“Inclusion Itself Isn’t A Great Word”: Studio Self Founder Joan Westenberg On Changing The Ratio

“Inclusion Itself Isn’t A Great Word”: Studio Self Founder Joan Westenberg On Changing The Ratio
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B&T hosted our first Changing the Ratio breakfast last week, which was an incredible event. We’ll be hosting more events later this year, but until then, we’ll be sharing our Changing the Ratio content series, which spotlights some of the amazing diversity and inclusion work being done in our industry.

Joan Westenberg is an award-winning Australian writer and PR director. She has written for publications like Junkee, The San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, and SBS – to name just a handful – and is also the founder of Studio Self, a PR and comms first.

Westenberg is also the creator of transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source resource focused on showing workplaces how to support trans and gender diverse employees. She spoke to B&T about creating healthy workplaces, the responsibility of brands to address systemic equality in Australia, and navigating the emotional labour of D&I work.

B&T: Could you tell me a little bit about your work, particularly with transgenderinclusion.com? 

JW: I do a bunch of different things. You know in my past life, I have been a journalist and music producer, member of several touring punk bands. And eventually, I found my way into tech.  I’ve been fascinated by tech, media and comms for a long time, ever since I did some work with MySpace back when I was 16. So I decided I wanted to actually do that as a career because I love telling stories, I love technology and I love the intersection of those things.

I’ve been working for different technology startups as a publicist now for about 10 years. Eventually, I’d worked my way up to being the Director of Communications at a high growth startup called Flare. At that point, I decided that I needed a break, because things were just getting a little bit insane. I did all the comms around a $20 million funding round, and that involves just working from seven in the morning until seven at night. And I just said, “you know what, I am quite tired, and I need a break”. So I took some time off.

Then I launched my own firm, called Studio Self, with the idea being that nobody would work more than four days a week, nobody would work more than nine to five, and everyone will be able to just be who they are, work from home and have a flexible life, kind of like building a company that is just about the people and only exists to provide people with a job that they enjoy.

That’s kind of the thinking. So I launched that, and I’ve been doing it ever since, mainly working with technology startups. But along the way, I have lived an interesting life as a transgender person. It hasn’t been hasn’t been without friction or without bumps. [Though] people…honestly, people are pretty good, generally speaking.

I firmly believe that most human beings are quite kind and most human beings will embrace and support a trans person if they meet someone. It’s just that a lot of the time people don’t know how to act, they don’t know what to do. So as I go through the business world, interacting with people, pitching people, hiring people, working with different companies, I increasingly found that people just had questions and they didn’t know how they should treat me. What should they say? What shouldn’t they say?

So I decided to create transgenderinclusion.com to build a really simple document that any company could use and take on board that would show them and their staff how to interact with trans person. I mean, spoiler alert, just treat us like everyone else! But there are specific things that people have questions about. So my thinking was, if I can create that document, then I’ll do two things. It will help other folks like me, younger trans people coming up. And it will also help me because I’ll be able to give that document to folks and say, “this is how to communicate with me, this is how to treat me”.

It does seem to really come back to language and how we speak to one another.

Yeah exactly, I feel like a sign for how little we think about this stuff is just that ‘transgenderinclusion.com’ was an available domain name in 2019!

How can workplaces improve conditions for LGBTQ+, particularly gender diverse, employees?

I think it’s about taking a step back even from those identities and asking, how does that workplace approach the identity of their workers? And, is there an expected identity that people have to conform to and when a workplace speaks about culture? Do they mean culture? Or do they mean, a subset of identity that is socially acceptable in the bubble of that company?

Because, you know, I find that a lot of structures that reject trans people and gender diverse people are often structures that are rooted in the same kind of binary-focused white supremacy that would other and disinclude all kinds of folks, not just trans people.

There are systemic problems in a lot of the ways that companies are built and the ways that our industries are built, that we can’t solve by just saying: “let’s tweak our language about trans people”. They’re problems that we have to solve by saying, “how should we be building this company, to make sure that people are included from the ground up?”.

