What does leadership mean to you? How can we encourage more women to see themselves as leaders? Is applying for the fellowship grant right for you? These are just some of the questions our amazing panel of female screen practitioners discuss in our ‘In-Conversation’ session with Sue Maslin AO as moderator.
Sue: Jen, you’ve been an ambassador with the Fellowship since 2018 – so tell us a little bit about why you decided to come on board with the Fellowship and what that role has meant to you.
Jen: At its heart, I believe in the sisterhood. I think there are so many obstacles and barriers to entry in this industry and that we need to look after each other and look out for each other.
I feel like I’ve been the recipient of a lot of luck in my career, and often that has been women on the other end of that – opening a door and pushing it through. Earlier in my career, I started as a Marketing Manager at IF magazine, where I was a volunteer for a day before they offered me the job and Bec Smith was probably a really early mentor whose now my agent over in America UTA. People like Margaret Pomeranz opened doors for us there. I’ve had mentors through that time, including people like yourself Sue, I feel like you’re really someone we can look up to. People like Fiona Nix took me by the hand and gently told me when I’m about to make big mistakes…
Sue: She still does that with me by the way!
Jen: Isn’t she great at that! And there’s a host of women. Women that would give you a gentle ‘Hey, are you doing the right thing,’ or whatever they may do. People like Jan Chapman and Liz Watts – I could name hundreds of them and I feel like it’s important that we’re just there for each other. I was a recipient of a Fellowship that you mentioned – that was one of those strokes of luck that completely changed my career. I was literally on the brink of finding it all too hard. I just had my second child and I thought I just can’t keep doing this anymore, this is ridiculous. Trying to be a director and have two kids. And I got a tap on the shoulder that I received this fellowship and it made me keep going and I will be forever grateful for that.
Sue: So that tap on the shoulder is a really, really important part of all of this, isn’t it? Because it’s really hard, particularly for women, to see ourselves applying for these kinds of Fellowships. Or [asking] is this for me – could I be a leader – because it asks us to take ourselves seriously, but it matters a lot.
Jen: I know, and we find it really hard to do that. And it’s a well-known statistic, and I don’t know the exact figures, but men will apply for a job when they have maybe 30% of the credentials in the job description and women will only apply when they have 100% of them.
And I think that says a lot, whether or not I’ve got those statistics right, that’s more or less the gist of it. We have to look at the way we underestimate ourselves and find ways to support each other and encourage ourselves.
There’s been a number of conversations recently where people have said to me ‘Jen, you wouldn’t have said that if you were a man, you would have actually stood up for yourself.’
And it still surprises me because I’m happy to push and say things like that to other women, but we still underestimate ourselves somehow. So I think, having this community of people that you can rally around each other and when you see someone who has talent – there’s nothing more satisfying as giving them a little push or giving them a leg up.
I think that’s really embodied in this Fellowship which is why I think it’s so special.
Sue: Rachel, you actually applied – it’s probably nine years ago when you were in the process of taking that step and applying. What was it like then, and why did you take that step, and tell us a little bit about the process of applying.
Rachel: I actually had forgotten about the process of applying, but I found my application when I was preparing for this panel and had a read through it again. And I think the thing that struck me the most was how clear my goal was at that point in time and I think because the goal was so certain for me that the pathway to achieving it seemed at that time to be quite direct. Applying for the Natalie Miller Fellowship was the first step in a series of steps to get to that end result. And the actual application process is remarkably simple and straight forward, so that’s certainly wonderful that it’s not any barrier of entry.
Sue: one of the things that we asked you to do was to do, and in fact continue to ask applicants, is to get two referees which means you need to go ask someone more experienced in the industry to vouch for you which is a really interesting process in itself because you are asking people to consider you as a leader and consider you as someone who should apply for this Fellowship. Was that a difficult thing to do?
Rachel: No, it’s interesting that whole concept of referees and champions in general, because in some ways it’s a cornerstone of building a career in this industry and without that, you don’t get very far. Someone once gave me the very good advice – which I think is very good advice, that your application is only ever as strong as your references and I think there’s an element of truth in that. I think without champions you can’t really progress with any great speed and so having to have those two references in place I think is a very important step in positioning in your mind as to who are going to be your champions within this industry. And that is something that needs to be followed through, whether it’s applying for a fellowship or applying for a job or being put forward for assignments, or being considered for roles or whatever it is – it’s having those champions and references that are really critical.
