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Assisterhood: Empowering the Next Generation of Women

Words by Leah Morris.

Photo by Melissa Cowan.

Assisterhood is a nation-wide industry program that links young women and non-binary people in advertising with the mentoring, experience and education needed to grow their careers. Founded five years ago by agency Business Manager Linh Diep, it set its agenda early on with a clear goal to demystify and destigmatise asking for assistance, especially for young people starting out. At its core, Assisterhood is a selfless undertaking, headed up by Linh and Senior Digital Project Manager Polina Shilenina, with Program Heads Isabelle Debnam and Liz Ballantyne, Queensland; Jessie Roper, Victoria; and Charlotte Goodsir who is launching the New South Wales program as we write this editorial.

It’s hard to quantify the exact impact of Assisterhood’s work on its ninety-nine mentees to date, but Linh remembers the first cohort well. Former mentee Anais Read is now part of the Assisterhood team as Social Media Manager, while kicking goals as an award-winning Copywriter at Ogilvy. Leticia Jenkins went from a small Brisbane production house to work with International Studios such as Paramount and Hulu. And Clare Farrugia has found success client and agency-side as a Digital Market Specialist. For mentees, success isn’t just a promotion or a pay rise – it can be a more rewarding role, jump to overseas employment, increased confidence, improved mental wellbeing or a successful return from parental leave. Their success is a shared success; it’s what spurs the Program Heads to continue their important work.

Linh Diep photographed by Melissa Cowan.

‘We haven’t chased accolades, instead we focus on partnering with like-minded collaborators,’ explains Linh, who has co-run successful events with Women In Digital, Hunt & Co., Alpha Digital, Askable and Publicis Worldwide where Assisterhood was born.

Polina continues: ‘We’re all about elevating anyone who identifies as a woman or a minority,’ she says, highlighting that while the program is geared towards women (because they are underrepresented in leadership roles), gender isn’t actually an eligibility criteria for participants. ‘Assisterhood exists to create safe spaces for discussion; we invite people whose voices need to be amplified – shedding light not only on incredible women but looking to involve allies of all genders who share our values. Working together, we can keep the program entirely free and accessible.’

Polina Shilenina photographed by Melissa Cowan.

So why are some of us only learning about Assisterhood now? Until recently, the program was Queensland-based, operating from the offices of Publicis Worldwide.

It all started from an International Women’s Day brief where Linh knew she didn’t want to do another morning tea with cupcakes. During the ideation process, she consulted one her mentors, Publicis Worldwide Managing Director Simone Waugh. Seeing Linh’s talent and potential, Simone had hired her out of a career in financial auditing and into adland. Simone asked Linh what had helped her most on her career path? Looking across the table, Linh realised the answer was sitting right in front of her.

Simone provided the encouragement she needed to begin facilitating senior mentoring for others, and it’s a piece of advice she has always cherished. ‘If I’m getting this experience, why wouldn't I share it with other people?’ she says. ‘For me, it was line of sight and being able to help others have what I had.’

Linh started Assisterhood on her own and bought Polina and other Program Heads onboard in year three.

Around that time, Linh was gearing up to leave Publicis Worldwide for a new opportunity, and Assisterhood needed an owner that would stay at Publicis; they still had many mentees going through the program there. So when a callout was sent around by the agency, Polina knew it had to be her. ‘I basically jumped onto the train and Linh was unable to push me off it,’ she laughs.

Polina quickly became an invaluable and dedicated leader.

‘I’m originally from Russia and I had to build my career from scratch,’ she explains. ‘I come from a culture that sees asking for help as a vulnerability rather than a strength and an opportunity to learn. To create a safe space where anyone can ask questions (independent of their work performance) is powerful. I wanted to be a part of that movement and build it out further, because on a personal level I can see how much difference that would have made for me when I was building up my career here in Australia.’

Linh describes the partnership as very yin and yang, in the best possible way. This fact is unintentionally illustrated by the two women’s outfits, visible on our Zoom call – Linh is in a black turtleneck jumper and Polina is wearing a white boatneck blouse.

