Jane Caro wears many hats and shines in all of them. Her Twitter bio reads “Novelist, author, feminist, atheist, media tart and stirrer,” to which we would add journalist, mother of two, lecturer, beef producer and timber grower. She has made a name for herself thanks to a crafty way with words, and for her opinions shared with humour and candour. Last year, Jane curated a collection of stories titled Unbreakable: Women Share Stories of Resilience and Hope. Within its pages, successful Australian women who’ve overcome various hardships, such as domestic violence, miscarriage, depression and sexual assault, share their tales and what it took to move forward. Jane also writes regular columns for Sunday Life and Institute of Managers and Leaders‘ (IML) magazine, Leadership Matters.
Next month, Jane will be hosting IML’s upcoming International Women’s Day event on March 8 in Melbourne. “I have been part of this event, either as a debater or an MC, for a few years now and it is always feisty, fun and irreverent. It also discusses issues of substance but in a very entertaining way,” she says. Ahead of the debate, we asked Jane how she honed her beliefs, any mistakes that might have shaped her path, and what effective leadership looks like to her.
When did you feel you had “made it” in your field? Was it a particular achievement or work?
I am not sure I ever had a ‘made it’ moment exactly. In my advertising career, I had moments when I was proud of the work I had done and it was always exciting to win awards, but next day at work there was always a new brief, a new challenge and a new mountain to climb. In my rather odd and peripatetic career running my own business, I am always delighted when the phone rings with a new project or opportunity; the more left field the better. I am astonished that I have managed to earn (quite a nice) living for over 10 years now with my pen. When I took the leap into the dark and got out of advertising, I had no idea it would open up so many new opportunities. Publishing my first novel was a high point, but now I am writing my third. Making my first documentary series was exciting, but now I am in pre-production for my fourth, and that’s another new challenge and new mountain to climb. I never feel like I have ‘made it’, rather I just keep hoping I’ll make it through the next project.
The debate’s topic on March 8 is “The Future is Female: Equality. Diversity. Progress.” Are you optimistic for the future of women in the workplace?
Yes, I am probably more optimistic for the future of women in the workplace than I ever have been before. I see the #Metoo and #TimesUp movements as phenomenal indicators of change. Women are finding their voices and their power in ways that I have never seen before and did not expect to happen so quickly. I am delighted. Women are done changing to fit in with a workplace designed for men, now it’s time for the workplace to change so it is better for men, women and, of course, families.
Why is this topic so close to your heart?
I have lived it all my working life. I started full-time work in 1978 in corporate Australia. The world of Madmen, complete with rampant sexism and misogyny. I was one of the first wave of young women entering the workplace with similar expectations about a career as their male peers. It was hard, very hard. I fought for women’s rights then (that was even harder) and I fight for them now. I have seen so much change and progress in some ways – which is very encouraging, and so little in others – which simply makes me more determined never to give up while I have breath in my body. Women are fully as human as men and have the right to determine the shape of their own lives in the same way that men expect to do.
You’re often called on to share your opinion with the public. What has helped you hone your beliefs?
I was brought up in a family that had strong opinions and beliefs. Us kids – I am the eldest of 4 – were expected to join in the discussion of ideas from an early age and our opinions were listened to, but also challenged. We had to have something to back up our point of view. I was taught the importance of respecting everyone equally, no matter who they are, treating people with courtesy and valuing equality of opportunity. More, I was taught that I had an obligation to progress those values. I knew I was fortunate and that my responsibility, therefore, was to do everything I could to spread that good fortune widely. I was taught to value empathy and compassion from an early age. I was taught to apply my common sense to everything I was told and to respect evidence over belief and ideology. I hope I have lived up to those values. I am also a life-long voracious reader and that has left me with the most precious thing of all: a well-stocked mind. A lifetime of reading widely gives you confidence in a way nothing else can.
Do you have a productivity hack for fellow writers?
I am not sure what that is. My advice is just do it. Don’t agonise, don’t try to be the best or the most brilliant, just be you and write what rings true to you. What other people think of it is up to them. Just control what you can control and that is mostly the words you put on the paper. Failure is not the problem – failing to risk failure is the problem.
I am also a life-long voracious reader and that has left me with the most precious thing of all; a well-stocked mind.
Can you point to one big, fat mistake in either your career that taught you a valuable lesson?
I took a copywriting job at a not very good ad agency because they offered me a lot of money. It was horrible and I hated it. My boss also managed to undermine my confidence in my ability, despite paying me handsomely. The good thing was my misery with that job was the motivator for getting out of advertising altogether and I am so glad I did.
How do you presently define success?
For me, success is about being taken seriously. It is wonderful and oddly humbling to have people listen to what you say and read what you write. I have long believed that feminism is the fight by one half of the population to be taken seriously by the other half and it is only just starting to happen. It was my great struggle in my career, particularly when I worked for other people. I found it hard to get taken as seriously as my male peers, even when the work I did was just as good.
I have long believed that feminism is the fight by one half of the population to be taken seriously by the other half and it is only just starting to happen.
What would you describe as your personal strengths?
While I define success as having my work taken seriously, I do not take myself very seriously and I think that is the secret to a happy life. If I fail, and I do often, I no longer punish myself over it. I shrug and move on to the next thing. The same thing when something I do is judged a success – it’s nice, but I still shrug and move on to the next thing. I treat everyone equally, I say what I think, so what you see is what you get, and I am very good at having fun. Life is for the living, not the amassing of goods, wealth, accolades or achievements.
What does effective leadership look like to you?
It’s decisive, self aware and full of humanity. It doesn’t confuse the person with the role. Great leaders are humble. They know their job is not to be the one who shines, but the one who gets everyone else to shine. Most importantly of all, great leaders don’t dither and don’t worry too much about being wrong. They seek success rather than avoid failure.
In your own career, has leadership been something you were taught or sought counsel on?
I have never been a formal leader. As a woman in advertising, I could never get promoted – although I tried – and my business is a one-woman show. I did work as a mentor for a while and enjoyed that. I am a leader as a parent, of course, and I hope I have done a good-enough job in that way. I think I may have become an opinion-leader over the last decade or so and suspect I was always an informal leader wherever I worked. I don’t think much about leadership as such. I just say what I think and do what I do. If I see injustice, I speak up about it. If others see that as a model to follow, I am very happy; if they do not, I am equally happy.
Good leadership is decisive, self-aware and full of humanity. It doesn’t confuse the person with the role.
There are a number of leadership styles. Which of these has been most effective in terms of motivating you as an author and writer?
God knows. As I say, I don’t seek to adopt any kind of style. I am just myself – flaws and all. I am not into self-improvement. I prefer self-acceptance. I do what I am interested in, what pays well and what I can’t avoid, in that order.
The International Women’s Day Great Debate gala luncheon will be hosted by Jane Caro (Melbourne – sold out), Gretel Killeen (Sydney) and Corinne Grant (Brisbane), debating the topic ‘The Future is Female’ Equality. Diversity. Progress. It will be held on March 8 and we are offering Collective Hub fans an exclusive partner discount. Book Sydney tickets here and Brisbane tickets here.
Jane Caro tweets here.