'The game is rigged': Former Elle editor Justine Cullen on career goals & parenting

‘The game is rigged’: Former Elle editor Justine Cullen on career goals & parenting

Justine Cullen

From a very early age, Justine Cullen knew she wanted to sit in a magazine editor’s chair. It was her dream, and it was one she was steadfastly focused on.

“I didn’t grow up in a particularly privileged household. So that idea of this world where there was just so much stuff was so appealing to me,” she tells Kate Mills in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast supported by Salesforce.

“It whipped up for me this world of these very glamourous women who seemed to be really smart and funny, and they all seemed to have a really good time at work.

“That was so foreign to me as someone whose mum cleaned houses for a living and worked very unglamourous jobs.”

Cullen is the former editor-in-chief of Elle Australia and landing that job was the culmination of everything she’d ever dreamed of. But as she shares more on in the podcast, after years of glamour, fashion, publishing and travelling the world, the sparkle of the job started to dwindle.

“I first imagined being the editor of Elle at 14 and I think that that dream served me well over the course of my career, but by the time I was five or six years in, I was definitely not that girl anymore,” she said.

“I think I was rapidly learning that for women, in many ways, the game is rigged.”

As Cullen details in her just released book Semi-Gloss, she had to recalibrate what success meant to her, and in the end, it was clear being at Elle wasn’t conducive with her life. After five years at the helm of Elle, Cullen decided to leave the magazine in 2018.

“We all feel that pressure to take the opportunities that the women who came before us didn’t have,” Cullen says.

“The truth is that we [women] might have been able to make our way into the workforce, but there really weren’t any changes in terms of the labour split in the home or the traditional care giving duties, or childcare systems, or parental leave.

“It makes it very difficult for women to be able to work as hard as you need to at that level, outside of the home. It’s a game and it’s really hard for women to win.”

Cullen shares she experienced what she likes to call a sort of “publishing PTSD” along with an identity crisis, when she realised it was no longer her dream to be the editor of Elle magazine.

“I didn’t know how to introduce myself without attaching myself to this title that I’d always had, and what that represented to people as an international magazine,” she said.

“It was something that people can instantly recognise. It’s not a job that needs to be explained in any way and I didn’t think I’d be as attached to that as I was.”

Cullen explains that now, as the editor-in-chief of Jones Magazine and the mother of four boys, she’s discovered she can’t be everything to everyone.

“There’s no way you can feel like you’re getting it right in every facet of your life. When I have to talk about how I get through my day or what my life hacks are – whatever that is – I always think, god I genuinely don’t know…it’s one foot in front of the other.”

The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.

The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.

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