‘We really compliment each other’s skills sets,’ says Polina. ‘It was an interesting pull to take this challenge on and I haven't regretted it. Two years on, there is incredible growth. We’re expanding to new states and every year we do it more sustainably and efficiently.’

Giving back to the industry at this scale is no small feat; the efforts of the Assisterhood team are not to be downplayed. Maintaining balance is a juggle, and Linh and Polina have learned to share the workload. Queensland’s Isabelle and Liz are the most experienced among the program’s leaders, and have encouraged the others to create boundaries and a more sustainable structure. Liz also brings a working mum perspective, which many participants can relate to.

Assisterhood's Isabelle Debnam.

Assisterhood's Liz Ballantyne.

‘We’re seeing more and more people come in at the mid-senior level when they've just had kids, or been back in the industry a few years since having kids and things feel different for them,’ says Polina. ‘More and more parents are reaching out for support, especially to Assisters who are mums themselves. One of our Assisters was the first team leader in her agency to actually return from mat leave and keep her leadership role on a part-time basis. It wasn’t easy for her, but she can now help others do it more successfully.’

In addition to the strengths of Isabelle and Liz, Jessie and Charlotte are former Youngbloods volunteers like Linh; it’s where they all met. It’s an experience that has given them extra capabilities when it comes to industry engagement and event planning – all extremely useful skills. The squad performs their demanding work largely in their own time, out of a desire to support others.

‘It can be a bit like running a startup on top of your day-to-day job with very little funding,’ says Polina. ‘We’re a group of overachievers running side by side, it’s our passion project and we all care – but we run the risk of burnout if we don’t carefully manage the time and energy that we’ve got. We’ve become good at recognising burnout trends in ourselves and others, and we’ve learned to put protection mechanisms in place.’

Linh agrees: ‘It’s honestly finding the balance between spending lots of time on it, and doing good enough. Sometimes done is better than perfect.’

‘We also have to remember that everyone is a volunteer with finite resources to give to us. It’s important to be respectful of people’s time and being a good communicator goes a long way toward that. If someone can’t help one week, they’ll let us know. No one wants to let each other down.’

The role of the Program Heads is different to that of the ‘Assisters’, who mentor participants directly. Linh, Polina and the team see themselves as custodians, tasked with gatekeeping Assisterhood’s integrity and its ability to provide carefully considered connections.

Says Polina: ‘We want to give people the language and the tools to drive their own pathways. How can we enable people to get the exact type of support they need in the moment? And we find that creating a safe space for them to break outside their bubble is often where they’ll find that. ‘

Linh adds: ‘We’re very selective about who we bring in, we want to keep it authentic and genuine. Those words get thrown around, but we really do want to create a community of like-minded people.’

Part of this community building was the launch of Assistercast, a podcast where Linh and Polina hosted the likes of Jamila Rizvi (Future Women), Hannah Spilva (LVLY) and VC investor Elaine Stead to answer FAQs and empower listeners with hard-won knowledge and advice.

Next on the Assisterhood agenda is expanding the Victorian program (which launched in 2022) and working with Charlotte to spearhead the initiative into New South Wales – while continuing to ensure a broad range of disciplines are surfaced in the program.

Assisterhood's Jessie Roper.

Charlotte Goodsir photographed by Melissa Cowan.

‘Perhaps because of my own experience in account service, I’m passionate about including mentors from across the entire comms journey – from tech and digital marketing to media, production, client services and creative,’ says Linh. ‘All these components make up commercial creativity; by incorporating them all we can expand women’s pathways and show them their opportunities.’

Polina adds: ‘We’re also starting a research report on data we’ve collected over the last five years of the program. We want to track the progress of our mentees and create a business case on the power of mentoring.’

If anything is to be learned from Assisterhood’s impactful work to date, it’s that each and every one of us has the power to create change, but we are strongest together. It’s why Assisterhood’s community of women supporting women is the ultimate antidote to the boys’ club – opening previously-closed doors to protect, champion, educate and empower ambitious women on their individual paths to success.

To listen to Assistercast, register your interest as a mentee or Assister and receive updates about upcoming programs, visit

Purchase a copy of Mavens Magazine featuring Assisterhood here.


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