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I’m sitting with Otegha Uwagba and she is breaking a taboo. It’s not sex, not drugs but cold, hard cash that we’re talking about. “People find money really awkward but I try to encourage women to talk about salaries,” she says. “I think you’d be surprised at how many people are relieved when you do.”
The idea of swapping salaries might make you squirm but Otegha’s brand, Women Who, is all about addressing issues head-on. Founded in 2016, the platform was born when Otegha, who held posts in advertising at Vice and AMV BBDO, found that she lacked creative fulfilment while she was working in male-dominated environments. She explains: “I think I took for granted the fact that most of my most rewarding and productive working relationships had been with other women.” Otegha decided to establish a network for women like her – “women who were still figuring things out” – and today, Women Who connects people through a weekly newsletter and events that include design masterclasses and group visits to the V&A. There are no barriers to entry; the aim is to make solid business acumen readily available worldwide.
Last year, Otegha self-published Little Black Book, “a toolkit for working women” that covered practical tips on everything from sending the perfect email and nailing a presentation to getting comfortable with self-promotion. In essence, it answered the kind of questions that, if the workplace were a classroom, you’d be too scared to put your hand up and ask. The original handbook sold out in two days and was swiftly picked up by a literary agent. The re-release, which is out on 15th June, is a slicker version of the original but stays true to its core value of a no-bullshit approach to business.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the book, and indeed of Otegha herself, is the dedication to exposing the difficulties of starting out on your own; the side that involves chasing invoices and irregular cash flow. “I think there is a real tendency to glamorise this #hustle and #girlboss culture without showing the really nitty-gritty side,” she says. “I think the fact that people feel empowered enough to pursue their own things if they want to is great but, like any business, there has to be a good idea behind it. I definitely don’t think freelancing or being self-employed is for everyone. I don’t try and pretend that it is.”
Otegha is quick to bolster her own advice with words of wisdom from other women who are experts in their field. Little Black Book includes a closing chapter with quotations from icons including the editor of The Gentlewoman Penny Martin, Refinery29’s cofounder Piera Gelardi and the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Why? “Because you deserve better than made-up Marilyn Monroe quotes,” writes Otegha at the opening of the section. With that in mind, here are just a few of the founder’s top tips for women at work.
1. Be aware of when you’re being treated differently because you’re a woman and don’t be afraid to call it out
We think of sexism as the big things – being slapped on the bum or instances of sexual assault – but sexism in the workplace can often be much subtler and insidious. It’s things like being asked to take notes for your male colleagues because you’re a woman and your default position is the secretary. So question whether you’re being treated differently because of gender. If you are, then call people out. I’ve done it once or twice and it’s very liberating.
2. Make an effort to introduce yourself
Whether at work or in social situations, don’t just stand in the corner not talking to anyone. Go out, make yourself known, tell people what you’re about or what you’re working on – telling people what you’re passionate about is how important professional connections come about. Your network is never going to grow otherwise.
3. Ask for what you want
Don’t assume people are going to read your mind. All too often women are conditioned to think that if they put their head down and work hard then the fruits of their labour will come. This especially applies when it comes to asking for more money. You can be surprised at how simple things can be when you just ask.
4. Educate yourself about finances
Especially if you’re freelance or self-employed, it’s tempting to bury your head in the sand and hide from finances. But there’s a real sense of freedom that comes with having a handle on money. It never gets less boring, but I feel so much lighter having done it. Working with an accountant or having an accounting app like Xero will help make you more efficient.
5. Other women are not your competition
Making a real, genuine, heartfelt effort to support other women is a really great feeling and also just good karma. It’s a cliché, but I do feel that a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s ingrained as a sort of patriarchal standard that women all have to be sharp-elbowed and compete with each other for one seat at the table, but we are better together than divided. This is key.