady replied to my email within the hour, confirming a day and time plus her local favourite cafe in Brunswick, Carolina’s.
Brunswick and Fitzroy are two of my favourite pockets of Melbourne. They are what the Upper East Side and SOHO are to New York City; stereotypical of how we imagine Melburnians living their daily routines. Busy streets lined with eateries either side of the road, you can’t stroll too far without being distracted by a little tiled Italian restaurant, or a cosy cafe bearing the tattoos of illustrative street art across its bricks.
Carolina’s fits the scene with its old stencilling across the front window, and its front bench and stools that are the perfect spot to pass time by. Part of the deal is that the Boss Lady choses where we eat and judging by this characteristically Melbourne cafe, I was about to meet a characteristically Melbourne woman.
Sitting at a snug table nestled just behind the front window, Lilian and I didn’t really spend any time on small talk. Not due to a no-fuss demeanour, or a pressing schedule, but rather Lilian’s keen interest in the contrasting and shared experiences of Boss Ladies in Stockholm and Melbourne. We kicked it off on the lightest lunch topic; gender equality.
Realising (and changing) your own bias
Obviously gender equality is no light topic. Yet with recent global events and politics, I’ve noticed a shift in the readiness to discuss the topic. Women, young or seasoned, waste no time in diving into the issue. With what feels like the weight of all the women before us on our shoulders, we put haste to the conversation because we want action now, not just awareness.
Lilian dives in and shares her experience as a creative with over 15 years of experience. “I have been in the creative industry since 2004, so I have been exposed to the job market for a while.” She says with a wry smile.
When I was a lot younger, I had my reservations working for female bosses because of the myth created around them
“Back then I wasn’t ‘woke’. I wasn’t woke until maybe 4 years ago. The sad thing that I find out (after becoming woke) is that in order for women to get somewhere, you really need people in powerful positions a.k.a that certain gender and that certain race and that certain sexual orientation to give us a chance. And without that, it’s really hard.”
Lilian goes on to explain that upon realising that that bias is so systematic in companies, she also realised that she too had detrimental biases that didn’t do herself, nor other working women, any favours. “The funny thing is, when it comes to bias, women can be biased too. When I was a lot younger, I had my reservations working for female bosses because of the myth created around them; they’re harder, they’re more demanding, they’re bitchier and all that sort of stuff. Now that I am on the other side of the fence I’m like, well no wonder we have to be like that! You really have to stamp your feet harder and shout louder to be heard.”
When a women holds these myths as truth, I think that it’s an indication of how systematic and engrained sexism is in our communities. Thankfully, Lilian was exposed to different points of view and was able to change her mind and behaviour. While its not ideal, this change in perspective is very representative of what many other men and women have yet to go through not just in Melbourne but across the world.
Women before us have blazed the path. Now we need to make it wider and sturdier.
We work in a world where it’s not odd for a woman to be in the workplace nor is it odd for her to return to work after starting a family. But we’re still facing adversity in the workplace on an operational level that often goes unchecked. Lilian’s of the belief that if you experience it, you’ve got to call it out. Otherwise, nothing will change. She shares a particularly harrowing experience that occurred whilst she was living in London.
“About 4 years ago, I had this incident where I lost a couple of close friends to sexism. It started innocently enough as a Facebook conversation, where one of them said ‘We’re going to have drinks’. Almost all the responses were from men so I asked ‘Where are all the women? Is this going to be too many dicks on the dance floor?’.”
What followed was an eruption that she couldn’t have predicted. “It was someone I considered a good friend and his response was ‘Lilian, you complain more than my grandmother. If you want more women why don’t you go to a lesbian club?’. One of his other friends, who I also knew, said ‘Yeah go and join a knitting club or something’. It became a whole falling out with nasty phone calls.”
Wanting to take action and blow the whistle on the culture of this workplace, Lilian posted screenshots of the conversations to an all women’s facebook group. “I felt like it was my duty of care to put this up and let them know that this is what you will walk into. I felt bad for even suggesting the company as a future workplace. But I got backlash from that too. The women in the group felt that it was gossip and negative. I felt compelled to explain to them why this happened.”
“The whole thing sort of traumatised me. And what I ended up doing was sitting down with my husband and saying ‘I want to make a difference but I feel like I am spending too much time, wasting my time, shouting at people on the internet. Whether it’s friends or colleagues or acquaintances or what not. Out of that was borne the series of articles I wrote for industry blogs that profiled minorities. So we featured women, mums, and people of colour.”
Hearing this experience makes me ache with disappointment. There is so much more to be done to create workplaces that not only value women but also those that try to drive change even on the smallest of things, like an afterwork. Granted, this was an experience from a city that’s not the hometown of Eat 52 Lunches but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in Stockholm. Of course it does. As disheartening as it is, the lesson learned here is that while we might be a generation that’s not blazing the trail into the workplace but we’ve got to widen and sturdy it for those coming after us.
Returning to the workforce postpartum
We drift onto the related topic of gender equality and law, the topic that’s discussed in Anne Marie Slaughter’s book ‘Unfinished Business’. In comparing Australia and Sweden, Lilian’s impression is that the society is pretty progressive in Stockholm, and she’s not wrong. But more can be done. One of the catalysts of change though, in my opinion, was the introduction of mandatory parental leave.
For those not familiar with the policy, each parent must take at least 3 months of parental leave with each child with the remaining time shared between the parents (decided by the parents). Because this is stipulated by the government, the playing field for the workforce is levelled and a company’s ‘risk’ for hiring new staff is more evenly spread across genders.
