It was the second, or maybe even the third attempt to meet and film, but now we finally managed to squeeze it into Etienne’s stop-over at the Uber HQ in Amsterdam. Last time, we were too much entangled in conversation, leaving time and space to pull out the camera and film her story.
Etienne is a human-centred strategist dedicated to designing impactful integrated brand experiences. She has nearly two decades of experience in research, design, and strategy, and she thrives at the convergence of all three disciplines to create new value for organisations. Currently, Etienne leads Insights Platform in UX Research at Uber, building tools, processes and partnerships to increase the impact of insights globally and cross-functionally. In short: learning from people, to inform decisions to create better products and services.
In and outside of work, Etienne is passionate about people and the power of their stories to inspire change. So what does a researcher do when she is curious about something? Etienne began an inquiry into what ‘having it all’ means to women around the world, across a variety of cultures and circumstances and conditions, focussing on the beautiful diversity of what it means to women today. Too often, this discussion of ‘having it all’ sounds so easy, but she knew from her own life — and the women in her life — that things weren’t so simple. ‘Having it all’ could mean different things to different people (and at different times) — not only in balancing work and family goals and responsibilities but in searching for a positive work/life balance in general.
Balancing work & life
I guess the story starts with when I was pregnant with my first child in 2009. I was really excited because I was about to become a mother for the first time. It was also right around the time of the recession. I was right in the process of looking for a nanny for when I would go back to work after having the baby and trying to figure out what my life was going to look like as a working mother, just as my mother was a working mother throughout my whole life, when I got laid off from my job. I was six months pregnant, and I was suddenly thrown into a kind of a whirlwind because I had only pictured myself as a working mother. I had never pictured myself as a mom without a job, just being at home. Along comes my first child, I’m loving being a mother, of course. Still, I’m having this conflicted feelings about what it means to be a stay at home mom, how long I would be without a job, how long I should be without a job, how happy I was when I was doing this, how long I would be doing this, what added value I would be providing by being here. And then pretty soon after, about a year after my son was born, I was brought into this dream job.
I remember, having just had my baby that I stayed up late, writing some document, sending it off feeling happy that I finished my job. And no one responded. I thought: ‘What’s going on?’ It was then when I realised: ‘How important is my job? Do I even need to be working? Is this really what my family needs right now? Is it what I need?’
It was awesome, I loved it. I was working at Method, which is a green cleaning products company. The founder had found me and wanted me to build their consumer insights practice, ‘consumer strategy practice’ we called it. It was a combined practice of consumer insights like a traditional ‘CPG’, consumer packaged goods, company would have and what IDEO, a more creative consultancy, would have, together. In a very small, pretty entrepreneurial startup for cleaning products. I did that for two years. I’ve built a really amazing practice, a job that I was incredibly proud of. It was my dream company, dream job, loved the cleaning products, loved everything about it. And then I had my second child.
This time I felt more prepared. I knew I was going to be on maternity leave for five months, I would go back, it is going to be great, I know where I’m getting into. During those five months, all I did was think about work. Not just the job, I was inclined to call into meetings, meet up with co-workers to see where my project ended up, etcetera. I remember because I had my second son two weeks early, I think. I didn’t finish everything before leaving for maternity leave. I remember, having just had my baby that I stayed up late, writing some document, sending it off feeling happy that I finished my job. And no one responded. I thought: ‘What’s going on?’ It was then when I realised: ‘How important is my job? Do I even need to be working? Is this really what my family needs right now? Is it what I need?’ Because obviously, the challenges of motherhood are intense. My husband had a fantastic job, but an hour and a half away. He was always gone.
Moms in the picture
I couldn’t imagine going back to my working self, working from 7AM, getting home at 7PM every day with a newborn and a two-year-old. Eventually, after may talks with myself over that five-month maternity leave, which is very generous in the US, I decided to resign from my job. In my mind I had gone through many discussions: ‘Could I work parttime? Could I work as a consultant? Should I find a new job?’ But instead, I just quit. It was bittersweet because I loved the job, the people, the brand, the product — all of it. I felt that I was throwing away all that his hard work. Then I was a stay at home mom for about a year again.
