Are women in media too busy to get anything done?

Are women in media too busy to get anything done?
Opinion: Career Leaders

In our workplaces we have normalised crisis culture, where any given request is urgent. It’s time to rewrite the rules and recognise that always being busy is rarely the path to effective, happy careers.

“Good afternoon”.

The two words my mother greets me with, even if, despite being a fully grown woman, I should consider getting out of bed after 8am. In my house, we were brought up with the message that if you are not ‘doing’ and busy being productive, then you must be falling short. Hard graft was sacrosanct.

Yet, when I talk to my generation of leaders in the workplace,f it’s increasingly clear that breathing space is vital to a happy career. The women who were schooled on the individualistic and unforgiving capitalism of Lean In, need a lie down. (That’s of course before they comprehensively and creatively redesign the systems that still conspire to suffocate us. As Cindy Gallop says: “Women challenge the status quo because we are not it.”)

Beyond the busy off

A state of constant hurry is increasingly placing its toxic tentacles across the media industry. Consider when you last had a conversation with a colleague or client that didn’t include the terms: slammed, busy or relentless?

In our workplaces we have normalised crisis culture. If you aren’t worrying, or complaining loudly about how busy or stressed you are, are you doing something wrong? We wear ‘busy’ as a badge of honour, rather than recognising it as a sign that something is fundamentally broken in the way we are working.

The irony is while we love nothing better than thought leadership articles about media effectiveness; we promote working structures that are anything but. Cultures that routinely prioritise inputs over outputs are not just fundamentally toxic, they are creatively turgid. The conversation on effectiveness desperately needs to evolve to encompass effective, inclusive and flexible working practices, not just KPIs and CRM systems.

The uncomfortable truth is the sharp edges of productivity culture are conspiring to place processes ahead of people. In the wake of the pandemic, I am yet to meet a room of media executives that has not agreed that they have recently had working days in which they have not had time to pee, let alone think strategically.

The Flood

Without space, the unrelenting pressure of the flood of expectations in the workplace and at home, can all too easily burst the banks of our self-confidence and self-belief.

And yet the truth remains that we add books on boundaries to our Amazon baskets, while also texting hurried responses to emails, despite our out of office being on. We have become so obsessed with getting through our to-do lists, we have forgotten who we want to be, or how we are going to carve out the space to get there.

As a mother, I feel this uncomfortable juxtaposition to my very bones. Bringing my daughter up to compete in a world where the playing field is far from level,  it’s all too easy to focus on achievement above all things.

So as we collectively embrace the summer juggle I’m increasingly challenging myself not to just be her biggest champion, but to show her that rest is not a sign of weakness.  As the writer and psychologist, Steve Biddulph writes: “The enemy of love in modern life is not hate but hurry.”

Or, as Glow London’s CEO Emma Harris puts it: ‘Slow the fuck down’.

Giving yourself permission to come up for air

It’s also important to note that these challenges are incredibly gendered. Over lunch, I recently talked to a media leader about a challenge many women may still find frustratingly relatable. She had been blindsided when her co-head of account management was elevated to the board. Coming ahead of her in a race she did not even have the time to know she was supposed to be running.

Drowning in the flood of an unsustainable day to day workload she could not compete with the amount of time her colleague was investing in managing upwards. She was firefighting client crisis after client crisis as he was igniting his path to the boardroom via House Festival and Wimbledon.

Over the past few months I’ve lost count of the number of brilliant women I’ve listened to talking about the challenge of keeping their ‘heads above water’. The sharp end of productivity culture is that it robs us of that all important ability to look upwards, think expansively and make time for the moments that matter.

If you cannot control your time, you cannot control your career. So I ask you to reconsider the things you might be saying ‘no’ to that will give you energy and drive your career. Speak at a conference, write that article, make the time for the meeting you will enjoy the most next week. Consider the things you can add to your week that will give you energy, not leave you feeling drained. Time is finite, spend it wisely.

Everything is not urgent

Effectiveness is not just about inputs, it is about honesty and clarity on meaningful outputs.

It is also about effective boundary setting. A lesson I was reminded of this week as I rushed out of a theatre desperately searching for a signal to read an email marked ‘URGENT’. Reader, it will not surprise you to learn the email was nothing close to urgent. Missing an important moment that mattered was a painful, yet nonetheless vital stop sign in my ‘always on’ workstyle.

During the course of the pandemic we collectively normalised a level of multitasking that was verging on barbaric. When we try to be all things to all people, whether in the workplace or in our homes, we lose ourselves in the process. The simple truth is everything is not urgent, nor deserving of an immediate response. The workplace needs a speed awareness course, if we want to make a meaningful impact, we need to slow down.

Active listening and mindful disconnection

In our workplaces we have lost the art of listening. We sit in meetings waiting to speak. When we are in the business of communication we need to not only ensure that no word is wasted, but that we aren’t spending each other’s time like water and sprinkling every request with the unnecessary drama of URGENT. We work in the media, not the fire service.

We need to be more mindful in the way we both communicate and disconnect. It is within all of our gifts to embrace more mindful communication. To ditch the generic ‘I hope this email finds you well’, the unnecessary drama of URGENT and the extravagance of the never ending blind cc.

As individuals and organisations, a moment of self reflection on how we show up in our colleagues’ lives and how we spend their time is long overdue. This is particularly vital for women. If we want to unleash the power of our voices and make an impact in the workplace, we must be intentional in reclaiming our thinking time. For it’s only when we get off the ‘always on’ treadmill that we open the doors of possibility within ourselves that overwhelm keeps bolted firmly shut.

The media industry thrives on the talent of the people within it. We need to give those people, and ourselves, the permission to breathe. So before I switch my out of office for the summer holidays (and commit to it!) I urge you to carve out time for both rest and radical thinking.

Gift yourself the space to embrace the brilliance that comes with giving one thing your full attention without guilt. Even if that one thing is as simple as a lie in or opening book you have been wanting to read for ages.

Recognise that rest is a radical act. Everything is not urgent.

Nicola Kemp has spent over two decades writing about diversity, equality and inclusion in the media. She is now editorial director of Creativebrief. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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