Lilian explains how Slaughter’s book has helped her better understand the dynamics at play in Australian businesses. “There are all these issues about equality but it really comes to the test when it concerns pregnancy. As much as we want to be all equal, only people with a uterus can bare children and give birth, and what does that mean when it comes to gender equality and what does it mean when we can’t have it all?”
“As a parent myself, reading that book has really changed my life.” She explains that instead of feeling stuck in a scenario, ‘Unfinished Business’ has allowed her to zoom out of a situation and look at the broader picture. “It’s so hard to change (inequality) because it involves all these different things; flexible working arrangement, the emphasis on result based work rather than face time in the office, the providing of reasonable and generous parental leave, childcare facilities etc.”
I think that you can’t underestimate the primitive nature of human minds.
“I think that you can’t underestimate the primitive nature of human minds. We are still like cavemen in so many ways. You have a tribe of people working a certain way, sticking to a certain ethic. When something or someone sticks out, people don’t like it. It’s about making sure that whatever the predominant (workplace) culture is, it’s friendly to families and that these kind of things are not seen as an aberration.”
Ultimately, if a company doesn’t operate with these values, it’s unlikely that they will have an equal opportunity workplace. “It’s really important if you want to encourage women to stay even after they have a family.” Lillian says.
Given that she is in charge of her own workday, it sounds like the flexibility as a freelancer is better than what a workplace could provide her. By choosing her own projects, at her own financial rate, on her own schedule, Lilian is able to avoid all the complexities parents at a workplace face. “I am senior enough and have enough of a reputation that I can demand my own terms and conditions.”
Communicate, with confidence
Lilian has spent most of her career as a freelancer making her the first Boss Lady with such a profile. So what skills have been the most valuable in her career?
Without much hesitation, she answers “Being able to talk to people. Being clear in terms of communicating. And as I get older, being more certain and less afraid of being wrong.”
These are skills that she wished she had learned through university but instead came across it later. She mentions an article about stopping the use of submissive that helped her communicate clearly and without doubt in her own competency. “I think it took me three months before I could talk slower and catch myself before saying something that was framed in a submissive way.”
She goes on to give an example from when she lead the design team during an Amazon TV project. “I could feel the relief from the team when I changed my language. There was almost this unseen tension just dissolving. As a creative, there’s nothing worse than someone in charge changing their mind all the time.”
So what is the answer to the question’s reverse; what skills or knowledge needn’t she have stressed about? Without a doubt, she answers “Technical knowledge.”
You really are just trying to prove that you are as competent as the boys in the room. I can really understand the anxiety of it.
Lilian emphasises how much she understands, and empathises, why young women feel that they need to bulk up on the technical knowledge of their craft. “You really are just trying to prove that you are as competent as the boys in the room. I can really understand the anxiety of it.”
“Looking back, I didn’t realise how emotionally exhausting that was. Almost like a bird puffing up your feathers to be twice as large. Working harder to be more assertive on every level. It’s only when you realise how damaging that thinking can be, that you start to change your own behaviour.”
When you’re a minority and the majority are homogenous in gender, race, and sexuality, it’s natural to want to be viewed as an expert on the technical elements so as not to be seen as less than or weak in expertise.
Reframe your thinking, sooner rather than later
This reflection drifts onto the topic of Lilian’s first job, and how grateful she is to have had a positive experience.
“We were like a family. I was so lucky to have landed that job. I think what’s crucial for young people just starting out is that you have to pick your first employment carefully. Some place that will look after you and treat you with respect even though you’re just starting out. If you get abused, it will take a long time to recover from that and to see yourself as valuable.”
You have to pick your first employment carefully. Some place that will look after you and treat you with respect even though you’re just starting out.
In comparison to her second job, an environment that was not as pleasant as her first role, she learned that “You have to be more assertive and demand what you’re worth. Any negative experience, you take with you and think thank goodness for that.”
What other advice would Lilian give to those just starting out, particularly those that might want to trek the freelance track?
“You have to be good at talking to people. You have to be reachable. You have to be someone that people can trust. We’re in the business of helping people and that’s not being emphasised enough in creative educations.”
She goes on to describe the internal battle that she too had as a budding designer. “Young designers battle with the balance between artistic flair and the creative designer’s vision. But if you reframe your thinking to ‘How can we best help?’ you will go further and you will get hired over and over again.”
Those that then want to proceed into a leadership-type role need to develop their thinking beyond just the operational to dos. “You have to find out what every teams’ parameters, preferences and needs are. Find out how they work best and what they need from you other than the brief.
Create your own benchmarks
Reflecting on the advice she would give to those starting out, is it the same as she would give to herself 10 years ago?
She laughs and answers that no, it’s not the same. She’d tell herself, quite bluntly, “Stop fucking stressing about it. Calm down and be really vigilant about the craft side of things every day until you die.”
Stop fucking stressing about it.
She’d also tell herself to “Be careful about measuring yourself against what other people tell you to measure yourself. The creative industry is riddled with awards and prestige and the sort of language that worships certain artists or designers or studios. Having gone through everything I’ve gone through, I feel like that vertical structure is very much a male thing where you want to get higher and higher and higher and you want to get paid more and more and more.”
“Whereas talking to women, I feel like they are much more satisfied when they get to have multi-faceted careers. That’s why diversity is so important. We’ve been taught to think that this vertical structure is what we should aim for but it depends on who you are.”