During that time, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook had written the book ‘Lean in’. She was starting this movement about women, family and not letting your family ambitions hold you back from your professional ambitions. And there was another article by Anne Marie Slaughter, who used to work with Hillary Clinton, that article was called ‘Why women still can’t have it all’. These are both really prominent women who are clearly very successful and well-established talking about this topic that I was very interested in. However, I couldn’t connect to what they were saying because they are the very top of the top. And I’m just an average person. And they are the very pinnacle. The third force in that period was an article that went viral in Huffington Post called ‘Mom stays in the picture’, about how mothers are never in photos. How, historically even, they showed from the Victorian era when photography was first invented, there was a photo of a baby and behind there was a mother behind black cloth holding up the baby. The mom wasn’t in the picture because of various reasons. And even today, moms feel like ‘I’m overweight, I don’t look as beautiful as I used to, I won’t be in the picture, but my husband and beautiful child will be.’ I still continue to be the family photographer.
I shared that there was this thing that I always wanted to do and never did. They said: ‘Just do it.’ I asked them how. They said: ‘Do forty women by the time you turn forty.’ Then I thought: ‘Shit, I’m turning forty in two months.’
And I did it.
Having it all
These three forces together, two prominent women and one thing about photography got me thinking about how I wanted to capture real women. That project sat on the shelf for several years. I’m a researcher by training, so this idea got too big for my own good. I was thinking about how I would get sponsorships for this women photography portrait project. But then I started to work as a consultant, and I was pulled into a job, another job and this project stayed just an idea. Until a good friend of mine who I met in a moms group, hosted a gathering of women around goals and we were supposed to think and talk about what we wanted to do. We only met three times. The third time I shared that there was this thing that I always wanted to do and never did. They said: ‘Just do it.’ I asked them how. They said: ‘Do forty women by the time you turn forty.’ Then I thought: ‘Shit, I’m turning forty in two months.’ And I did it. I interviewed forty of my closest friends. I would even say they were my closest friends, but a fascinating group of women in my community. People that I had got to know over the years some since childhood. Some since a month before, around the world, some local. I partnered with a photographer, with an acquaintance of mine from this goals group where we had been a part of for a few weeks.
I interviewed them, some gave written responses, some called on the phone. It was a great excuse to connect with old college friends. And pretty soon, I amass this amazing library of interviews. These were feeding into my own experience of what ‘having it all’ was. My three key questions to them were: ‘What do you love most about your life?’, ‘What are your biggest challenges?’ and ‘What does having it all mean to you?’ And not: ‘Do you have it all?’ Which often is what people usually interpret my project and question to be about. They find that to be pretty threatening and scary. Some of my closest friends didn’t want to participate because they were going through a rough spot, or they wanted to have a baby and didn’t want to talk to me about this. I did this project, launched the website with beautiful photographs and interviews. Then I was exhausted. I turned forty, of course, I was exhausted.
After that period, I looked into growing this project into a book or something. I remember at the time talking to a book agent. Interestingly, I sent her an email the night before Trump became elected. My note to her said: ‘We’re on the cusp of having the first female American president, so this going to be a huge project. We need to talk, this is going to be amazing.’ And we all know what happened, the next morning Trump became the president, and we were all devastated for many reasons. I was disappointed because I thought no one was going to care about women anymore when Trump is president. He is not a woman, so it is not going to be an area of focus anymore. So my project is dead.
I heard from the book agent a couple of weeks later, and she said that this topic was more important than ever. I started thinking about it and realised that indeed that was true. At that moment, the women’s marches were happening in the world. Books were coming out every week about ‘100 creative Women’, ‘The Women’s Rights Marches’, ‘Daring Women’, ‘Rebel Women’, etcetera. So I thought that it was still exciting. I started to put together a book proposal for this agent, and her advice to me was that either I would need to be famous or I needed to work with a renowned photographer. I wasted a little time thinking about this, looking for a famous photographer to partner with. Meanwhile, I get a brand new job at Uber. And, of course, my time was completely taken since work is hard at Uber. After a year I realised: ‘Hey! I just travelled to seven countries. I studied photography. Why don’t I just take a camera with me?’ And that is what I did the next year, in 2019, the year we are in. Ten years after entering the journey of motherhood.
