Each year, March 8 marks International Women’s Day; a day to acknowledge, champion and celebrate the important contributions women make to our communities – and to remind ourselves of the ongoing work required to secure a fair and equitable society for all.
As part of Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific’s celebrations, Ava Lawler, managing director, Weber Shandwick Australia, shares with Matt O’Neill her experiences as a leader within the international communications sector, and as an advocate for equitable workspaces and communities.
PR was a diversion, for me. I’d originally intended to save the world by being a journalist.
In my final year of studying journalism, though, I joined a small PR agency as a receptionist. They occasionally gave me some news releases to write or some other work to do and, eventually, I was doing the work of what, today, would be an account coordinator. And, I loved it. Before I knew it, we were hiring a new receptionist and I was a consultant. Since then, I’ve never looked back.
I’ve never felt discriminated against as a woman within my workplaces. Generally, I think we’re fortunate that PR agencies are – overall – very accepting, tolerant and supportive environments for all people within the industry; regardless of gender, sexual preference, race, religion, et cetera. I find that, generally, we’re a very open and tolerant group of people.
But, while I can’t say I’ve ever been openly discriminated against as a woman, there are certainly instances where I’ve been in a room with professionals from outside the PR industry and they’ve behaved in a way that’s demonstrated more inherent respect for the men in the room. Times where men were given more time in the day or more deference.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s become less of an issue. I think, as young women, it’s hard. We’ve got youth and gender working against us when we’re advising senior executives. Because, really, most senior executives are male. As I’ve gotten older, I think age has conferred credibility. But, in the beginning, it’s hard. Doubly so, because you’re also less confident – and confidence is crucial in business.
Personally, I’ve always had doubts. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned that dealing with self-doubt and negative self-talk is an ongoing journey for most professionals. In the beginning, I thought it was just me and my lack of self-confidence. I couldn’t stop imagining myself as a young child, instead of a seasoned business executive – and I thought it was really holding me back.
But, the more you talk about it with other people, the sooner you become aware of the fact that – practically everybody out there is faking it until they make it. Once I had that realisation, I came to see that I wasn’t alone in my fears and that they were natural; that these were fears that were overcome everyday by all sorts of people and I could do it too.
To my parents’ occasional concern, I’ve always had a bit of an adventurous spirit. I think that’s helped poke me forward, even when I’m scared. But, on any journey, I’ve always tried to make sure that I’m taking people with me. I think that tendency to work with people and collaborate with others has been what’s really helped me move forward throughout my career, even with doubts.
Whether those people are there to share the view, share the load or prop you up when you’ve got doubts (or slap some sense into you and give you another perspective); I think a team of collaborators can really help make any career more enjoyable. And, just as importantly, more sustainable. I still get a lot of my energy from working with people.
My advice to young women would be to seek out workplaces where you feel there’s an open culture of respect. Where other women have been successful. Where there’s a culture of learning and openness. A culture that’s going to allow you to flourish and explore your own career – that’s flexible enough to allow you to stand for what you believe and invest in what you think is important.
But, for anyone looking to succeed in this industry, I would give the same advice, regardless of gender. Firstly, you have to have a desire to succeed; secondly, you have to invest in your craft; and, finally, you have to be willing to put in the work. Throughout, you should always try to communicate with confidence, and, most importantly, work with people. Bring them with you, learn from them.
In the end, your community and your collaborators are always what will propel you forward and bring you your greatest successes, regardless of gender.