Monday, January 22, 2018

Minding my own business

I recently read this post on how Ellen Pompeo fought to be paid what she deserved in tv show Grey's Anatomy and I went, you go girl! It's always uplifting to read about women who hold their own, especially in industries which are typically male-dominated at the top.

As most of you know by now, I've been running my own copywriting agency since 2002. That's coming up to 16 years. Do you know how many women run their own agencies in Singapore? Ok, I don't either, because 1) I don't know where to get the figures and 2) I'm too lazy to find out. But I work with other creative agencies on a regular basis - design agencies, advertising agencies, web agencies, PR agencies - and while a few are helmed by women, the vast majority are run by men. If there are female owners, more often that not, they have male partners.

I think this is true of businesses in general but it's something that struck me only recently. It was when I started thinking about grooming a second-in-command that I realised how difficult it was to find a right-hand woman. From talking to other women, these reasons keeping coming up as to why they don't want to run a business: Dunno how. Too risk-averse. No business mind. Can't commit to the time needed. Can't manage clients. Can't deal with the stress.

It's not that these reasons are invalid. It's just that underlying all these reasons, I feel that a major stumbling block is the lack of confidence. Women constantly doubt and underestimate their abilities, including their ability to learn and adapt. Men, on the other hand, tend to be more gung-ho. Even if they don't have all the information or knowledge, they are more assured of their abilities to be willing to give it a go. Read this BBC post on the confidence gap between genders.

So why did I, a woman, decide to go into business? The entrepreneurial streak doesn't run in my family. Neither my parents nor theirs ever went into business. While I told everyone it was because I wanted to spend more time with my kids, truth be told, a huge push factor was that I was thoroughly sick of the warring factions and politics happening in my last workplace. Sometimes, decisions are simply made out of reaching the limit of your patience (plus I probably didn't know what I was getting myself into).

So I launched myself into the big, scary world of business. For the most part, my gender didn't come into play, but the few times that it did, it left an indelible mark on my memory. People in Singapore don't think much about gender inequality because unequal pay or outright discrimination is not condoned. But gender stereotyping and coloured perceptions of people simply based on their gender still exist and are therefore insidious, because there's less awareness of their impact.

Most of my clients are very decent in this respect. They usually accord me with respect and don't treat me any differently because of my gender. In some particular industries however (I won't say which ones), male chauvinism is alive and well. On a few occasions, within five minutes of meeting the client (always a middle-aged or elderly man), I'd know that I was being judged at first sight and not in a positive way. Despite my long-standing track record and portfolio, the client would dismiss me as too ditzy or dumb to understand his very complicated business. Full of technical stuff, you know, beyond the comprehension of a young female. He would adopt a patronising tone and proceed to treat me with great condescension.

I once walked out on an interview because the client decided to deride me even before the interview started. I was furious and called the PR agency contact who had appointed me to tell him he could find himself another writer. He was very sympathetic and said with all the concern in the world, "I hope he didn't make you cry. I think it's so ungentlemanly when men make women cry." OMG. THAT made me feel like weeping. His statement encapsulated all the stereotypes about women being weak and emotional.

I guess it doesn't help that I'm small in stature and hence, look younger than I really am. While I appreciate this now, it was a handicap when I was in my 20s and early 30s. It was a handicap when I was heading departments in the workplace and a handicap when I was meeting clients (some people are both sexist and ageist). To make my presence felt, I found myself projecting an extroverted personality when meeting clients, to sound as chirpy, charming and authoritative as possible. It has become a habit and I still do this today (when I'm actually very much an introvert).

Because I was fortunate enough to have had two fantastically empowering female bosses, and my own conviction that women need to be empowered, I deliberately scouted out mums as potential writers. I won't go into it since that has been covered in detail in this post. Out of my 13 writers, 9 are mums and one is a mum-to-be. (In case you're wondering, I have male writers too. I don't discriminate. I take on whoever can do the job well).

When it comes to managing my writers, I consciously never wanted to be one of THOSE female bosses - you know, the temperamental and irrational ones who make decisions based on their mood-of-the-moment. The ones who give female bosses a bad reputation. I was going to go the rational route, much like how I approach all other business matters. Problems are to be solved one at a time, using logic and reason.

And yet, despite my awareness and intention not to let emotions run the field...

I let personal feelings get in the way of decisions sometimes. I feel bad making tough decisions even though they're right. And then I berate myself for it because it's illogical. Too often, I use "I think..." when I really mean "I know...", just to soften the blow. I still care too much what people think of me and I constantly need emotional support, especially when going through rough patches. In other words, almost unwittingly, my "female" side still reveals itself, in spite of everything.

However, I've long accepted that's who I am, and it's not necessarily a bad thing to have a softer side in business, as long as it doesn't get in the way of things getting done, and done ethically. 

