How to create space for female leaders in ad land

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Tanya Sim, co-founder of Block in Perth, and Rachel Boon, creative at Block, reflect on what it will take to create more space for female leaders in ad land.

After 17 years at the helm of Block in Perth, Tanya Sim recently stepped away from her role as managing director. She remains on the agency’s board, but is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of Block – a decision she made for family reasons.

Meanwhile, Rachel Boon joined Block two years ago after graduating from Curtin University, where she studied Creative Advertising and Graphic Design. Given that 75% of her cohort at university was female, she was surprised to find so few female creative directors in the workforce.

International Women’s Day is on Sunday, 8 March

There’s been so much societal change over the past 17 years – but are their experiences all that different? Tanya and Rachel got together to ask: What still needs to be done?

Tanya Sim, co-founder of Block, Perth:

In 17 years at the helm of Block, we have been ‘lucky’ enough to always have an incredible group of individuals working for us. Working alongside great people keeps me going. I would add that there have also been times when our agency culture has not been as good as it should – maybe there was some power play, or our communication wasn’t what it should have been. I take ownership as the leader, but in these times, we learn, we grow, we change – and for me personally, I have learned that culture is everything.

I spent years working hard to achieve the ideal work/ life balance where both were under control. Now I realise balance is a fallacy. Life changes from month to month, and day to day, and being adaptable is what really counts. These days, I am belligerent in my priorities. Right now, for instance, I do not work in an operational capacity at all because my family need me at home. So that is what I have created by stepping away from my role as managing director in January.

Sim: We don’t need to act like men

I suddenly find myself with time to reflect on what I’ve learned about creating space for women leaders to thrive.

We never specifically set out to employ a majority of women in senior leadership roles at Block. It happened because we aim for the ‘best of’, and our team are the best of who is out there. Of the six people in our leadership team, five are women.

This matters because in advertising – as in film – we reinforce gender roles in the work we produce, and our work has mass impact.

And there is still so much work to be done.

Western Australia has the highest gender pay gap in Australia at 21.8% compared to 14% across Australia – this despite the fact that 56% of university graduates are women. On average, women’s superannuation balances are approximately 60% of men’s, and women still perform around 75% of all unpaid work, including caring for children and housework.

So, here’s what I’ve learned about creating space for women leaders:

Culture is paramount. Having a welcoming, un-bitchy environment with genuinely nice people who care is appealing to everyone. We also aim to encourage each person to take responsibility for their work, and I think this is especially appealing to women: if we can both understand what they want out of the job, what value they add to the business, then we are a long way ahead to creating a win-win.

Attract clients who are brand-led and strategic. At Block, we take on interesting briefs. It’s how we have been able to attract senior women who might otherwise go somewhere bigger, or somewhere with much higher salaries than we can offer.

Finally, lead by example and acknowledge that your team doesn’t live to work. My daughter spent hours as a baby under my desk sleeping while I rocked her with one foot. Later, I had a playpen in the office. Our storeroom had a cot in it. This is how I could make those moments in my life work, but it also helped us to create a culture where others know they will be supported to be mothers, or fathers, or dog owners.

My advice specifically for women is to stand up for what you believe in. Make goals and then move stealthily towards them. Understand Imposter Syndrome so that you can move beyond it.

Learn how to advocate for yourself – whether it is discussing remuneration, challenging a male who is patronising you, or asking for a project you think you’ve been overlooked for.

I also think it is wise to have female leaders that you can talk to (whether or not it’s a formal mentor relationship) about issues that relate to being a female in the workforce.

I don’t believe that we need to act like men, or try to mirror the behaviour of a classically strong, ball-buster female. We each need to be authentic to who we are, understand our own psyche and then learn skills and behaviours to help us reach our individual goals.

At times, I have coached female employees to ask me for a promotion because I do absolutely think that some women feel uncomfortable with this. I encourage those women to think about what value they add to the business and what their goals are for the future. More generally I suggest that you come to employment meetings, or any meetings for that matter, with solutions not just problems.

Winding back to the value of culture, Mark Braddock, co-founder and creative Director at Block is as big a feminist as I am. We have created a culture where it’s not really about what gender you are, but what value can you create. Who are you as a person? Are your values aligned? This is the focus. I think women choose to stay here because we see each person as a person, not a machine that can pump out 60 hours per week, and we have high expectations for ourselves, each other and our work.

Rachel Boon, creative, Block

I have only been in the industry a short while, but across the three agencies I have worked at I can count the number of female creative colleagues I’ve had on one hand. I look forward to the day when I don’t have to count anymore.

As a woman of colour, I also find myself struggling to find ethnically diverse female creative leaders to look up to, in Perth.

I feel that to make it as a creative in advertising, design or any sort of creative agency you need to have a certain level of outgoingness. Male, female or otherwise, I do feel that the industry culture tends to lean towards hiring more extroverted, assertive creatives.

Boon: It would be nice if we could all be a but more human

In my personal experience, being assertive was not something that came to me naturally. It’s a characteristic, I’ve noticed, that is more common in my male friends. I’ve realised now that this skill is important for all parts of the creative process, from pitching your ideas internally through to presenting them externally. If you don’t already have those skills, it is going to be harder for you to demonstrate your ability and stop yourself from being overtaken by more assertive colleagues.

All of this makes me want to work harder to strive to become that role model for future generations of ethnically diverse female creatives.

Part of that challenge is one we must all take up ourselves as women in stepping up and speaking out when given the chance. This means saying ‘yes’ to being a guest speaker at that event, joining industry committees so that we have a present and active voice in the creative community, mentoring the next generation of creative women, volunteering to present work, taking credit where credit is due, and acknowledging other women. Change will not happen on its own. We need to continue to be the change we want to see in the world.

As cliché as it seems, and I think this applies to everyone, it is harder for someone to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. Your thoughts influence your actions. If you think you speak too quietly to be able to present confidently then chances are you’re not going to be given that opportunity. Likewise, if you think your ideas are terrible and you pitch them half-heartedly in the hope that someone more senior will confirm your internal monologue of self-inflicted criticism, it’s very likely you will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most of us are generally our biggest critics so why don’t we give ourselves a break, have a little bit of faith in our own ability and leave the criticism to others?

I may be the only female creative at Block for now but I’m surrounded by such strong female leadership that it’s hard not to be inspired. Seeing them have the flexibility to work from home when necessary gives me an insight into the sort culture our industry can build around supporting working parents.

As for what agencies can do better, I think it would be nice if we could all be a little more human. Life happens and people are not robots that can compartmentalise their worlds. In an ideal world, all our workplaces would be understanding, flexible and adaptable for the modern woman/ human who balances many spheres and not just one or the other.

We seem to be headed in the right direction as an industry, but here in Perth the main struggle I see is the visibility of creative women. We need to be seen to be heard and for the meantime that means occasionally stepping outside your comfort zone and unapologetically taking up space.

Block, founded by Tanya Sim and Mark Braddock in 2002, is an independent agency based in Perth, Western Australia. Rachel Boon is a creative at the agency


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