1996. I’m a director of a large, highly profitable, engineering-based organisation.
A couple of years back, before I scaled the dizzy heights, when I was just a manager, I was naïve enough to cut my budget without a fuss. By more than I was asked to cut it, in fact. Because I could.
No-one told me I’d be asked to do it again – by more – because I’d given in so easily. I thought I was doing the right thing, I’d done what was asked of me, knowing if my team worked hard we could still do the job – and do it well.
It’s one way of learning. And I did.
Soon I was wheeling and dealing – though not as skilfully as my male peers.
But I have a couple of cards in my hand that they do not.
I’m female and I’m not plug ugly.
My male chief exec likes me. One of his favourites on the board likes me. Neither of them is threatened by me.
I have to play the female card because it’s my only ace in this game.
And I work hard. Influence the boss for the better, I hope. Try to keep profits in perspective. Try to prove that happy staff and customers are worth a little spending.
Hard when you have a virtual monopoly.
I nurture female colleagues who deserve to be noticed. It helps that a longstanding (female) member of my team is another of the boss’s favourites. We work a pincer movement, whispering in his ear from either side, hoping to make female waves in this macho world.
Soon the first female director is on board – in engineering. And we’ve done our bit to get her there, brushing the ice before her as she curls into place.
I’ll admit, I feel a bit peeved that I’m still a lowly manager. But I’m a bit of a stir-things-up, set things in motion, move-on kind of person anyway.
I start getting itchy feet – and the boss notices. He asks me what’s wrong – and I tell him.
I’m soon promoted.
It doesn’t feel so good, knowing I’ve asked. I’d rather there’d been a spontaneous recognition of my amazing skills. Applause as I swept into the boardroom in triumph (yeah, so likely).
And, you know, once I’m on the board I realise how awful it is. How they spar and bicker and fight.
Some of the men do whatever the boss wants – wrangle with figures, with jobs, with whatever it takes to produce the ‘right’ answer.
Some of the chaps are super bright and play with the mice who aren’t so Machiavellian. I learn to keep quiet around them. Well, sometimes.
And on top of the politics and the in-fighting I hate the boardroom. An arrangement of tables in a square around an empty space – purpose built for conflict.
Somehow we end up with one table, like a long dining table. In a smaller room. Not sure if it’s my doing, but whatever – it works. When you’re that much closer you’re not as nasty. Well, not overtly.
Soon, with much listening, something begins to bug me quite a lot.
It’s one word.
You’ll not be surprised to hear that words are important to me – I believe that they matter. That how they are used may not be consciously manipulative, but still …
That’s the word.
I notice it more and more.
No-one calls the engineering director girl. But anyone else is fair game. And she uses it herself, indiscriminately. I never tackle her on it, but I bet she wouldn’t understand my problem with it.
One of the finance managers – someone I thought would be a natural ally – says she likes to be called a girl.
The personnel manager doesn’t do it, he calls women ladies. But leave that aside for now.
You might think me petty, but girl is a diminutive. It’s not like lad – lad can also be ‘a bit of a lad’. Girl is young, inexperienced, directable, biddable. Like I was when I arrived.
It assumes the female is subordinate.
And of course, we so often are – and partly through our own connivance.
I use my looks (and personality) to influence my boss because it’s the only weapon I can marshal that my male colleagues can’t – and they have so much more in their armoury.
Then one day an experience knocks me back so hard I feel like I have to exit the game. Not the cheeky request from the boss to join me in my room at our hotel in London – you expect that kind of thing and just treat it as a joke – whether it is or not.
No, it’s about that young, able, hard-working woman you brought to his attention. The one he had promoted, who’s now a manager.
A few months into her new role you ask him how he thinks she’s doing. He wrinkles his nose.
I’m taken aback. A bit anxious – after all, I did push her forward.
I really thought she was good, I say.
Have you guessed?
I doubt it.
She’s put on weight.
Too many pizzas, perhaps?