I thought: ‘How do I take what I do, apply all of my professional skills and my personal passion into something that I’m personally curious to want to learn about?’
A manifestation of everything I’m interested in
How this ties into my life professionally is that I am a researcher. I have been a researcher for the last 18 years. Before that, I was a designer. And before that, I was a teacher. And in college, I studied photography. I have always been fascinated with people and interviewing them. In fact, in high school, I did a project based on ‘Seven Up’, a study of people every seven years that last 60 years now, maybe, since the fifties. This project is a manifestation of everything I’m interested in. My thought was: ‘I’ve been doing user research for companies for things that are interesting, but nothing that I care that deeply about.’ I thought: ‘How do I take what I do, apply all of my professional skills and my personal passion into something that I’m personally curious to want to learn about?’ My husband, wonderful person he is, gave me a camera for Christmas last year. I quickly learned how to use the basic setting on it again, since I had been out of practice as a photographer. I bought a backdrop. Which is my thing that I bring everywhere on every trip. This year I have done 59 portraits of women from ten different countries. It has been a fantastic process.
Finding similarities in the differences around the world
I have skipped a step in my retelling of the story between getting from my forty interviews of my friends to what I’m doing now, which is with strangers around the world. After doing the interviews with my forty friends who are pretty different, from different walks of life, from different parts of the country and the world. Also, ethnically pretty different. But then I realised that we are all over-educated and think too hard about things. And the fact that many of us live in the US with very similar conditions and frankly probably stress too much about ‘first world problems’. That is what made me want to take it to a global level. To understand what are the differences around the world. Then I started to think too hard how to get money to travel around the world for two years taking photo’s and doing this project. And: ‘Oh, I have a family.’ And: ‘Oh, I have to earn a living.’
I had started my job at Uber. And for a gathering of our research team, about 80 researchers from around the world, I did a five-minute presentation on my learnings from doing the interviews with my friends. Because this is what we do, we interview people, we pull together themes, etcetera. I thought: ‘Who is going to care about this? Luckily I have some pretty pictures. Hopefully, people are going to like that.’ I spent almost no time putting together this presentation and these learnings, but the reaction I got was so positive from people of various ages. From younger women to the older women, from women who had children to women who were thinking about having children but had some apprehension about that idea. To men who said they had the same issues around ‘having it all’, about being very present with their family and embracing the things they personally want to love and want to do. I realised at that moment that it was much bigger than a women’s problem, a women’s issue. I honestly think that the thing about the ages, young women being so worried having children, about getting married, stages in life that you can only imagine when you’re 22 or 25, that triggered my interest in making this a more significant, more global project. I was surprised and pleased by the response that it was a relevant and applicable topic.
All the women, indepentent
Fast forward a little bit to this year, I had my camera and a couple of trips already planned. My first stop was Singapore. We were on our way to my friend’s wedding in Birma. We spent a couple of days in Singapore. We stayed at the famous Orchard Road, which is a big shopping street. Originally I planned our trip to be only three days, to interview only the last day, on Monday. On Sunday morning, we walked out into the street, and the street was flooded with women. Just flooded: wall to wall women. They were all around the same age, from a similar ethnicity, and I wondered what was going on that Sunday morning. It turned out that is was the day that the domestics or the maids of Singapore get off from work. I was walking down the street, getting breakfast with my husband and kids. And my husband said: ‘You have to interview today.’ I said: ‘But I planned on getting a massage…’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘you have to interview today.’ I reluctantly got my camera, I took a lot of time in the room to set up. But I went out there, and I interviewed a hand full of women. What I learned at that moment was the depth of the stories. It was just one point in the country of Singapore, so you can’t say that it is massively representative for the entire country. I interviewed a couple, a mother and daughter pair who were out and were dressed really beautifully, really fashionably. I thought they were friends or sisters, they looked to be of the same age. But it turned out that this mother who was in her mid forties had moved from Malasia to Singapore over twenty years ago to become a live-in maid to take care of other people’s children, leaving her own daughter behind. And her daughter was only six or seven at the time. And I interviewed her daughter too. She was about 25 years old, and she just moved to Singapore to also become a domestic, following in her mother’s footsteps. The sadness and the beauty behind it was that she was following in her mother’s footsteps, but also didn’t want to do what her mother did. Which was leaving her won family to make money and take care of someone else’s family. Which, I could tell, she was somewhat pained by.