It’s even that word ‘inclusion’, and I’ve used it a few times on this call. But inclusion itself isn’t a great word. Because you know, think about when, when you were younger, playing in a playground, the adults would be like, “oh, make sure you include so-and-so in your game.”

That didn’t mean go and proactively play with that person, it meant that you got to keep on playing whatever game you’re playing, and make a few tweaks so that they could come and play with you as well. It wasn’t actually coming up with something that you could all do together.

So you know, when we talk about inclusion in the workplaces, we’re not talking about designing new ways to work, we’re saying, “okay, well, I guess you can come over here and work with us and we’ll make a few changes here and there.” But we’re not actually asking questions about how to build this from the ground up. We want to give people a seat at the table. But it’s a table that was like, designed for ping pong, not for eating or something. So we struggle there a bit, I think.

Our theme this year for Changing the Ratio is “belonging, it starts with you”. What does authentic belonging look like in your mind?

That’s such an interesting question. I think we use phrases like, ‘bringing your whole self to work’ and ‘being who you are at work’, and so on. And people might not actually be comfortable with that, you know, people like to have a divide between who they are at work and who they are as people. They have different political ideas, different social ideas that could be in conflict with other perfectly valid political and social ideas.

So the idea of everyone just being able to bring their full selves to work, and doing so without any conflict seems almost delusional in some ways. So I think what it really means is that you’re able to be at work without pretending to be somebody you’re not, you know, whether or not you’re shouting about your political opinions or doing anything else like that. You’re able to be at work and know that you are not putting on an act, and know that you’re not playing a character.

Whoever you are at work can be the loudest version of yourself or the quietest version of yourself. It just should be a version of yourself that you actually want to be, not that you had to design for somebody else.

What do you think is the most pressing diversity and inclusion issue facing the industry right now? 

I think I keep going back to last year, during the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. There was this overwhelming reaction from the Australian tech and media industry of “gosh, isn’t that bad what’s happening in the United States?” and so little introspection about the same issues right here in Australia, you know, so little awareness of the challenges that Indigenous people face, or [of] the Indigenous incarceration rate.

I think that one of the biggest challenges is actually that we stop looking overseas and patting ourselves on the back and start to really face some of the systemic problems at home. The US is on fire, like 90 per cent of the time it feels like, and that’s fine. Talking about it gets a lot of clicks, and it gets a lot of attention, then all everyone wanted to talk about what was Trump going to do and so on. But we do need to look right here at home and ask what can we be doing to fix the actual problems that people here are facing. Not worry about what celebrities overseas are tweeting about what or what the American President is doing and really think about: what are we doing?

Companies were going around posting hashtag BLM, but what were they doing about the Indigenous incarceration rate in New South Wales, things like that?

What do you hope that the future of the industry looks like? 

I hope that it’s much more, much more healthy.  I think I’d like to see an industry where people don’t have to work really long hours, where people can be parents, and be able to have kids and not miss out on those lives because of their work. I think I want to see a future where we recognize that it’s not about achieving a work-life balance, because we still will spend the majority of our time at work. It’s just the way things are. It’s about making really proactive choices to not invade family time and personal time, with additional work. It’s about drawing the boundaries back in and allowing people to live inside those boundaries, without guilt, without shame, without anything like that.

Doing the work of diversity and inclusion, it can be really exhausting and tiring.  Whether you’re somebody who is trying to champion that in a business, or do a content series like you’re doing, it can be exhausting to think about it and to do that emotional labor.

I was talking about this with one of my friends, Aubrey Blanche – she’s at Culture Amp, and we were just talking about how you need to have a circle of friends and a circle of people who support you, who you can turn to for that emotional help, and that love and bandwidth when you’re going through this stuff. My final thought is just that. Anybody who is looking at how we make sure that we do include and we do rebuild some of these systems – anyone who is doing that – take some time away for yourself, take some time to drink some tea and just sit in the bath and listen to murder podcasts and do whatever it is that’s going to make you feel good, because you deserve the downtime.

Thank you to our wonderful Changing the Ratio sponsors: 

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Changing the Ratio 2021

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