Going Off Script with Jamila Wignot, Director of MAKERS: Women in Business
Oct 29, 2014
Jamila Wignot gathered stories from women who rose to the top in accounting, finance, advertising, and management. She spoke with CEOs and presidents, founders and COOs. The result is MAKERS: Women in Business, a documentary that explores the last 50 years of women who have transformed American business. We go behind the scenes with Wignot to hear her favorite stories and find further resources for ambitious women.
Why do you think this is an important film?
The business world is hugely significant to our day-to-day lives. We often don't think about it because it doesn't quite command center stage in much the same way as other more public or glamorous professional arenas like politics or Hollywood do. It takes place in private, behind-the-scenes. Women's real fight to have a say, to be decision makers within this world has been largely overlooked in documentary films.
Women in Business shines a light on just a handful of the many women who have contributed to the world of business and in so doing shaped the way that business is practiced - from Mary Wells Lawrence shaking up the advertising world and creating some of the most recognizable campaigns in the business to Indra Nooyi bringing PepsiCo into the 21st century with a new emphasis on health and nutrition to Sara Blakely revolutionizing the women's undergarment industry, ironically a once male-dominated business.
Each of their stories - their individual struggles and triumphs - is an inspiration and a powerful reminder that women are not just leaders, but game changers. It's high time that story was told.
What is one thing you learned in the process of making this?
One of the startling discoveries was coming to understand the inverse relationship between women's success and likeability: the idea that the more successful a woman becomes, the more power she has, the less and less she's liked. It's not something that men have to worry about because we still hold on to the idea that power and leadership are so-called male attributes. When a woman exhibits her power and leadership, she is somehow acting "unwomanly" or violating our expectations - and I say our, because both men and women have these reactions - of what a woman is or should be.
Most of our subjects struggled with this throughout their careers: downplaying their power, being highly glamorous and feminine so as not to be seen as too masculine or the opposite - hello! 1980s power suits - so as not to be seen as too feminine. Women tied themselves up in knots - and had to - in order to fit into what had historically been a male model.
Even our youngest subject, Jennifer Hyman - co-founder and CEO of Rent the Runway - experienced this. What's brilliant about how she leads her company is that she is totally committed to building a corporate culture where no woman ever feels that pressure to conform: be yourself, do the job, and know that having a company where people feel free to be their authentic selves is going to foster productivity and make for a better outcome - culturally and fiscally.
What's your favorite takeaway from this film?
The one thing that connected all the women in this story was their refusal to accept the limitations set for them. Come hell or high water, these women were not going to take no for an answer. They would fulfill their ambitions no matter the cost. My favorite moment comes right at the beginning of our film when advertising maven, Mary Wells Lawrence, having led this remarkably cheeky and sexy and hugely successful ad campaign to rebrand Braniff Airlines is denied promotion to president of the agency she worked for because, as the senior partner tells her, "Men are not ready for a woman president." Wells Lawrence looks him dead in the eye and quits. Right then and there. And this was in the 1960s!
It's a powerful lesson about knowing your worth and being unafraid to take a huge risk when someone stands between you and your ambitions.
How can viewers follow up with this film? Are there websites or other films you would recommend to further the inspiring, informative track?
There are numerous resources out there to continue to learn more about women and business. Catalyst is a leading non-profit organization whose mission is to expand opportunities for women in business. They were a huge resource to us during the making of the film and continue to keep the best records charting women's current progress. Obviously, Sherl Sandberg's non-profit, Lean In.org is a useful resource for anyone beginning to investigate some of these issues.
There are also a good many books out there that are useful for understanding women's experience in the workplace: Backlash, Susan Faludi; The Second Shift, Arlie Russell Hochschild; Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, Pam Stone.
I've found it really fun to go back and look at some of the feature films that have dealt with this issue, many which we used in the film: Baby Boom, Working Girl, The Devil Wears Prada, even a lesser known film called The Associate, starring Whoopi Goldberg, in which Goldberg, a struggling associate on Wall Street, decides that the only way to succeed is to disguise herself as a white man and becomes one of the most influential figures on the Street. It's hilarious, but also illustrates the challenges women face in trying to become leaders in the business world.
If you made another film on the same subject in a year, how would your focus change?
If I made another film about business, I think I'd want to drill down into a single industry. For me, it would be Wall Street. Women's progress has been so much slower in the financial industry. While people groan about how few women have had a chance to lead a Fortune 500 company, no woman has ever been made CEO of a major financial firm. Astonishing! To me, it's the ultimate boy's club and there is absolutely a fascinating portrait to be made about women's experiences in the industry.