Megan Dalla-Camina recently sat down with Mia Freedman for a discussion about her new book Work Strife Balance. They talk career fails (and lessons), mentors, leaders and why balance is bullshit.
Mia Freedman is a writer, broadcaster, author, former editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, a podcast host, and a digital empire builder. She’s the co-founder and creative director of the Mamamia Media Company, Australia’s largest women’s digital media and podcast company with five global offices and A monthly audience of millions.
Mia hosts two podcasts, makes regular appearances on TV and radio, and is the author of four books. She’s married to the co-founder of Mamamia. Together, they have three children and live in Sydney. As she says in her own words, her wheels regularly fall off.
It’s great to speak about your new book today. Why this book and why now?
Such a good question. I was meant to write this book a couple of years ago. Well, my husband’s actually been saying I should write this book for 10 years, and I have said, “No, no, no. Nobody wants to hear my advice.” He said, “Yes, yes, yes. They do.” And I’ve just been, “No, no, no, no, no,” because I’ve written other books but they’d been very much written for myself about myself. Because, as a writer, I write about things to process them. This book is still about myself, but it’s helpful. My other books were fine but they weren’t helpful. This is actually quite specific in its advice. I’ve really taken a position about things. I’m like, “Here’s what I’ve learned. Here’s how I can help you.”
You said that one of the reasons you wanted to write this book was around the question, “Am I the only one who isn’t quite coping?” What did you mean by that?
I think we’re very good at recognising, talking about and celebrating success in our culture. Social media is very much built around that. It’s around all the glossy wonderful things and, you know, here’s my great body and here are my clever children winning prizes and here’s me looking amazing. But I think that a picture doesn’t always tell a thousand words. Often, a picture hides a thousand words and for every picture or Facebook post that makes your life look good, there are a thousand that you didn’t post and there are a thousand things you didn’t say.
To me, the most interesting things are the hard parts, the struggles, the challenges. That is where the helpfulness lies in what you learn, not just about your own life and about yourself, but as women, what we learn from each other. I wanted to be real about all the things that you don’t usually hear me say and talk about, things that are completely normal. I was fairly confident that the things I share in the book were very normal experiences, because whenever I talk to my girlfriends about them, they’re like, “Yeah. Me too.” I thought why not put them out into a wider audience, if they were things that were going to make women feel better about themselves.
What role do other women play as mentors in your work and life?
I’ve got a really strong network of women in my life, who are my close friends and many of them work in the media doing similar things to me, although some of them are on television and have much, much higher profiles than I ever would. We reach out to each other for support and reassurance constantly. I think that we all mentor each other. I really miss having a sort of an old, wiser mentor in my life. I’ve got a couple of friends who don’t work in the media, who are in their 60s and 70s, who I look to. I look to all different people, some of the women that I look to as mentors are younger than me. I think this idea that you need someone who’s older and wiser and works in your industry is not always true but you also just don’t need one person. You can take different things from different people.
You write in the book about what you call the patriarchal bargain. What do you mean?
I suppose it can be best be described by Kim Kardashian posing naked or with her top off, then posting it on Instagram and saying that she is doing this to be empowered. The patriarchal bargain is when a woman works within the constraints of a system that’s set up to keep women down – a system that values a woman for her body or her looks above all other things – and where she uses that as a way to benefit herself but that doesn’t help any other women. I’m not saying don’t do it, but don’t pretend that it’s this big generous feminist thing that you’re doing because it’s not. Of course, feminism is about being able to portray yourself in whatever way you want. But just being a woman and making a choice, that’s not called feminism. It’s not good for women and it holds us all back because it absolutely plays to this idea that you’ve got to be hot all the time to be valuable as a woman.
One of the topics you cover in the book is talking about your biggest career failure. Tell us about that.
At that time in my career I had left magazines and gone on maternity leave. I knew I wasn’t going back to magazines, but didn’t know what was next. Eddie Maguire was the new CEO at Channel 9 and he rang me and said, “I’m tired of sitting around and discussing with a bunch of men what women want to watch on TV. Why don’t you come over and join the executive team and help us out in doing a good job of talking to women.”
