Interview: Annelies On 3 Challenges Working Women Face

The interview of the month focuses on three challenges women face during their careers. Today I am interviewing Annelies Engel. She was born and raised in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. After high school Annelies went to the fashion academy, but when she graduated there was no fashion climate in the Netherlands. Next to the fashion industry, she also liked the advertising, graphic, and design world. She has worked many years for various brands such as IKEA, BMW, NS, Ahold, Vodafone, and Nike. She started freelancing about twenty years ago. Last year, she was the interim creative director at Costes. After that, Annelies expanded her guesthouse Haus am Zee in Zandvoort with an interior, styling, and design branch focused on beach living. Last week, her first collection arrived from Marrakesh.

Annelies, prior to the interview I asked you to think of three situations that you encountered during your career. Which ones did you choose and why?

The assistant, it’s all about the money and boys will be boys. I have chosen these situations because they have been a common thread throughout my career. I see it happening around me. I believe that these are challenges every woman experiences.

As a woman, you often start in a junior position. This has an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that you learn all facets of your profession and you always have people around you from whom you can learn. The disadvantage is that the way up takes longer and years later you are often mistaken for the assistant, both by your colleagues and customers. Men start in a higher position, despite the same education. It is partly also because many women like to take on the assistant role. Those who choose this can be proud of it because it is a full-fledged profession and the manager is often nothing without this person.

Salary difference and sexism are much-discussed problems, but when you talk about the entry-level, people in the business community seem to be satisfied with that. Unless you’re a woman and you look back at what you’ve been doing for the past five years and think hey, that 22-year-old guy next to me comes in as a junior manager and I come in as an assistant, how can that be? It is a subject that receives little attention. So, I would argue that it needs more attention. It takes a long breath for women to fight against these inequalities.

What is the reason behind it?

I think it’s partly because of the woman’s modesty. Men seem just a little more confident. I always say jokingly: men say yes I can do that when they are applying for a job and then start learning how to do something and women say yes I can because I have already learned it. That is where the difference lies because as women we think that we first have to know it all and then do it while men have more courage to say that I will do that or I can do that. The modesty in women should be a bit less in my opinion.

What should women do to climb higher?

If you want to start higher up the ladder, you have to claim your spot. Become visible, take that step forward, bluff a little more, be confident, take the floor in meetings and come up with proposals. If you accept during an evaluation interview that you will receive an additional 100 euros or 1.2% next year. You will continue to gain 1.2% every year and you hope you have a manager, who says well… that’s a great woman! I have to give her a promotion, but that’s not going to happen. You have to do it yourself. If you don’t do it yourself, you won’t be seen. What do men do? They chat with the manager about the weekend on Monday morning or bring them a cup of coffee. And as a woman you think… what does that man do all day? I have no idea, I’m busy working. However, so is that man, he builds a relationship with his manager and is visible. There’s nothing wrong with telling your manager, shall we have lunch on Friday? I am working on an issue and I would like to have your opinion. In this way, you keep it work-related. Modesty is good, but it doesn’t help your career. But this is also the crux, it is important that you also remain yourself. Women are quickly perceived as cold and mean in leadership positions while making the same decisions as their male counterparts. Do not be fooled by this, this is about powerlessness and frustration which you can address if you are a good leader.

How do you feel when people immediately assume you’re an assistant?

Haha. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen anymore, but when I was your age, I was in charge of meetings. To be honest, the fact that I’m blonde didn’t really help either. But you can deal with it in two ways. You can get angry about it. Or you can laugh about it. What I often did was play along. I poured the coffee and they went to talk to my male colleague, someone they thought of as the boss. My colleague would look at me if he couldn’t answer the questions or he said you have to go to Annelies for that. Or I let them talk and when the topics got serious, I took charge. It immediately got quiet, funny to watch. They had to pick themselves up again because they hadn’t expected it. Humor is the way to deal with it for me. You’re going to experience it hundreds of times, people being rude or making sexist comments. Laugh at it and straighten it out, and if it gets too much, take someone aside. Anger will only eat you up. Stand above it.

I think many women find that judgment call difficult. When do you laugh along and when do you say something serious?

The moment when people hurt you, you can say something about it. If they cross a line, I’ll say something about it in front of everyone. But I’ll keep it to myself by saying, “I don’t like what you’re saying right now or it hurts me.” It is okay to be vulnerable in this because you take the wind out of the person’s sails.

I’m not saying I approve of it, but very often people don’t realize that they act stupid.

Yes, it is often subconsciously. They have been taught that it is okay to say such things.

They are not stupid, the penny will drop. They are damn well aware that they have just been checkmated. Just in a way that it’s not bad, because you still have an hour to congregate, otherwise you might as well cancel the meeting because it’s not going to be fun anymore.

How did you get promoted?

I have often been promoted by changing jobs. Once people have an image of you, it is difficult to change it. If you have a fresh interview with another organization where people are looking for someone who wants to take the next step, you will be promoted.

What are the things you mention in a job interview?

