Three of John Brown SA’s own leading ladies discuss navigating the media industry as a woman and the qualities women can bring to leadership.
Backwards and in high heels
Lani Carstens, managing director of John Brown SA, recalls wanting to enter the advertising industry as a “naïve but enthusiastic” 21-year-old and being told her only point of entry would be as a secretary. “I had no desire to be a secretary,” says Lani, who managed to find a job as a junior account executive a week later. “I earned a pittance, but I was in.”
Whilst this was many years ago, too little has changed in most industries, including media. Digital Director Emma Odendaal has been in the industry for only 12 years, but she also has stories of arriving at all-male meetings and being asked to make tea. “I’ve witnessed how women, including herself, were rated on ‘hotness’ and, like many others, I’ve felt obliged to laugh at sexist jokes,” she says.
Content Director Justine Drake reports being in the industry “so long that nobody can remember” but can’t recall any overt gender discrimination. She does, however, admit that this could be entirely due to obliviousness on her part. “I used the perceived gender issues to my advantage – certainly in my youth. I celebrated being a woman – it’s all about how you market it,” says Justine, who’s been more aware of ageist discrimination, which she experienced in her 20s and is seeing now post 50.
Fast-forward to today
“The tone has changed with more women entering the C-suite of media houses and advertising agencies. But there is still a lack of diversification. For an industry that talks about disruption, that’s a huge challenge,” says Emma.
According to the 2018 Glass Ceiling report, the proportion of women in senior and top management in the South African media industry has increased by a respective 11% in the last decade. While the growth is encouraging, it is less than half the rate of growth for men in the same space and the proportion of women on boards has declined.
Justine says she’s aware of how everything has changed and how nothing has changed. “I think millennials and Generation Zers are much less caught up in any form of gender issues. I’m not being naïve and saying the gender issues have disappeared – a lot of the entrenched societal norms that govern us, like disparities in remuneration, still stay to this day – particularly in big corporates.”
According to the PwC Executive directors – Practices and remuneration trends report: South Africa, issued in July, senior women in media are still being paid 25% less than their male counterparts.
Refreshingly, John Brown SA is a female-run business with 90% female staff. Lani assures that this was not by design: “We really do like men! But I am an advocate for gender equality and changing the landscape that currently exists where not enough senior positions in the broader industry are held by women, regardless of race.”
Leading with heart and backbone
When considering the unique characteristics that women can bring to the table, Lani emphasises that both women (and men) can exhibit healthy and unhealthy qualities. “By nature women tend to be more collaborative, inclusive and solutions-focused, which are all healthy traits. The flip side is that women can also be too passive, show too much vulnerability, or display aggressive traits,” she says.
“I work with a lot of incredibly intelligent men in leadership positions who have the EQ of newts,” says Justine. She believes that more than anything, emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy bodes well for women in the workplace: “And we are pretty certain that EQ far outweighs IQ in a leadership environment.
“Women also tend to have an inherent authenticity about them that I believe comes from generations of having to really deliver on what we say because we were going to be judged differently.”
“I do think that great female leaders – Jacinda Ardern and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are brilliant examples – can and do find the balance between being collaborative and supportive and firm and assertive,” adds Lani.
Forming an environment of trust and encouragement
Women, especially mothers, tend to overcompensate for time spent caring for families, says Emma, adding, “We are also more prone to self-doubt than men.” She’s found it helpful to surround herself with allies who encourage her, especially when she feels like an imposter.
Lani says, “DAN and John Brown have strong female leaders and as leaders, I believe our role (and responsibility) is to be supporting, mentoring and nurturing other women and their career growth.”