GSA Hot Topics | IWD With Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin
Each year International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8. The first International Women’s Day was held over 100 years ago in 1911. Thousands of events occur to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. Organisations, governments, charities, educational institutions, women’s groups, corporations and the media celebrate the day.
All around the world, IWD represents an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women while calling for greater equality.
This years theme is Make It Happen, encouraging effective action for advancing and recognising women.
Throughout this week leading up to IWD, we will be featuring some of our inspiring female speakers on our GSABlog.
Today we feature Nancy Vonk & Janet Kestin, Authors, Co-Founders of Swim Leadership Lab and the Women behind Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.
What does ‘Making it Happen’ mean to you and how have you implemented it in your career to date?
NV: Making it happen, for me, has meant mentoring in several channels, including writing a long-time career advice column (Ask Jancy on ihaveanidea.org), a book based on the column, Pick Me, and now our new HarperCollins book for women, Darling, You Can’t Do Both (And Other Noise To Ignore On Your Way Up). I’ve always enjoyed coaching and mentoring people on their career journeys, and it was a hallmark of my leadership style when I was co-chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather Toronto along with Janet. It’s rewarding to help people in this way, and also a big learning experience for me. What’s not to love?JK: So many ways to interpret this statement. I’ll borrow from Chinese philosophy and say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Change is hard. Taking action is scary, which is why I think I’ve had to take that single step a thousand times. I never found it easy to put myself out there: ask for raises or promotions, accept speaking engagements, say no to someone who wanted to hear yes. But every time I took that step, it shored me up and helped me lay down breadcrumbs for someone else. It took the form of mentoring in person and online, of sharing ideas on a stage larger than my front porch, supporting others’ careers and goals. The first step creates all the others.
Gender-specific challenges you’ve faced in your chosen career?
NV: I didn’t acknowledge gender bias was an issue until well into my career. Like many women, I had a blind spot. I had done well so I assumed any woman could. It wasn’t until I attended an event where the global creative leader of my network spoke that it was right in my face, impossible to ignore. During Q&A, when this ad industry guru was asked why there are so few female leaders in the creative departments of ad agencies, he replied that they don’t deserve those jobs because “they aren’t committed”, and “give them a chance and they’ll just run off and suckle something”. I finally got it. And I’ve been paying close attention to gender bias ever since, using my voice and actions to help shine more light on it for people like me. (My first act was to write a rebuttal to that leader’s words online, that went viral. He resigned from his job not long after.) Without pushback from women and men when we hear bias from a colleague, peer, family or friend, change won’t happen.
JK: A year into my advertising career, the marquee account was beer, and I wanted to work on it. When I asked the account director, I was told that I could no more understand beer than he could understand tampons. I asked again. And again, until he said yes. It was a small victory, but the clients didn’t believe girls should work on beer, so I wasn’t allowed into the meeting. When I was offered my second job, I was told that there were no women in the creative department, because there weren’t any that were good enough. Trust me, there were plenty with more experience and better portfolios than mine. I didn’t take the job. I started then, to look at why there were so few women in senior roles in creative departments. When I wrote my first article on the subject, I interviewed a bunch of male creative directors. Without malice, they said things like, “I can’t find any good ones” and “Most of the great artists in history have been men. Maybe we have something to learn from that.” Really? Happily, I do see the world changing at last, in advertising and almost everywhere else, thanks to the initiatives of smart women, like the 3% Conference’s Kat Gordon, Sheryl Sandberg, of course, Anne Marie Slaughter, Hillary Clinton, Malala. And everyone else who is having the conversation – loudly.
Woman you’d like to thank but never had the chance?
NV: I’m mindful to thank people who have helped me, but the famous ones who don’t have a clue who I am include role models like Gloria Steinem, US senator Elizabeth Warren, Malalia Yousafzai…the list is endless.
