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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Monica! This post is very inspiring and came just at the right time as my confidence is faltering :)

monlim said...

Anon: So happy to hear you say that :)

Anonymous said...

Inspiring! Your writers are very lucky to have a boss like you.


monlim said...

SL: Aww...thanks for the compliment!

Charu said...

Just woooowed...awesome sharing is such an honest and true sharing Nd every woman can relate to was just amazing read!!!!

monlim said...

Thanks, Charu :)

Anonymous said...

i actually don't feel these vibes. but i want to honest here - the best bosses that i've had are male, even if they are complete assholes (like one of them, when i bought him coffee, just said no thanks and poured it away in front of me, and walked away). they were the best because they had no emotions and i learned a lot from them. - kjj

monlim said...

KJJ: A lot of our beliefs are shaped by personal experience, for sure. But I guess it's also expectation - we know there are male asshole bosses, but we kinda accept this cos we tend not to doubt their authority and as long as we learned something from them, that's ok. But female asshole bosses are generally just considered bitches and unacceptable. Social norms on gender influences thinking and behaviour a lot more than we realise.

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