Sue: So what was the impact of being awarded the Fellowship, how did that impact on your life.
Rachel: It was enormous, and I still feel the resonance of receiving the Fellowship to this day. It gave me the confidence to know that I was doing a good job because there are not too many tangible forms of recognition when you’re on that side of the industry when you’re an Exec person there’s not really any forums to celebrate people doing a good job, so it felt like the first time I’d been recognised in that way and it was very prestigious. And the fact that the Fellowship was still establishing itself as something conceptually important in this industry – obviously that’s built up over the past ten years, but the fact that it was connected to Natalie Miller who has such an enormous amount of respect behind her from everyone in the distribution and exhibition side of the industry – it was very meaningful in that respect. And I remember jumping up and down with excitement because the word ‘Harvard’ was going to appear on my CV and I couldn’t believe how exciting and fancy that sounded and then there was that side of it, and then there was the aspect of getting to do that training and get to go do this wonderful course in this incredibly established, prestigious business school and the things that I’ve learnt that – it was only one short week, but I reference it all the time in challenges in my day to day job, and whenever I’m thinking about shaping my career and how to handle problems in the workplace. It was immensely valuable on many levels.
Sue: So Kyas, I’d like to bring you into the conversation and open it up more broadly as to the role of mentoring and networking and the things that have helped you move into leadership positions. I’d be really interested in your thoughts on that, and what leadership means for you.
Kyas: I just want to leap off what Jen and Rach have both said. The way Jen said that she’s here for the sisterhood, just fills me with joy because I have a firm belief that there’s an abundance of space for everybody to hold their space in this sector. I love to hear that and I love when I hear it because I would say 9 times out of 10 the people who have opened doors or started conversations with me have been women who are doing amazing things and they’ve taken their time to have that chat with me and it is from that little conversation where generally the biggest pivot in where I aspire to go, so that’s really interesting and then what Rachel about the referees – and I just want to do an open shout out to any First Nations women out there or women of colour if you don’t have a champion, contact the Natalie Miller Fellowship and they will pass you over to me and I will talk to you and I will highlight all the champions you have in your life who will be able to help you and all the connections you have in your life because I think sometimes that can be a barrier for some creatives – they don’t realise how many people are already supporting them in the wings. I just wanted to pick up on those two things.
Sue: Two fantastic points. Really important points. The importance of networking and mentoring in your career…
Kyas: For me, I don’t know if it’s a black thing or not, but I’ve always just been led and inspired by my family. My mum, my aunties, my cousins, my uncles. And I’m sure everyone can see who they’ve got in their lives like that. So in a weird way, I’ve never had that resistance to starting a conversation with anyone. Because I’m like, ‘I’m at the same event that you are – so let’s have a chat!”. Especially when you know it’s a working one, the advice that I would give to anyone if you’re at working do – don’t sell your product, don’t do anything, just meet the people and let the people leave with ‘Oh, that was a nice person, I could work with them.’ Because no matter what you’ll come across their path in ten years’ time, and if they remember that you had a normal, no pressure conversation I think that could go a long way. And with mentors, I think I’ve had accidental mentors – women who I’ve worked with that are amazing. But they wouldn’t say their mentoring me, because they weren’t – they were just doing their job and part of their job was they showed me the ropes without question and watching their craft at work, allowed me to see that.
Sue: I’m actually going to ask each of you, how would you describe your own leadership style – So Kyas, how would you characterise your approach to leadership?
Kyas: I would definitely say that I embrace failure. I think people put around fancy words – these buzz words like ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’. That’s not my thing. My thing is, give it a good go and fail. Get up, look at why you failed. See who you need to add on your team and how you need to shift. Play for a bit, then go to the next bit. And part of my way is I like people, and you’ve got that team analogy ‘you’re only as good as your weakest link’, I don’t see that, your team is as strong as the most potential in each person. So, if you know a person’s skills and what makes them sing and you get them doing that – that’s my thing. I like to bring teams together so that they can all sing.
Sue: And a big part of that is having a goal, or a vision. So Jen, you’ve been working in this space for a long time and leading people towards a vision. How would you describe your particular style of leadership?
