Herlene Benjamin, a professional in the oil and gas industry and an aspiring female leader, discusses combatting prejudices and creating space as a strong female leader.
We spoke to former Musician and current Artist Relations Manager Helen Leitner to discuss career changes and how to combat unconscious bias, as part of this year’s ‘Break the Bias’ theme for International Women’s Day.
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I used to be a professional musician, and I experience the world of music as very large - large of heart, you could say - with room for many different lives within it. I've always felt open-minded about what mine could look like. When I was studying at the Royal College of Music, there was a big drive to help students understand that most of us were going to end up freelancing and we needed to create our own work. I found that exciting and it also sparked my keen interest in how musicians are supported and developed in their careers.
After some years freelancing in London and then in an opera orchestra job in Germany, I decided to go into music sponsorship. That's what I look after now for my company. We make instruments, and sponsor musicians, and co-create all sorts of musical projects. Clearly, our sponsorship activities are sustained by our business success and I'm a firm believer in a virtuous circle of value creation for both sides.
Who would you say inspired you the most?
I'm inspired by so many people in different ways. Especially by everyday heroes, of which there is quite a multitude.
More specifically, when I was in my early twenties I went to a big competition where you practice for two years and so on – however, I got thrown out. Hearing that I was sitting in Madrid in the slough of despond that usually accompanies this situation, a pianist mentor sent me the address that his own teacher Eduard Steuermann gave to the students of the Juilliard School in 1964. I have always kept the fax! He sent it on and I think it applies to a lot more than music:
"If you want to understand art, you have to understand the world; in order to understand the world, you have to understand human beings; then you will understand youselves, and that is the key to everything. That will make playing, composing, dancing less an exhibition of unimportant skills in a society game, meeting with more or less approval, blindly climbing up the deceitful ladder of success, but an opening of your heart to the world and the world to your heart. And that is what you came here for, this is what makes music one of the most sublime emanations of the human spirit, that is what makes it worthwhile to devote one's life to it. Looking back on my own life, I recognize my good fortune in having had as my masters some real heroes of music."
How has WBS supported you in your career?
The sheer amount I have learned on the Distance Learning MBA thus far has been a huge contribution in itself and, despite us students being so numerous, it is really easy to reach the admin staff for help and advice. I also really appreciate all the guest webinars which are organised very regularly as they are a great way to spend a lunchbreak or hour after work.
What does your average working day look like?
That depends if I'm on the road or not. In the office it is usually a mixture of calls with artists, event planning, and working with my colleagues in design and IT on diverse communications. On the road we can be doing everything from filming concerts, to attending music competitions, festivals, masterclasses and trade fairs.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career so far?
It was actually voluntary work. When my children were little, they went to a Kindergarten in Germany called a “Parent Child Initiative”. I didn’t know what this was when I signed them up for it, I just thought it looked nice (which it was, to be fair).
In fact, a Parent Child Initiative is an extraordinary structure in which the parents own and run the nursery. They employ a professional team of staff but remain responsible for everything: the premises, child protection processes, the public subsidies, safety, staff ratios... In organizational terms, what you’ve basically got is 40-odd people who are not early-years professionals, who have other jobs, who are in their early 30s (therefore usually without extensive management experience), and who are not even objective because all this is for their own children.
The parental body is represented by a board of 3-4 people, and I chaired it for two years. It taught me a lot about teamwork and consensus, and the dynamics of volunteer groups which are very different to professional ones.
What is unique about the path you chose to pursue? In terms of academics or work?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with and in many different countries and this has taught me a huge amount about different ways of working and seeing the world.
One of my principal professional interests is in the value-creating relationship between business and art and I hope to develop this continually throughout my career. That also means continuous learning, but I love that.
What does this year’s theme ‘Break the Bias’ mean to you?
Concrete discrimination over things like maternity leave is super annoying, but more straightforward to call out than unconscious bias such as the fact women often have to be 30% better to be judged as good as men. Talking about unconscious bias makes it conscious and is the first step to doing something about it.
How can we build workplaces where women thrive?
For all sorts of reasons, women’s career paths often need different shapes to men. For example: women need viable alternatives to a significant amount of career progression between age 30-35.
There needs to be buy-in for this and recognition of the value of the female talent pool. My own experience of this is very positive, so I know first-hand how important it is and also how it is still quite unusual.
Success being 99% implementation, this understanding of women’s career paths needs to be executed both on organizational governance and process levels, and sociopolitically. In both instances there’s got to be a clear sense of support for it at the top or, like any change, it won’t work.
Have you ever had to challenge gender inequality or stereotypes/ take action against bias within your career journey?
Not personally, but I have seen men more generously marked in performance contexts. Again, it comes from unconscious bias and needs to be talked about.
I also agree with Madeleine Albright that women should help other women. The point about this is that women are Other in the workplace. To become less Other, a group needs to be large and solidary. As a young woman I thought gender was irrelevant, and we should all just be judged on merit. Happily, there are plenty of organizations where this is fine. But you have to be careful with that attitude because, depending on context, you could unwittingly condone unconscious bias and organizational structures that are designed by men, for men.
What advice can you give to young women wanting to pursue a career in the music industry?
Take a look at the career path when selecting a niche. Some areas that look attractive when you're 20, plateau out a few years later so either be ready for a horizontal move or consider alternatives. This is good advice given to my younger self by the director of a music organisation. I can't take credit for it but I'm passing it on!
What inspirational message can you give to young women reading this?
Do not ever apologise for enjoying your work. Would a man? Of course not. So why should you?