Sidenote: On the homefront, I raised Lesley-Anne to be a strong woman. I wanted her to see that women can run a business, write books, blog, raise kids. Or not. It's not about being a superwoman or trying to grab everything in sight, like at a buffet spread. It's recognising what your strengths are, what you want in life, and then going for it purposefully. It's about choice and about empowerment - two things that shouldn't be dictated by societal expectations about gender. 

And guess what, Lesley-Anne is even more petite than I am but boy, she has perfected her death glare. It can shrivel you down to the size of an ant. She has no qualms about voicing her opinions, especially when boys with big egos and little substance try to talk over her (that really sets her off). Don't get me wrong - I didn't teach her to be rude. You don't have to shout or put others down. (Being kind should be a universal trait, regardless of gender). It's about being confident.

Mothers sometimes forget that we're role models not just for our daughters but also our sons. I love that having grown up in this family, Andre values women for their brains and heart. In fact, he is annoyed by girls in his school who "act cute", are bitchy, or focus only on their looks or material things. "Why can't they be more like you two?" he laments. (I'm glad because it means I'm less likely to get a bimbotic daughter-in-law 😆). And of course, kudos to the hubs for being secure enough to appreciate the strong women in his household.

Back to running a business: I didn't set out to be a flag bearer for women at the workplace. The women-friendly initiatives I took in my business journey were truly in response to each need that came along, that had to be resolved. But maybe that's how it is - the little incremental steps that are done to offer women a work outlet, flexible hours, even just a supportive community - maybe it all matters in the bigger scheme of things. I'd like to think so anyway. 

To end this very long and rambly post, I know many mums follow this blog. If you (and especially my female writers) are reading this, I just want to say: claim your confidence. You're stronger than you think. You're also capable of so much more than you know. You go, girl.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Mind the gap

I've always prided myself on being a reasonably hip mum. By this, I mean my kids talk to me about almost anything under the sun, from friends and relationships to books and music. But every now and then, the generation gap hits me in the face like a pancake hitting the griddle.

One such instance was last year when we were at a mall and I walked into a Desigual shop.

Photo: Desigual, Orchard

I love the designs of Desigual clothes and held up a dress with a gorgeous print. "So nice, right?" I gushed. Silence. "RIGHT?" Then Lesley-Anne said, "Mummy, Desigual is so AUNTIE."

I was startled. "What? Who said so?? It's very hip what!"

L-A: "Hip to aunties, not hip to young people."

Me (protesting): "That's not true! Right, Andre?"

Andre: "Leave me out of this. Can we go eat now?"

Me (ignores son): "I know many people who like Desigual!"

L-A: "Like who?"

Me: "Like Ah Ee, Auntie Ada, Auntie Pei Yee, Auntie Maureen...oh." I looked around the store and quickly realised that all the shoppers in the store were women above 40 years old. OMG! Desigual is an upscale auntie shop.

"Can't be that bad, right?" I almost pleaded. "Isn't there anything here that you would wear?"

After looking around with a frown, Lesley-Anne pointed to an item. "Ok, that one." It was a completely black dress with the most miniscule Desigual pattern at the hemline. Gah. In other words, the Desigual ads featuring hip youngsters are all lies - they aren't luring teenagers, they are luring middle-aged aunties who think they are still teenagers.

If you're in the same antiquated boat as I am, never fear! There are ways to bridge the generation gap and one of them is through music. I let Andre introduce me to new artists by watching MTV with him and listening to his Spotify playlist. I don't necessarily like everything, of course, but if you keep an open mind, you'll see that there are many gems in the current music scene. He got me hooked on Imagine Dragons and we went to their concert together last night.

Thunder, feel the thunder. It was positively radioactive. Call me a believer.

However, music education is not a one-way street - it goes both ways. Sometimes, what's hip can be shaped and taught. Even as Andre schools me on current artists, I also share with him the songs I grew up with. As a result, he has secret playlists that consist of oldies from the 1960s to 1980s. Some of them are not so secret - it's quite hip to be retro, so there's no shame to admitting that you like the Beatles or Queen, for example.

Sidenote: This was the Christmas gift we got him one year - the lego Beatles' Yellow Submarine, complete with minifigures. It is absolutely fantastic - it even opens up so the Fab Four can sit in the submarine.

If you play YouTube videos that compile greatest hits from my generation, my kids know an incredible number of them. Andre thinks some of the best songs ever written include A-ha's Take on Me, Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now and Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire. And he would never, never admit this to his friends but he thoroughly enjoys Abba, the helium-inspired Bee Gees and even the very ancient Earth Wind and Fire.

Once, our family was in the car, mocking and laughing at the absurdity of One FM's "Top 800 hits of the '80s" (I mean, 800 hits? That's just an excuse to play every single hit of the 80s!). Then Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up came on and all four of us spontaneously sang along.

So there you go. If you want to bridge the generation gap, music can be the common denominator. When you're singing along with your kids, they won't even care that you're wearing Desigual.

At Imagine Dragons concert

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...