For the daughter, it was all about not having children. She didn’t want to get married until much later, in her thirties. She wanted to be more of an entrepreneur, an independent woman. She didn’t was to be a domestic for the rest of her life. That was a means to an end. She wanted to have money so she could move back to her own country, set up a business and work on her own. At that moment, this was just an hour of me doing the current project, I learned the internal racism that exists there. I’m obviously Asian, I’m Chinese, from Taiwan. But some of the wealthier Asian women didn’t stop for me. At that moment I thought: ‘Hey, if I were Caucasian, I wonder if they would stop for me.’ I don’t know, just a hunch. That thinking continues on when I do the work because as I have done this, I started learning about what a typical person or women from the city is like. Yes, you can go by stereotypes, archetypes, looks, styles, or whatever it is what you want, but what I started to become fascinated by people who looked that they could be from anywhere. And stopping them.
My next stop was Burma, Yangon, the capital city where my friend from college was hosting her wedding. There I brought an interpreter. She wasn’t a professional translator, but she was this feminist in a place that is pretty traditional still. In fact, when we were working together for that set of interviews, she was performing in the Vagina Monologues in Yangon that week. She was awesome, she was an artist and performer. We would stop people on the street. We were standing with the backdrop in this crazy busy place where people were walking right in front of us. I was sweating, it was so hot. We ran into a friend of hers, she was a lawyer on her way to pick up her daughter. She came back later with her daughter, and it turned out that she was a single mom, working as a lawyer with a small child. She talked about how challenging that is, being a single mother. Not for the obvious reasons of being a single mother, the challenges of balancing and finding time for yourself, but the perceptions in her culture of being a single mom. People would often put the blame on her, they wondered what is that she had done to drive her husband away. I don’t go into tonnes of details with these interviews, because it is on the street and it is usually pretty quick, and often people are in a hurry to get somewhere. It is not like this, sitting down for an hour. I could just read into what she was saying. She felt demonised for making the choices that felt right for her and her daughter.
One of my favourite interviews was in Burma, still my second city where I was interviewing. I saw a woman walking down the street. I pointed to her to show my translator, saying: ‘I want to stop her because she looks that she could be in New York City.’ She could be anywhere, wearing a buttoned-down white shirt. She wasn’t in traditional Burmese clothing. I stopped her, and it turned out that she was from Thailand, she was a yoga teacher splitting her time between Burma and Thailand. She had a lot of great things to say. It was at that moment when I realised that we’re more similar than different. Just the fact that she looked that she could be from anywhere really helped to reinforce this idea of similarity. Rather than me looking for the most stereotypical Burmese looking women, what I also did find. Because there were many of them anywhere. It was then when I started looking at the commonalities, rather than going for the stereotypes.
Age. Age is a super interesting thing. I’m not screening for age. I’m not asking: ‘Are you 18, can you sign this waiver?’ I’m just stopping people. And usually, my first question is: ‘What’s your name? What’s your age? And what do you do?’ And a couple of times I have gotten someone who is under the age of 18. But I don’t include them in my photo’s online. But I’ve gotten a lot of 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds. They are, by far the most interesting. Well, maybe not the most interesting, but they are the most focussed driven and determined women. It made me wonder: ‘Gosh, was I like that at that age?’ Maybe. Then I realised that in this realm of late twenties, maybe fifties, people have a myriad of thoughts, of course. Many of the women that hat I have interviewed who are older, like 60 to 80, they are the ones with the most interesting perspectives. The youngest generation that I’m interviewing and the oldest. The younger ones are super passionate and very much about conquering the world. Very idealistic and have an idea precisely what they want and how they want to go about it. The things they want to avoid, the things they want to do. I also think that they are quite honest about what it is what they don’t know and what they are trying to figure out. Which I really appreciated. And they are also very relatable and know how to take a good Instagram photo. Which is pretty hilarious. They’re the easiest in front of the screen type people. Same with the old women, actually. Even though they don’t take selfies in the same way and they may not have an Instagram account, though some do.
