We’re hosting a live Periscope chat with Kirstine Stewart on Thursday, October 8th at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can tweet your work and leadership questions now to @FLAREfashion using #AskKirstine #OurTurn and we’ll ask the best ones LIVE.
Traditionally, fall marks the start of a new television season. As summers fade and school starts, networks have touted fall launches for their new shows for almost as long as televisions have flickered in North American living rooms. But I opted to break with tradition, and put my money on the dead of winter. Before cable, PVRs and the Internet upended standard notions of programming schedules, I bet that a January launch for many of the shows would give the CBC’s new lineup the chance it needed to shine outside the shadow of September’s big American debuts. Inside the CBC, people rolled their eyes, believing this decision was yet further evidence that I was out of my depth. But my instinct told me that launching in a dead-of-winter lull that leans toward post-holiday hibernation in front of TV sets was worth the gamble.
So there I was onstage at that upfront, ready to unveil my first CBC-TV schedule. Knowing I was injecting enough surprise in the schedule itself, I stuck to the CBC’s dry-as-toast format of years past in presenting it (on Mondays at eight, we’ll have this… at eight-thirty, we’ll have that…). The highlight, I hoped, was the content. We introduced Dragon’s Den, where entrepreneurs pitch venture capitalists for investment, Intelligence, Little Mosque on the Prairie and The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, many of which would become big hits. I discussed the strategy behind the new programming and timing, and the plans to revitalize the CBC. And I told the crowd, “The stakes are high, the need is urgent, but the rewards will be great.”
Yet in the media coverage that followed, what I’d said seemed to grab only slightly more attention than how I looked. Media reports described me as the “whip-thin” blonde in a dress and high-heel shoes. They noted my relative youthfulness and long hair. One blogger actually dubbed me the “kittenish programming mistress.” When I eagerly checked to see the press reaction to the new lineup, I realized that my appearance had somehow become the frame of the story. I was mortified. Women are invariably scrutinized, and criticized for their appearance. The higher they climb the more subjected they become to the dated biases of others. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, has been singled out as a fashion icon but also skewered for being “too elegant.” For a time, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits had their own paparazzi. This kind of attention, sadly, speaks to the relative novelty of having a woman at the helm—and to the archaic pundits, and now the Internet hordes, still drawing lines around how women should look. More than three thousand years after Egypt’s first female pharaoh sat bare chested on her throne in a man’s kilt and a full metal beard, women still wear the pressure to conform like a heavy cloak. After that first upfront, I donned mine.
Comments on my looks have always struck me as a kind of litmus test for attitudes toward women in leadership. By old standards, I embody the unexpected, and did at the CBC in particular. Unlike the older men who had come before me, I was in my thirties, and yes, blonde. In my first week on the job, I was mistaken for my own assistant (“Can you give this memo to Kirstine when you see her?”) Being underestimated can have its benefits as well as its drawbacks. While the scrutiny tends to make women particularly hyperaware of their looks, the truth is that at some point all leaders, male and female, make very conscious choices about what their appearance projects. Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie is as deliberate as the demure cardigan couture of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.
What nagged at me was the suggestion that a nice dress and high heels projects an image that says “This woman lacks substance.” By the media’s measure, my appearance painted me as someone who spent more time shopping than working. It signalled “trivial and frivolous.” Influenced by old models of feminism, it’s an attitude too often perpetuated by women themselves: to be taken seriously, a female must eschew make up, choose sensible shoes over pumps, resist any garment or accessory that might raise an unplucked eyebrow about her ability to do a job. Otherwise, she could set back generations of feminist activism. And, initially, that’s how I reacted to the media spin.
At the time, I wasn’t angry at what was said about how I looked, I was mortified. I felt that I had insulted the place I was trying to represent, drawing attention away from the network’s transformation to shiny, blonde me. My inner critic was off and running…imagining the men, asking, “Who’s that chick on the stage?” And the women thinking “silly girl” or worse—that I was actually trying to court attention. I thought the buzz should have been focused squarely on the content, the controversy of bringing reality TV to the CBC, or launching an unlikely sitcom about Muslims in a post 9/11 world. But the “lifestyle-TV gal” leading the charge seemingly looked too glamorous to be taken seriously. I decided I needed to tone myself down, cut my hair and buy flats. If I wanted to be taken seriously, I had to dress, or dress down, to suit the role.
Then something remarkable happened. In the weeks after I had appeared on that stage, people in the building started to figure out who I was as I walked the halls. No one mistook me for my assistant anymore. One day, about a week after the upfront, a young woman stopped me to say, “It’s so great you’re here. We don’t see a lot of bosses like you … It’s so great to see a woman doing the job!” It dawned on me that I’d gone from suspect new kid on the block to something of a role model to these young women. Despite my own misgivings, my unconventional looks had distinguished me as a new kind of leader, especially among that emerging generation of women. They saw in me a person they could be. I suddenly realized how easy it can be to cower to criticism and to the idea that you should step back in line. But these women, my co-workers, some younger and others older, made a point to encourage me (“You go, Kirstine!” “Such a breath of fresh air!”). Their support took me completely by surprise and reminded me that the vocal opinion of a stodgy few was meaningless when others—without soapbox or agenda—found the prospect of a new way to lead so hopeful, exciting and maybe even inspiring. Exactly what message would I send by allowing pointed comments in media coverage to rob me of the freedom to be who I want to be? If I second-guessed the way I looked and dressed, and had always dressed—right back to my cash-strapped earliest days at Paragon when I bought the fabrics and Vogue patterns to sew my own clothes—that insecurity would eventually undermine me. Why would I give more weight to the negative comments than those that were supportive? It’s a lesson I have to keep relearning, but in a world where those negative voices can be amplified by the very platforms I now work with, it’s a big part of the strength that keeps me moving forward. Use the positive support around you to build the resilience you need to deal with the negative.
