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.