What is interesting there is, yesterday I interviewed a woman who was 80, she was talking about how she couldn’t wait to get out and be liberated. Explore the world and be completely unencumbered. When I asked her what that meant, she said that she had a dog. And therefore she felt tight down because she had this dog for five years. But even at that age, she had a lot of excitement about looking back and looking forward at the same time. She had a lot to reflect on in her 80 years of life. She was really excited about that chance to look back, as opposed to always looking forward all the time.
Learning and universal truths
I don’t know if I ever have been thought this specifically as a professional researcher, but I really try to be objective on what I’m hearing. I already did this when I did that series of interviews with my friends. That was when I crossed the line because from purist research methodology into something else that was more ’fun’ or more of a hybrid version. I already know those people, knew their stories and asked them specific, pointed questions. Back to interviewing strangers, I think that I really tried to suspend my own interpretation of how what they say relates to myself. But as a thinking, feeling human being, I can’t help to think about how this relates to me. On a subconscious level, I’m talking to all these people, and relating it to my own experiences. The first thing that I realised was how lucky I am. A lot of women, certainly the ones that I talked to in south-east Asia, in India, spoke about being very limited by what they are allowed to do or be. Women talked about having arranged marriages, having this idea of being a single, divorced woman was still very unexcepted. Where in the US, where I’m from, it is pretty common and pretty accepted. I also feel grateful in that there is a huge range that I’m allowed to operate in. I could have had a child at 21 or at 51, and I’m sure that people then could have judged me. But it would have been in the range of acceptable. Whereas I think in certain cultures, people literally had the expectation of having a child by the time they’re about 25. That if they didn’t by that age, that would be a problem.
The other day I stopped a woman in Stockholm. I stopped her because she had these awesome glasses on. My project is not a fashion project, but she looked cool, so I stopped her. She was walking with another woman, and they were dressed like they were twins. They both had black Dr. Martens on, this frumpy long coat with a scarf. It turned out to be her daughter. She was really fascinating because she opened up immediately, wanting to talk. She was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life because her daughter had just moved out of the house to go to college. And she was saying for the first time that she had to focus on herself. Because she was alone, and what does that mean? How do you reinvent yourself? She had the same job for 30 thirty years. In her words: she became too comfortable in her own life. And now she had nothing but time to think about what she wants to do. She was almost invoking her younger self. She used to be wild, and then she went through this period of raising her child, raising her family, doing her job. And now that her child left, she has to be herself. And what does that mean? In a way, it is something for me to think about, a bit of a cautionary tale, like: ‘I need to think about that one day too.’ Right now, I’m in the midst of something else. I have a boy who is about to turn eight this weekend, and another boy who is ten. It does make me think: ‘Oh my goodness, even though I’m so busy and can only see a couple of days out from my current day to day life, there is going to be this whole other chapter in my life that I haven’t really thought about.’ Whereas I think, when you’re younger, you think: ‘I’m going to grow up, I go to college, have a job, find someone that I love, get married, have a child.’ That part is pretty clear. After that, it gets a little blurry. This is helping me think about my future life and some of the other things that will be fun adventures. I feel a little bit like when I don’t give enough thought to them, they hit me and I will be paralysed for a while. Whereas now, I don’t usually get to talk to 80-year-old women who I don’t know. This is a really fantastic opportunity to get to know people of all ages, different walks of life.
What I’m loving about doing this, is the stories of the common people, the normal people, the real people. They’re just real people with interesting stories that you can take as advice. Or not. I don’t believe that we need to make everything about advice-giving. I, as a woman, as a mom, I’m sick of advice. In fact, I don’t think I have any advice to give people. I just want people to experience things for themselves.