I knew I had no TV experience but I thought, “I can do that. How hard can it be?” It was the most horrific seven months of my career. It was among the most seven horrific months of my life. It was just shattering. It was awful. It destroyed my self-esteem. It destroyed my reputation. It destroyed my health, my mental health. It was awful, but it helped me recognise what I did want to do, which is get the hell out of TV, get the hell out of senior management and work for myself on the internet, being creative again.
After I got out of there, I was just a mess. I can now say, 10 years later, the mistakes I made in accepting that job in the first place and I can see it as a valuable experience.
I also learned that you cannot change the culture of an organisation by yourself. You can’t unless you’re the boss, which I certainly wasn’t. I couldn’t change the culture and I couldn’t even have any effect on the culture because nobody wanted me there.
What were some of the lessons you learned from this?
Some of the mistakes I made were in accepting a job that was undefined. There was no job description. It was a really loose come-on-over and help-me-out offer. I knew it would be hard, but I thought that it would be interesting. I was wrong.
There are new roles that are created all the time. So going into a job that hasn’t existed before isn’t always necessarily a sign that it’s not going to work, but you do need to have a job description. You do need to have measures of what success would look like in that job. You do need to have KPIs. All of that is really important. You need to have a job title that you’re comfortable with. We couldn’t agree on a job title, and that should’ve been a really big alarm bell.
Make sure you ask for an organisational chart so you can see how the company works and where you would fit in. I think women get nervous, “Oh, if I’m offered a job, I have to just say yes.” But you can ask questions. You can take time to think about it. You can make demands of your own. Men do. Women are very, very passive in the job-seeking process, myself included. It comes back to bite you in the end. It certainly did to me.
MamaMia is now ten years old. How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I have continued to make a lot of mistakes as a leader, which is why I’ve taken myself out of our leadership team in the last 6 to 12 months. I think I can be inspirational and I can lead the team creatively, but in terms of day-to-day, I’m not sure whether I’m just over it because I’ve been managing people for 20 years or whether I was never any good at it. I tend to be very bad in what I don’t want to do because I’m quite immature that way.
I’m very distracted in meetings, for example, because I just hate meetings, so I behave like a child. In terms of a leader, I’m not the day-to-day hands-on type and I’m not involved in the business in that way anymore. I dip in and out as I want to.
I lead creatively. Every so often the brand will go off the mark and I will have to bring it back. It’ll be up to me to identify what’s happened, to recalibrate the team and say, “Hang on. We need to go back to here. We need to readjust because we’ve strayed from our core purpose, which, for us, is to make the world a better place for women and girls.
I guess I like to lead by example. I like to lead my team creatively, and with things that I’m interested in. We have a Slack window called Mia Recommends. In there, I post links to things that I think are really great, that I’ve been reading or that I’ve been listening to, that I think are instructive to them.
You write about the things you have said no to in your career. For many women, saying no to opportunities can be daunting. What was that process like for you?
I have had the opportunity to go and move to New York. I’ve had the opportunity to have my own TV show and I’ve thought, “I should say yes, I should want to do it because everyone wants to live in New York, right?” Then I’ve gone, “You know what? I don’t want to. It’s not what makes me happy. Everyone want to go to the Logies, right? Not me.
I’ve left the best question for last perhaps, which is the whole balance conversation. The book is called Work Strife Balance. I laughed when I read the press release that said you wanted to call the book Balance is Bullshit. Tell us about your perspective on balance.
I think that the idea of balance started from a good place. It was management speak for saying, “You need to have a life outside of your job. Don’t live at work.” I think the intention around it was good, but it’s now become just this standard that women think they’ve got to live up to, and it’s like, “If I don’t have work-life balance, I’m getting it wrong. I’m not alright. I’m doing something wrong.” We’re all asking each other, how do you have work-life balance?
The answer is that most women don’t have it. Because 99% of the time, whether your life is balanced or not is not your choice. You often don’t choose the timing of having a baby or the timing of your parents getting sick or the timing of having a mental health problem or the timing of a partner leaving you or the timing of a child being diagnosed with special needs. You don’t have a choice. You don’t get to say, “Well, hang on. That’s not going to make me balanced. I’m just going to say no to that.” It just happens.
By nature of life, we all spend probably most of our lives unbalanced. That’s okay because some of the best and worst and most important points in your life, you will be unbalanced. It’s fine, unless it’s not. Unless you are incredibly unhappy and you feel like you have to make a life change.
Mia Freedman’s new book Work Strife Balance is available now.