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Girl Guides: Marie Claire's Justine Southall on fighting for gender equality and taking risks

Continuing The Drum’s Girl Guides series, Natalie Mortimer catches up with Marie Claire publishing director Justine Southall, who explains why the need to fight for gender equality in the workplace is greater than ever.

“Sometimes you do need to step up and feel the fear.” That’s the advice from Marie Claire publishing director Justine Southall as she talks passionately about women succeeding in business.

Sitting in her office at Time Inc’s London HQ, Southall is a clear embodiment of that assertion. As she chronicles her long career in publishing – which began in advertising sales at IPC Media (Time Inc’s forefather) before she moved to the publishing side at BBC Worldwide – it becomes apparent that she isn’t afraid to take risks to get to the top.

“I got to a very senior place in the organisation that I was working in and I couldn’t make the move that I wanted to make,” explains Southall. During her role as ad director of fashion and beauty titles at IPC Media, the opportunity to learn more about publishing wasn’t available, so the only thing she could do was to leave in order to make the change and broaden her skillset.

“I wanted to develop skills in broader business areas of publishing and quite often in large organisations it’s hard to make those moves because you have to drop down,” she says. Making the leap was risky but necessary, Southall acknowledges.

“That was very challenging because of the recognition that you can’t see a route through it without doing something radical to change it.

“We [Southall and her husband] had two young children, it was quite a risk but having done it makes you much braver. I’m all for feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

After leaving, she carried out consultancy work for a few months before taking up a role at BBC Worldwide to launch the now defunct Eve magazine.

Now, Southall finds herself on her second stint at Marie Claire. She originally joined the magazine shortly after its launch in 1991 and re-joined the title four years ago as publishing director, where she has steered the brand though trying times in the fragmented media landscape.

“It’s very interesting how media changes,” she muses as she spreads out a handful of copies of Marie Claire across the table. “In the time that I’ve been working in this space it’s undergone the most seismic revolution in every single area. So my job is a role that really is about being a brand director more than anything – you’re running the whole shape of the business and also running the positioning of the brand itself.”

Most recently that role has involved overseeing the formation of a beauty retail offering in partnership with Ocado that will create a whole new venture for Marie Claire, led by Amanda Scott, currently head of buying for beauty and accessories at John Lewis.

It’s a partnership that was borne out of close collaboration, a workplace mindset that Southall advocates strongly.

“One of the things that I feel really passionate about is collaboration and that’s really such a strong way to work with other people. Women, I think, are naturally more collaborative in their approach to things. That’s rather a large generalisation, but that’s certainly my own personal experience and the experience I’ve had working with other women.”

However, Southall offers up a word of warning to women who might potentially “undersell” themselves if they don’t occasionally take the lead. “Because of that desire to be collaborative, sometimes you do need to step up, feel the fear and do it anyway, and push a little harder. Actually both things are really important and powerful but you’ve got to get that balance of the two, otherwise women potentially will undersell themselves.”

As a final point, while Southall feels she has been lucky to work in a business that has a long history of employing females in senior business roles, she is keen to stress that attitudes towards females as a whole need to change.

“While I’ve been fortunate to work in an industry that is very female-dominated I think I am extremely unusual in the majority of women. Most women don’t have that experience. The majority of women probably still work in businesses or industries that are heavily male dominated, in some instances ferociously antiquated, sexist and old-fashioned in their points of view.

“The need for that fight is greater than ever because while women have achieved a huge amount I think the danger of saying we have equality – while we have equality in law and in other things – is the reality of that is not borne out.”

Children and working mothers are still seen as a female issue, she says, adding it should instead be viewed as “a family and societal” issue. “We need to start to make changes about the way that organisations view men’s role in the family and what’s expected of them, as that immediately has a bearing on what women are able to achieve.”

This feature is also published in the 1 April issue of The Drum.

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