How I stopped holding myself back

Devon Williamson explains how a lack of leadership and examples to follow keeps women from pursuing opportunities they deserve.
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By Devon Williamson

I didn’t understand that I had done something brave until I was walking along Broadway toward New York’s Flatiron District on a Monday morning in August. I had made the decision on a whim to move to the city for a two month contract. This wasn’t really a part of the plan, but when a creative leader you admire offers you an opportunity to work at her agency, you say yes, and a week later you are flying away from your family, friends and the comforts of home.

A few months ago, I met 14 women in the south of France to participate in Cannes Lions’ See It Be It program, the festival’s response to the lack of diversity in the industry. Some of us were introverted, some of us were lost, anxious or excited. But what we all had in common was the overwhelming feeling that we didn’t deserve to be there. We spent four intense days together questioning everything we knew about ourselves so that we could be real with each other, then building ourselves back up with a solid sense of self and a community to move forward with. These women were strangers when I met them, but by the end, some of them knew me better than my closest friends at home.

I applied to SIBI because I was frustrated with the examples that I’ve seen set for women in advertising. Many of us have worked with teams of men for so long that we’ve pushed our femininity down and hidden it away, which comes across in how we lead and the people we choose to be when we’re at work.

I used to think I had to act like one of the guys in order to advance my career. I’d laugh at jokes that made me uncomfortable and hit back with my own sharp, vulgar line. I tried to be overly confident and didn’t ask for help because I thought I needed to know everything to be worthy of my title and salary.

I was also sexually assaulted early in my career. I thought the new freelancer who sat near me was just being friendly when he invited me out for lunch during my first month at a new job. He pushed himself up against me in the elevator as he suggested we head to a nearby hotel. Of course, he was also married.

The rest is an uncomfortable blur, but I awkwardly got myself out of the situation without making him feel like an idiot (of course) and proceeded to ignore him everyday until his contract ended. As a result, I rejected my femininity until I didn’t even recognize myself anymore. I chopped my hair, wore shapeless clothing, gained weight and stopped wearing makeup. I pushed that experience as far away as I could. I blamed myself and didn’t deal with the trauma or tell anyone until years later.

I still cringe when I think of that person, see him on the street or hear his name in passing conversation. This is the kind of shit that women and other marginalized people have to put up with that you don’t always hear about because it’s hard or traumatic to talk about. So thank you for being sorry, but now can we please change something?

On the first day of SIBI, we spoke with women who had gone through the program before us (like Krystle Mullin, who I worked with at FCB/Six) and met program leaders like Madonna Badger (CCO of Badger & Winters) and Tea Uglow (creative director of Google’s Creative Lab). They told us that four days in the South of France with a group of creative women would change my life. That sounded magical and nice, but I like to approach things with a healthy level of skepticism, so it mostly just seemed unlikely.

Flash forward through four days of emotions, vulnerability and breakthroughs. Tea wisely advised us that we would be going back home feeling fired up, powerful and changed, but the hardest part would be not fitting into the shapes we were used to taking at home, where not everyone would be as supportive.

Tea, Krystle and Madonna were all right in ways that I didn’t expect. Six weeks after I got back from Cannes, I decided to quit my job to shake things up and find my creative spark again. Madonna barely knew me or my work, but she asked me to come freelance with her at Badger & Winters.

Madonna bared her heart and soul to our group, and two things that she said have been stuck in my brain on repeat: “none of this matters” and “every risk you take is worth it.”

It took a while for the things that I learned to crystallize, but the realizations I made have altered my perception of myself, what I believe I’m capable of, what my role is in pushing for change and how I can pay that forward.

Imposter syndrome doesn’t exist

Most of the women in the SIBI program came with one major question: how do I get over feeling like a fraud who tricked everyone into giving them opportunities I couldn’t handle, didn’t deserve and hadn’t earned. I wouldn’t believe anyone who hadn’t felt like that at some point. I suspect this is more prevalent among women, who have less examples of leaders to look to. Almost every wildly successful person we spoke with at SIBI told us the feelings might even increase as you take on more responsibility. But at one point, Madonna asked us what we would do if we let go of that feeling? I think it’s important to feel doubtful as a creative. It means that we are critical and self-aware, which helps us see the holes in our ideas so we can make them stronger. But sometimes these feelings need to be faced head on so we can challenge why we thought them in the first place, because they’re really not true.

Pay attention to the systems you operate in

A few years ago I worked with someone who was constantly talking over everyone in meetings. He was charming about it, so most people didn’t really notice, but it was impossible to work with him because he left no room for anyone else to think or speak, and the decisions he made were based on his limited world view. He meant well and really wanted to do good work, but how can anyone collaborate when one person takes up so much space?

We all work within systems that have hierarchies and rules. It’s important to know how we fit into the structures in our lives. But if you look at your team and see a lot of people who look like you, like the same things as you, came from a similar socio-economic background and have had similar experiences to you, consider why that is and if that might impact the work that you’re doing as a team.

Are you the default or the norm? If you’re the latter, you’re probably white, straight and maybe a man. That doesn’t make you wrong or bad. What matters is that we know where we stand and the types of advantages that gives us. Regardless of if you’re the default or not, make an effort to amplify the quiet voices in the room.

Make the industry you want to work in

Most of the women in the SIBI group were frustrated with the industry and unsure if they should stay or go. One of Cindy Gallop’s key pieces of advice to us was to leave any job immediately if we were not valued and respected for our unique talents and perspectives. That’s easier said than done, but the lesson here is that we don’t have to settle for any place or situation where we’re not thriving. If you’re feeling unappreciated or undervalued, remember that you have so many options, you just need to look around. You don’t have to stay stuck forever. As creative and strategically minded people, we have the ability to examine the industry, identify a problem, highlight the gap and make something that doesn’t exist, but should.

We need a new kind of creative leader

Talented creative people rise up the ranks until they are managing teams, but no one teaches creatives how to lead. Years ago, I had a boss who wouldn’t even look at me when I was speaking in a meeting. Another would second guess all of my ideas at the start of the process, only to end up back there in the end. I’ve worked with toxic leaders who – whether they realised it or not – lead using fear and scarcity. They trusted only themselves or a select few to get the results they wanted. I have to assume it’s because they were once led like that, too.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, let’s stop doing the same thing over and over. We need leaders who are willing to break away from the mold that’s been created and develop their own style.

We must do this together

Regardless of what you look like, your gender, your age or anything else, we need to do this together. There is a lot of pressure to act now and get it right, but the reality is that we’re going to make mistakes and it’s difficult for the people at the top to make space there when they are comfortable. We need to be patient with each other. We need brave leaders who aren’t afraid of addressing their biases around who to hire (or fire), who to brief and who to promote based not only on experience, but on potential. Women tend to only apply for jobs we feel 100% qualified for. Giving someone an opportunity when you think they can do it, even if they haven’t before, is a big part of breaking this pattern. If you’re not in a position to be making these organizational decisions, try mentoring someone who doesn’t look like you, someone outside of your network, someone who thinks in a different way or someone from a different generation.

I’m sure SIBI changed me, but mostly it reminded me about pieces of myself that I had forgotten existed because I had become used to pushing them to the side.

When I applied, my big hope was for someone to tell me the answers. I wanted to know how I could take action and change things that are broken about the system. Then I realized broken things will slowly die and my time is better spent lifting up the people around me and pushing outside of my comfort zone. Because if other people see me doing that, even in small ways, maybe they’ll think about doing it too. And that’s how we start to create change.

Devon Williamson is a freelance art director, currently at Badger & Winters.