Common, normal, real
My inspiration for this, I have my sociology inspirations, but my esthetic and stylistic inspiration has been the ‘Lookbook’ by New York Magazine. What I love about that is that it is street style, but it is not like the Sartorialist where it is just a photo of a person in London or what so ever: it is a full interview with this person. They might be incredibly fashionable. Or they might be the opposite of fashionable. But their clothing, their apparel says something about them. And it is the ‘time hem’ that is so interesting, rather than the clothes, the brands, the prices of the shoes or whatever. I actively resist my urge to stop the people why are stylish. Even though I can’t help to be attracted to someone who looks great. I have been really delving into the ‘real’, real people as having really great stories. I have to say, why I stared with this project was my reaction to that book like ‘Lean in’, Sheryl Sandberg, the Anne Marie Slaughter thing who are basically celebrities, very well known women. A culture of celebrity worship. At the time I was just hatching my idea, this book ‘100 Creative Women’ came out, and I thought: ‘Someone took my idea, damn.’ Then I looked closer at it and thought: ‘No, these are the women I see on every blog, every magazine. I don’t even need to read about them because I know about them.’ And frankly, they’re so successful, I can’t relate to them in the same way. What I’m loving about doing this, is the stories of the common people, the normal people, the real people. But I try to present it in that style too, what I call ‘hyper real’. I boost up the colour, the flash to make them look as real as possible. There is no airbrushing, no removal of blemishes, no hair that is misplaced or anything like that. They’re just real people with interesting stories that you can take as advice. Or not. That is my other thing. I don’t believe that we need to make everything about advice-giving. I, as a woman, as a mom, I’m sick of advice. In fact, I don’t think I have any advice to give people. I just want people to experience things for themselves. But I do get very inspired by people’s words. As well as their ideas and them as role models almost. That is where I think the inspiration can come from. Other than giving direct advice like: ‘Planning for your future when you are an empty nester.’ No, I don’t care about that. It is more the thought that: ‘This woman is 52 and she is thinking about reinventing her life.’ And look at this amazing grown child she has created, who is also a person. Now they dress like twins! I love that idea. I can’t wait to do that. Maybe my sons and I will dress as twins one day. I have copied his haircuts in the past.
It is more about having the perspective of being open. Rather than feeling that you are on a path, that you have to stay focussed and not getting distracted. Knowing what is best. But more knowing that you’re on a path and I’m keeping my ears, eyes and heart open. And who knows, by doing so, maybe you will change your course.
Breaking down barriers
How this relates back to my professional work… Since I presented the learnings from my first round to my peers of researchers at Uber, I have come to realise the enormous complexity and pressure that younger women feel as they are making choices in life. And sometimes, the more options you have, the harder it is to decide. As an example: a lot of the women I work with are highly ambitious. They are very well educated, incredibly talented, have incredibly bright futures. So they might not want to get married and have children right away. Or they might be looking for a partner, the right partner and all of those things. Since I presented my learnings to our team, which is mostly women, several have reached out to me separately just to talk about what it means to choose a partner. Or when it is the right time to have a child. My advice to them always is: ‘You should have a child between a certain age. It is more about your personal values.’ Because that is all I can say. I don’t have any advice for anyone, it is more about your personal sense what is right for you. And also perhaps not succumb to what everyone else is thinking is right for you. The other way I feel, whether it is just me and my philosophy is a part of this project, or what I am bringing from my project into my work, is this spirit of sharing and collaborating. Also, to break down the lines and the barriers between hierarchies. From those who are famous giving advice to those who are not. Or those who are really accomplished to people who are starting out. I feel like there is learning across all levels. A 50-year-old can learn from a 20-year-old, and a 20-year-old can learn from a 50-year-old. A man can learn from a woman, a woman can learn from a man. There are plenty of intersections there. It is more about having the perspective of being open. Rather than feeling that you are on a path, that you have to stay focussed and not getting distracted. Knowing what is best. But more knowing that you’re on a path and I’m keeping my ears, eyes and heart open. And who knows, by doing so, maybe you will change your course.
Or you will be inspired to think differently. Or you will realise that in company speak: ‘doing what is right for the user is what is right for the company, as well for the business’. And also thinking differently, like that every researcher with a PhD learned that, doesn’t mean someone who answers a phone for a complaint, don’t have something compelling to share with one and another about the thing they have in common. So it is about the levelling of the playing field of what is essential, what is relevant, what we should care about, what we should stay sensitive open to.