Jen: I’ve been thinking about this when I knew we were going to talk about it. I would hope to say it’s collaborative. I love this idea of fail, and fail early. I really think there’s no such thing as a dumb question. And I really believe a good idea can come from anywhere. So, in the way that I run my edit suits, that I’m in at the moment – everyone can contribute. And I’m a huge believer in feedback, asking for feedback and listening to feedback. Not only when I’m talking about the creative process when you’re making a film, but also in teams. I used to run a bigger team at IF – I think there was about ten of us, maybe twelve at our height. And it is an inclusive style. I’d say I’m pretty into flat structures – fairly egalitarian structures. I’ve always worked in small organisations – I’m not a fan of bureaucracy. I’m really impatient about it. And I love that idea of lighting fast.
And if someone is across the room – and it could be the edit assistant then the best idea wins. And I find that really exciting and it keeps you on your toes. And everyone is on notice that a good idea can come from anywhere. And may the best idea win. So that involves everyone checking their ego at the door a little bit. And I choose to surround myself with people that generally are smarter than me, and that can bring something to the table that I don’t already have. So, it’s about building the very best around you – and then bringing those people in and really listening to what they can bring to the team. I think they are probably the main things.
Sue: It’s that gathering and realising that people are your best resources. And allow people, which is exactly what you were saying Kyas, to let them realise their full potential. So, thinking about all of that in terms of how you want to make a difference. Because in fact where all leaders at different times, in every part of our lives where we do take action to make a difference – to bring about change and having agency.
Jen: Part of it is walking the walk. I think there’s something about putting out into the world what you want to bring back. Like I said earlier, I feel like a lot of people have given me a lot of opportunities. Later in my career, it’s really nice to give time to young women that are aspiring and I would encourage people to not be afraid to ask. If somebody inspires you – reach out to them. And when writes a really carefully worded email or Facebook message, I’m always happy to have a conversation, because I feel like those conversations for me have been really invaluable over the years.
Sue: Rachel, how would you describe your style of leadership?
Rachel: You’re both very eloquent. I feel like I’ve only got a one-word response. Inclusive style of leadership? I’m not very good at answering that question – I find that maybe a leadership style is something that flows instinctively as opposed to other areas in which I think much more strategically. But yes, it’s definitely a very open-door policy and I’m learning slowly that being an open and inclusive leader doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be everyone’s bestie – that’s not necessarily the point here, but that being warm and collaborative definitely has its virtues.
Sue: So how do we encourage women to use the ‘leadership’ word and to start to think about it applying to ourselves. And what are some of the hurdles of owning our own leadership style?
Jen: I think part of it is that so many of us are so backwards in coming forward. As you are Rach – you’ve had incredible positions of leadership in your career and you wouldn’t have gotten there if you weren’t an amazing leader. I think part of it is having the confidence to own it, and own that we can be leaders and that we can make a difference. I think a lot of women spend a lot of time making themselves small and small targets because when you put yourself out there, sometimes you open yourself up to criticism and you only have to look to what female leaders in the world deal with when they do put themselves out that’s tough and that’s why I think when women are cut down, we need to call it out and support each other.
But I think, I don’t know if this is answering the question, but we need to try to realise when we are talking ourselves down, we need to think of what some of those innate leadership qualities are that Rach was referring to and that women can be wonderful leaders. My entire organisation is all women, I know Aquarius is too and that’s an incredible team of women and so, I don’t know if that answers your question – it’s partly confidence.
Kyas: I’ve got a different take. Because in Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander space, our leaders are leaders, so with that term, I’m not even attempting to be a ‘leader’, but I understand in the capacity and the privilege of having employment and what I do in some of the roles I have. I have leadership qualities and an opportunity to bring others and extend their knowledge and what they can do, so it’s just a difference. I’m aware of it. But I will not take the title of a leader, because that is something that the community gives to you. But the skill sets around what my roles are and I have an obligation to offer, look back and bring the next one’s forward.
Sue: And that’s a really important answer. And this year, we’ve been aware at the Fellowship that we haven’t had a high level of applications from Indigenous women and we really want to make a focus on having more Indigenous women applying, so we’re putting the word out there to please think about the Fellowship and applying for the grant this year. And thank you for your generous offer to be there, to provide a bit of encouragement and discussion around that Kyas.
Kyas: Cause what I think is if anyone out there knows a black fella who they think has the skill set and this would be good for them, please anyone watching this, please reach out to them that and tell them and backing them. And if they’ve got any concerns, they can shoot me an email and I’ll have a yarn to them. Because as easy as some applications can be, you’re just in your mind, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go through it’. But if someone has a chat with you – it’s easier.