Well, mainly my ambition. They already read what’s on my resume. My plea has always been: I have ambition, I want to grow, I want to continue. Those are the keywords in a job interview. A manager or CEO loves to hear that.

What do women need to climb to the top?

  1. I think we women could be more supportive of each other. There’s the old boys network, men choose younger clones of themselves. It is time for more women to reach the top by helping each other grow.
  2. Network, that’s really crucial. Your network will take you wherever you need to be. And I would also say never stop learning. Always keep exploring. By learning I do not necessarily mean a study, it can also be social work or travel. Broaden your view of the world and be open to new experiences. You can also learn from other people, find a mentor, an old hand in the industry, with whom you will drink coffee once a month. Make sure you get a good network. That’s really crucial.

We all know that men, in general, earn more than women. And that is often well spoken of because the man has more experience, is older or well, fill it in yourself. I have come across this many times. The first time was early in my career. I was an assistant and ran all the projects for a big client. In one year, I had realized a great turnover on that customer, with good margins and at the same time a very satisfied customer. The manager I worked for had more clients under his care but he got the promotion at the end of the year, with a new company car and bonus and I got a 100 euro salary increase. I raised this, but nothing could be done because all assistants received 100 euros and assistants could not continue to grow. I started looking for a new job and started somewhere else as a manager. Moral of the story: you are responsible for your life and the career that goes with it. If you don’t get opportunities at a company, you have to create them yourself somewhere else. I still come across it in my freelancing life. Men with a lesser track record get a higher hourly rate than me. You have to dare to discuss that. I can lose the assignment, that’s a risk, but I don’t accept that this is swept under the rug.

How do you discuss it? What do you say?

That is a difficult one because 9 times out of 10, I lose the assignment. I’m a righteous person and I think it’s unfair, so I’m going to have that conversation from my perspective. On one of my last assignments, I indicated that someone with a lesser track record received a higher hourly rate. The director was a woman and said, “damn, you’re right.” Very often people are not conscious of it. She was really like, that’s not okay and I’m going to change it.

How does that feel to you? If you experience again and again that it is unfair and you can’t do anything about it?

I don’t just work for the money. That makes the difference. I love my job. I get very cool assignments that I am proud of. This cannot be expressed in money. Despite a lower hourly rate, I still have a good income, it’s not that I can’t pay my mortgage. The equality is not there. I think that’s unfair, but I don’t work for the money, but for the kick of setting up a nice project. And if I’m also allowed to shoot abroad, for example in Cape Town, then you won’t hear me complaining. Work is so much more than money.

I have worked all over the world and in times where (fortunately) inclusiveness and diversity are high on the agenda, there is one that is universal. It doesn’t matter where the men come from and where you are in the world, if you join a meeting with only men as a woman, the atmosphere will change. Suddenly you get macho behavior, making fun of each other, etc. Mind you, the extent to which this occurs varies per industry. Men will also talk about you and especially about your looks or what you wear. On a side note, women unfortunately also do this while they should be on the side of the woman, but this is already rooted so deeply. Although I disapprove of this behavior, I understand that this comes from a primal instinct. Men and women aren’t the same and that’s fine. My approach is humor again. I think it’s super funny when men behave differently in meetings and I play with that a bit so that they can see for themselves what behavior they exhibit. Often we can all laugh about it.

Do you have an example where you approached the situation from a humorous point of view?

For example, one way is to make it uncomfortable for them by asking “what do you think of my new dress?” So use women’s talk. Men find nothing worse than women’s talk. “And I also have new nail polish.” You see them immediately drop out and think where have I ended up, haha. Unwanted sexual harassment is really not okay. But sometimes you hear comments of which I feel you will get further with humor than anger. And let’s be honest, women also say something when they see a man walk by. Women are no different in that regard, only men have more difficulty disguising it. They forget that we listen in or something. If you solve it with humor, you suddenly become one of the boys, and the attention for you immediately stops. I understand that times change and that some things are really not done, but I think we should not forget our humor. A little joke every now and then makes it nicer to work together.

What do you do when you realize that men are talking about your appearance?

Talk along. When they say “gosh, she could use a hairdresser.” I ask “which hairdresser do you go to?” or “shall we go to the hairdresser together?” Instead of sitting annoyed behind my laptop.

What is the best way to deal with female colleagues who gossip?

I think differently about this because it is often negative. If you know who is gossiping, you take them aside for a while. It is important to conduct the conversation from a place of vulnerability, not from accusations. I have heard some things and that hurts me. After that, it’s almost immediately over and that person will also defend you in the group. You have to discuss this one-on-one.

What is your hope for the next generation of women?

I hope for more connection among women. Have more self-confidence. We can all do it. Just do it. Women have a different way of working. For example, many female entrepreneurs do not employ any staff compared to male entrepreneurs. So I think it would be a good start if women started working together more in hubs, for example. Women work differently and that is a strength. Do not mirror the male society, but create your own society where everyone is welcome, including men. The standard is not what men have created.

I think that’s a nice ending of the interview. Thank you, Annelies!

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