I guess the cheese affects the female brain, somehow. Yes, that must be it.
Mary, it sounds depressingly the same everywhere, whether it’s the US, UK or Singapore! Have you got yourself up to be Chairperson so you can shake things about?
No, I gave up. The business world always felt wrong. I tendered my resignation but then we made a takeover bid and I stayed around for that – it failed and when voluntary redundancy was offered I took it. I can’t say my next move – setting up a small academic publishing business – wasas star-studded success but at leats it was mine to do with as I wished. Now I’m writing and looking for a good cause to use my communication skills on. I read your profile page again recently – if ever you are in the Uk it would be great to meet you!
Sure thing! I was there Spring 2013 and yes, do hope to be there again soonish.
1996 eh, o wise one? Imagine yourself 15 years earlier, a young female graduate suddenly thrust into a world like a men’s club – that of the all-male public school. This is a world where younger male colleagues (with a few honourable and supportive exceptions) undermine you at every turn, cancel your arrangements without telling you and conspire with your young charges to mock you. The elderly, soon-to-retire brigade won’t take you seriously as a whole, though you do have some forward-thinking protectors among them. They think you are a pretty little thing passing time before being whisked away on a white charger into frilly-veiled bliss. This is being a ‘girl’ with a vengeance. Your immediate superior informs you one day, with an avuncular shoulder-squeeze (nothing worse – we are gentlemen here), that you are looking ‘particularly bedworthy this morning’ and thinks it’s a compliment.
And yet – still here. With loads of responsibility and total respect. I think the thing to do was to laugh and work hard enough to impress. It won’t always work these days though. Sadly. 😦
Wise one? Moi??? Ah, you know better than that! 😉
But to be serious, as I know you are, this is how it was and probably still is and we have to ask ourselves why? I hark back to a previous piece I wrote – why is it that we are so up in arms for minorities when half the world is still treated so unfairly? (And allows itself to be so.)
When I was a journalist I was also in a man’s world – I worked in telecommunications and defense (with an s – US magazine) and it was hard but because I was unusual (female) it worked to my advantage. Then, when I went into ‘PR’ (after I decided I would always have to fend for myself, doh) thinking it would be a more structured career for me, it was a total shock. Not just being on the distasteful side of the fence, the person the hacks (mostly) despised, but the men… I remember my first interview with a recruitment consultant, a man of the old school (sorry to use that word in the context of your reply!), who pointedly looked at my chest and said, ‘yes, you’ll do well in PR’. Fortunately I got into business PR but even so, it was a tough world for a ‘girl’. In one ‘business to business’ agency I worked for we had corporate membership of a club called Blondes. One client at a very major British business had pictures on his office walls that were borderline pornographic, involving females in stilettos and crotches of bathing costumes. I was told my clothes weren’t right. One client tried to make it look like he’d spent the night with me by the sneaky trick of turning up to have breakfast with me at my hotel… Yuk. I won’t go through the other male preserves I worked in and how they were, sometimes surprisingly good, sometimes awful – but let’s get back to you. I utterly sympathise with you and applaud your tenacity. But what you were doing was worthwhile, you stood your ground for something you knew was worth it. Teaching. I did what I could for myself and others at each place I worked as I moved up the ladder and tried to act with integrity, do as much for charity with the businesses as I could, but… I left that world worn out and jaded and unimpressed with my own performance. I’m still looking for that vocation – but at least I can raise issues (and hackles?) this way! Meanwhile, you have hundreds (more?) of grateful people out there whose lives have been better as a result of what you have taught them. Respect indeed.
This is all totally beyond my experience, at the outermost fringes of my world, and reinforces my remark about Oxford.
Your remark about Oxford – please don’t – I have tripped and stumbled through life, just carrying on – mostly doing what was there not what I chose to do – and if there’s one thing living in Liverpool taught me it is never underestimate, never overestimate! Forget the Oxford thing – like many women of my age, I can give you loads of reasons why I got in and none of them to do with innate superior intelligence!!!