Navigating the industry as a woman

The Friday Street Club

This article originally appeared on Marklives.

We’ve had some strong women making the news recently. From our feisty public protector showing the country who is boss to Maya Angelou’s legacy, we have had no lack of inspiring role models paving the way for future strong women.

But in amongst that there are a few whisperings that leave me uncomfortable: a shortage of women MPs and representatives at a high level in our newly formed government; atrocities committed to women in the name of religion; and debates about whether stars such as Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé can be good businesswomen while also embracing their sexuality.

Perhaps we have some way to go before we can consider the place of women in society as completely equal to men.

My mother is an eminent scientist who, in the ’80s, headed up some developments and processes that became industry-leading globally. It resulted in her being a consultant at a high level for institutions including the UN and the World Bank, and being on the Mekong River Commission — a collaboration of four countries brought together to manage the Mekong River in South East Asia. She’s recently just been to the Hague to sit as an expert witness in the International Court of Arbitration, where Pakistan was suing India about shared water use.

So she’s definitely badass.

And yet, even she has stories about how she has been treated as an inferior because she is a woman, such as engineers refusing to answer her letters when she signed her full name but then engaging with her when she dropped her first name, and used just the prefix “Dr”.

Personally, I have never felt as if I’ve have been held back in my career because of being a woman. But, bar PR agencies (which have a higher than average women/men ratio, for reasons we won’t go into here), we would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of MDs, CEOs or ECDs of major local creative companies who are women.

Why is that? Is it because we are intimidated by the old boys clubs? Are we ‘distracted’ by marriage and having children? Are we just not cut out for it?

We are bombarded by advice on how to progress as women in a man-dominated world. We’re told to act more like a man, to get tougher and be one of the boys. We are urged to “lean in”.

But I don’t know that there is one right answer that works for everyone in how to tiptoe and navigate through tricky territory. Personally, I’ve found embracing both a masculine and feminine approach to getting ahead works well for me.

That means, on the one hand, learning from the men in how to play the game. Being tough; being confident to have a strong opinion and to compete with colleagues; and being able to separate emotional and rational approaches to problem-solving.

But hand in hand with that is the understanding that being a woman can be an advantage, not a disadvantage. There’s a lot to be achieved from having empathy with a colleague, nurturing a junior member of staff and using intuition to solve a problem or come up with a solution.

Women make good managers — not just because of the stereotypical ability to multitask — but because they are empathetic and not so inclined to be driven by ego. And mothers are even better managers — they know when to fight for something, and when to let it go, and they are used to dealing with egotistical, spoilt brats (and those are just their colleagues!).

I think the old days of the ’80s, when women had to parade around in big shoulder pads in order to compete with the gang of guys, is over. We don’t need to pretend to be guys but we don’t need to be simpering idiots in pink either. We’re lucky that we can, in the most part, choose to have a tequila with the boys on one day yet demand to work decent hours to be home with family the next.

So, guys, take note: there are some damn smart, awesome women in our industry. And we can work on the beer and cars brands, too, not just on the cosmetics campaigns!

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com