It was International Women’s Day on Friday, and of course, I have feelings.
Firstly, before anyone whinges – 19th November is International Men’s Day.
Now we have that over and done with, let me get on with the important stuff.
I work for a company that, unironically, had an International Women’s Day event chaired by a man, and with more male speakers than female – which probably tells you more than I could articulate about what it’s like to work there. What’s more, the majority of the talks focussed on the issues of having a family and work – as if that is the only difficulty facing women in the workplace.
I’m not saying that it isn’t great that my company has men that want to support women. Of course it is – but surely, of all days, International Women’s Day is the time for men to listen to women, to understand our experience, and take that on board when you’re dealing with female colleagues.
It says a lot that my company thought they needed to have male hosts and speakers in order for this day to have a pull, or enough gravitas to go.
It says a lot that no males from my department attended; and even more that most of those males manage females.
Women have been telling men for years that we do not need you to speak for us. You can’t speak for us. You don’t know the ways in which we’re judged that you’re not. And most of you aren’t even aware of the unconscious bias that you show to us. Women are, factually, held to account for a lot more than men are. We are expected to behave a certain way, look a certain way and communicate in a certain way. When we don’t, our behaviour is held up to much higher levels of scrutiny. And it is exhausting.
A lot of men seem to only discover women’s rights when they have daughters. Indeed, yesterday, that is what most of the men that spoke concentrated on. Yes, it’s absolutely fantastic that you want to change the world for your daughter – but what about your wife? Your sisters? Your mother, your female cousins, your friends? They’re all going through the same thing, and they’ve all had to prove themselves again and again, while men are judged on their potential. It is not acceptable to be ignorant to the inequality that women face, until you produce your own little female.
I grew up in a household where my parents, both teachers, never made me feel that as a woman, I couldn’t do anything that I wanted. My mum was a deputy head, while my dad preferred to be a class teacher – so my household was unusual in that my mother was in a senior position to my father. However, I never really saw it like that – I saw both my parents working just as hard as each other. I saw my father’s passion for classroom teaching, and my mother standing up for other teachers in her school. From them, I got the message that as long as I worked hard, I could do anything I wanted.
And then I went to an all girls school. While these aren’t a perfect solution, I never for a moment thought that there were things I couldn’t do just because I was a woman. Again, here the message was that if you work hard you’ll do well. And this was the message I took with me through school and university.
Then I arrived in the world of work, and the full force of what the world is really like hit me square in the face. It is exhausting to be a woman in the workplace. My experience, and the experience of many of my colleagues, is that men are judged on the best of their results, the things they have achieved and the positive leadership skills they possess. Women are judged on the things they don’t do, their personality – being too soft or not soft enough – their achievements are balanced out with criticism of what they could have done better. Women receive the message that in order to achieve they have to adapt their personality to be more like a man’s – and yet, when they do this they’re judged for not being soft enough, gentle enough… I could go on.
I’ve listened to men explain feminism to me one day, but go on to invite me to calls because they ‘need the female touch.’
I’ve mentioned before that my no always seems negotiable, but my male counterparts is not – but this goes further. I adapted the way I communicate in emails after reading advice from female leaders in the workplace (‘take out the fluff, and be more direct’) only for my male managers to have a problem with this. I don’t know any man who has been told to be softer, friendlier, or chattier in emails. It wouldn’t be appropriate. When a man is assertive it is celebrated. If a woman is…. Well, she’s a bitch and she needs to work on her people skills. If you’re independent as a man you’re showing initiative. If you do that as a female, then you are dragged back down and because you need a man to show you how to do it.
I wish I was exaggerating – but this is the experience I’ve had in many different workplaces. It’s the experience many of my friends have had. It’s the experience we need to change.
The double standard perpetuated by men that think they are feminists astounds me. These are the men that I find more dangerous than the dinosaurs that think a woman’s place is in the kitchen – because they at least are shouted down. The men that I’m talking about cannot see how they treat females differently to males, and do it in subtle, but career blocking ways. They try to tell you that standing up for yourself is wrong, that not acting in the way that they believe a woman should is wrong, that all the good work you do doesn’t count because sometimes you’re a bit grumpy.The idea that men behave perfectly at work is a myth, yet I have never spoken to a male who has been reprimanded for it in the way that females are.
Hell, I’ve seen men that shout at women be promoted, while the women are held to account for not being particularly willing to be in meetings with those shouty men again. Because for that man the ‘work’ they do is apparently so much more important than the way they act. But for women, the way they act is more important than the work.
Is it any wonder women are burning out at work much faster than men? Is it any wonder that so few women reach the top leadership positions when the standards are held so much higher?
Some companies are better than others, some men are better than others. I’ve met a couple of men who really do champion the women they work with – and when I work with them it’s amazing how much easier I find every day. It doesn’t take much to change, but it does require you to take a long, hard look at yourself and ask yourself some difficult questions.
One final thought – I read recently an article that argued that asking women to lean in was bad advice, because that’s asking them to emulate male behaviour – which is not necessarily the way to get the best results. It argued that most managers are incompetent (I wish now, I had the link) because people tend to get promoted due to their overconfidence in their ability, not because of their work standards. Promotions based on this overconfidence are not good promotions; confidence is not the trait that we should be celebrating. We don’t want more incompetent managers – male or female – we need to look more objectively at what talents people do actually have. I think once workplaces start doing this and stop only appreciating ‘male traits’, women will have a much easier path at work.
Until then, I will keep being a difficult woman, who points out when I am treated differently to the males in my work place.