If the first task of leading is to figure out your goals, the first responsibility has to be the capacity to lead yourself—to understand and stand up for your values, your vision, and yes, your own style. To be anything other than authentic will inevitably compromise your confidence. It will also compromise the trust others place in you. You can’t lead effectively, or for long, without earning and keeping the trust of people you work with. Authenticity matters, and it matters more today than it ever did. When the line between public and private has blurred, when so many interactions take place in a virtual sphere, a leader has to walk her talk. No one should be defined by the expectations of others, especially not by those who feel it’s their business to dictate what success looks like.
When I was at the public broadcaster, sometimes there were suggestions—whispers, blogs, innuendo—that my success had to involve sex, one way or another. I even ended up on the cover of Frank magazine with talk-show host George Stroumboulopoulos amid allegations we were dating—we weren’t! But the gossip magazine, along with more than a few souls at the CBC, assumed there had to be something going on. George had had a show on CBC’s Newsworld when I arrived, and after I’d watched it, I thought here’s this great young interviewer who could bring to the network a quirky late-night chat show that featured Canadians. At the time, there was no other late-night show that did that. But people assumed that we had to be fooling around or why else would I promote this dude with an earring who used to be on MuchMusic. Which is how the rumours, and our pictures, landed in Frank, and then became fodder for a rather rape-y fictional sex scene in my office that an odious blogger dreamed up. It was a campaign, the first of a few I’ve seen, this one designed to keep me in my place and send a message to George that he hadn’t earned his success. Landing multiple awards and critical kudos—as well as a place on US television and now as the host of the most popular show on Canadian TV, Hockey Night in Canada—was one way George responded. I didn’t shrink from supporting George’s ongoing growth with the network, but ignoring the whispers wasn’t easy. Though it helped a lot when other women, many of them producers in TV and radio, told me they had also experienced the same kind of rumour campaign on the shows they had helmed.
But my daughters didn’t have the benefit of that perspective. Suddenly, I had to tell my girls not to look at things in the paper, not to believe things they happened to see, or hear, and that if they had any questions they should ask me about them. My oldest daughter, who was eleven, took to policing the web on my behalf, “reporting abuse” whenever she spotted nasty comments online. But by the time all of this unfolded, I had already had my inner reckoning. And I was determined not to change a thing about the way I looked, dressed or acted to please or to counter the petty and salacious judgements of a few.
Unfortunately, women have been boxed in by social stereotypes for so long (virgins, vamps, mother hens, gossips, dumb blondes, shrews, bitches and on and on it goes) that we pay a high price fighting our way out. We can be so fearful of falling into one of these categories that we become afraid to be ourselves, afraid of not being liked or accepted, not taken seriously, of ruffiing feathers. In the end, it’s tempting to throw all kinds of walls up around our true selves. On a flight recently, I read an article in Porter magazine that once again explored the idea that self-doubt among high-achieving women—a.k.a., Imposter Syndrome—has become a chronic condition of the twenty-first century. What stuck with me were the words of a fifty-five-year-old CEO of a very successful PR firm who said of her professional self, “I put her on when I go to work.” She viewed the successful professional that she presented to the world as a fake, and was finding it harder and harder to “put her on.” Her closet told the story: she chose clothes to suit the tastes of the people she was meeting that day, cladding herself in hippie suede to meet the creative types, florals for clients, black suits for business. She had dressed to please others for so long she had forgotten what pleased her, which left her angry, feeling isolated and exhausted. I didn’t doubt it. But I take heart in the fact that, increasingly, women are talking openly about the pressures, both internal and external, that they face when they attempt to fit like square pegs into limiting, imaginary holes. The only hope of overcoming these kinds of pressures is to drown them out with smarter voices, our own included. The spontaneous words of women I didn’t even know reminded me of that in those early days at the CBC; with the reach of social media, women’s voices are carrying far and wide.
At Twitter, the movement to stop defining women by how they look or what they wear is one of the more popular conversations on the platform. #AskHerMore, for instance, encourages red-carpet reporters at the Oscars and other awards ceremonies to ask female celebrities about more than their frocks and accessories. The hashtag was launched in 2014 by the Representation Project, a California-based group that aims to eradicate harmful stereotypes, especially those that hold women back, and it’s not just celebrities who champion the cause. As one woman tweeted last March: “Bradley Cooper gets asked about the community of actors and Lupita [Nyong’o] gets asked about her dress.” As Reese Witherspoon said, “We’re more than just our dresses.”
The point is that not only should we not allow outdated ideas to box us in, we should go further and take pride in the traits that distinguish us as individuals, the characteristics, whatever they may be, that make each of us different. To be sure, it’s still a man’s world, and a white man’s world at that, but if today’s chiefs and rulers are any barometer, the winds of change are blowing everywhere. All around us is evidence that leaders can be who they want to be, project whatever image they want to project and be recognized for what they achieve, not judged or held back by their gender, youth or high heels, the colour of their skin or the sex of their partner. The rules are being rewritten, and in many cases, erased. We’re living in a time when the premier of Canada’s most populous province is openly lesbian, where a black man is the president of the United States, where the founder of Facebook can lead one of the world’s largest companies in a hoodie; and a woman can run the CBC in heels—-high and red.
Excerpted from Our Turn by Kirstine Stewart. Copyright © 2015 KAS Creative Inc. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.