JK: Of course, the long list of trailblazers: the suffragettes, the Famous Five, the women who marched, were civilly disobedient, spoke out, started magazines where women had ideas rather than wardrobes. But most days, when I’m stuck, I say, “What would Judy do?” My friend, Judy Elder, was my spirit guide, and the most ambitious, warm, smart, adventurous woman. The first to go to the Amazon and swim with piranhas (not metaphorically), first to achieve significant success, to have a baby, to design a rich life of clear priorities and live by them, to fearlessly change careers when the one she had was no longer working for her. Who led by example, guided with humour. Judy died young – 13 years ago – but she still whispers in my ear, daily.
What advice would you give a young female in your industry today?
NV: Ignore signals from the culture that say, be demure. You must use your voice, and get what you need to succeed. That starts with equal pay. There’s an invisible rule that holds true today: “Don’t ask, don’t get.” From your first job forward, do your homework on what the position pays, and ask for it. (Women are way behind men in asking for the right amount, and often don’t ask at all, just accepting what’s offered.)
Get in front of the boss, armed with your achievements (which he or she are often unaware of) when you want the promotion. It’s not going to land at your feet, which most women assume. It’s not a meritocracy. Make yourself visible, be your own champion.
JK: Raise a little hell. Ask for what you want. Don’t take off your wedding ring to please an interviewer. If you want to have a baby, have a baby. And if you don’t, don’t. Don’t allow your job to define everything else in your life. Work where they want you to succeed; expending all your energy banging your head against the wall in a place where your ambitions aren’t supported, will just slow you down and give you a headache.
Who was your female role model & why/how did they empower you?
NV: My mother is at the top of a long list. She set an amazing example by always being true to herself, being unafraid to voice an unpopular opinion (and in a way people could hear—she was reasonable, down to Earth and funny), and by putting a lot of energy into helping others. She empowered me by being supportive of my goals, making me feel I was heard, and with her unconditional love.
JK: Joan of Arc, Scarlett O’Hara, Amelia Earhart, Cleopatra, Nancy Drew were my childhood heroes. They led lives of freedom and adventure, flew planes, solved crime, took roads less travelled, fought alongside men. They didn’t conform to the societal norms or accept their assigned gender roles. They chose their own paths, worked around the rules, bent or outright ignored them. Whether real or fictional, they were achievers and that was thrilling. They made me want to be a pilot or a detective. They had dreams and goals; they stretched higher, and reached further. They were – deep breath – ambitious and I loved them passionately.
What change in societies approach to gender equality are you most proud of?
NV: I’m most impressed by the example being set in Scandinavian countries that have mandated 40% of boards must be female (Norway) and both women and men must take mat and pat leave (In Sweden if the dad doesn’t take his allotted time, mom won’t get her full entitlement). They’ve worked hard to eliminate the stigma of flex time and 90% of companies offer it.
JK: The Scandinavian countries seem to be outstripping everyone with their insistence on leave for both parents. Apparently, Sweden was no different from the rest of us before this was put into play and now they live in a world that’s as close to equal as it gets. I’m overwhelmed with admiration. I’m a fan of the “comply or explain” regulatory approach being used in Britain, and now Canada, among others. There’s ample evidence that if we wait for things to happen in their ‘own good time’, it’ll be another century before we see true movement. The Athena Doctrine (How the future belongs to women and the men who think like them), by John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio,, shows in spades that the female traits like empathy, intuitiveness, and collaboration are desired in leadership around the world, even in places you’d least imagine. Changing a point of view is the key to authentic change.
What is the biggest issue facing women in your industry today?
NV: Ongoing bias at the top. The men in charge still hire people like them into the most senior jobs (or women who lead like men). This is true across industries. I’m hopeful though, because the research is in: the companies that have significant numbers of women at the boardroom table and in senior jobs have the best financial results. This is because women’s style of leading is so different. The terrific book, The Athena Doctrine, outlines the qualities of a female style of leadership that drive better outcomes, including smarter risk management and a collaborative approach with less ego at play. Nothing drives change like the opportunity to improve the bottom line.
JK: That people don’t think there’s an issue.
For more on Janet & Nancy, and how they can inspire your audience check out their Speaker Profile.
Other Speakers featured in our Hot Topics: International Women’s Day Include: