We've come a long way, baby

We've come a long way, baby

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Musings from a Young Female of Colour

Words by Michelle See-Tho. Image by Kieran Adams.

I’m pretty optimistic about the future of my career.

As a young, Asian-Australian woman, I would have had less reason for optimism if I’d started my advertising career a decade or so ago.

 When it comes to the fight for equality, we often revert to feelings of negativity. But it’s also important for us to celebrate the social change that has already been achieved.

The opportunities that are now available to people like me weren’t always around.

Throughout my (admittedly short) time in the industry, I’ve been lucky enough to see, work for, and learn from some great senior women and people of colour. I know this isn’t the case for everyone. And it certainly wasn’t the case for many ten or twenty years ago.

Before I continue, I’ll state that I do believe we’ve still go a long way to go – there are still plenty of issues that exclude people based on gender, sexuality or ethnicity.

But I’m making my way in the industry at a time when agencies and brands are finding ways to celebrate diversity.

These attitude changes didn’t happen overnight. incremental steps throughout history helped us evolve into the diversity-celebrating society we see today. And they prove that this is the kind of work we need to continue in the future.

Mary Wells Lawrence was the first woman to co-found and head up a major agency. She started Wells Rich Greene after her previous (male) boss told her that making her president would “ruin” the agency.

By storming out of that agency to start another from scratch, she set an example for anyone who has been denied opportunity.

She “just wanted her own agency”, so when she couldn’t get the opportunity, she made it for herself.

Then there was Barbara Gardner Proctor, the first African American woman to own and operate her own agency. She was fired for her refusal to make an ad mimicking a civil rights demonstration. That later inspired her to form Proctor and Gardner. She used both her married and maiden names to imply a male co-founder.

 Both these women faced and broke down barriers that I might not ever encounter.

Fast-forward to today, where female representation is on the up: 38% of creative and design roles in Australia are now held by women (up from 29% just one year ago). And there are more than 40 female CDs nation-wide. Around the world, 29% of CDs are now women (increased from 3% since 2012).

We can and should be optimistic about these changes. If things continue on this path, the future of the industry will look completely different.

I completed AWARD School this year. It was the first year they've had a program for regional and Indigenous students. And as I entered the industry, that was one of the first things I saw.

It has set me up with not only a faith in the opportunities available to me, but also a belief that I can contribute to changes that are happening around us.

At AWARD School – most people’s first taste of creative – the judges work blind. No subconscious biases get in the way. And this year four out of five top students in each state were female.

One-third of my AWARD School lecturers were women, as were three of my four tutors. I was also taught by a creative team who spoke English as a second language.  

These changes set me up for a career where I can feel confident in seeking opportunities in an industry that might have once excluded someone like me. They set me up for a career in which I can continue to break down barriers.

Here’s my ideal future: Everyone gets jobs that they worked for, regardless of what they look like. Our work is judged purely on merit. We get eye contact when we’re talking, and all our voices are of equal volume. And when we look up, we can all see someone who looks like us.

I hope it’s not very far away.

But, until we get there, we need to support the people around us who might have a harder time because of something they can’t control. We need to spend time getting to know and listening to the junior women and the people of colour. They might have a different perspective and different ideas, and that’s a good thing.

So ladies, people of colour, and others who don’t fit the mould: keep going. Never give up, even in the face of any adversity. Easier said than done, I know. But if you keep going, one day you could inspire optimism in some fresh-faced AWARD School grad who looks like you.

Michelle See-Tho is a Copywriter at VMLY&R who has crafted words for ads, literary essays, shopping lists, and articles about diversity.

Kieran Adams is a freelance Art Director /sometimes illustrator, currently at Publicis Emil.

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