Whatever you’re thinking it’s probably wrong. But I don’t care.
Actually, that’s a lie. I do care.
I’m writing while listening to the radio, to a woman who’s CEO of Lloyds of London, ‘the world’s specialist insurance market’. Globally important, founded in the 17th century and for centuries a male preserve – who’d have thought such a thing possible, even 20 years ago?
Inga Beale’s her name and she’s recounting a formative episode. A party to celebrate a cricket series in the West Indies. Office walls decorated with Jamaica tourism posters – sunshine, smiles, women in bikinis and … women not in bikinis, just wet t-shirts.
Days later, the posters are still up. She asks if they could be taken down. Next day they’re down – but now they’re decorating her desk.
She walks out – and buys a round-the-world-ticket.
Ms Beale’s story took me back to late 1980s London. In particular, to a sunny summer’s day and my office in London’s Mayfair. I was working as a ‘communication consultant’.
From the window I could see a Chez Gerard restaurant (delectable, thin greasy fries, like hot little worms) and ‘Blondes’.
‘Blondes’ was a wine bar owned by legendary footballer, womaniser and drinker, George Best. We occasionally went there for a celebratory drink, because the company I worked for (run by men) had corporate membership.
I respected and liked our MD. Intelligent, good-humoured and fair, he was a twinkle-in-the-eye kind of bloke, who plainly liked women of a certain type (not mine). One of our most important clients was fronted by a friend of his and I was the account manager.
This friend of our MD friend was Important. So we always had three-tiered meetings: the MD, a director and me. I was note-taker, the two men talked and listened.
Friend-of-MD’s office was in a glamorous building within sight of St Paul’s cathedral. On his wall, unusually among our clients, was ‘art’.
One image in particular stays with me. A slender woman with long, wide-apart legs, one knee bent, her stilettoed heel threaded through the crotch of her bathing costume.
I’d taken an instant dislike to the man, even before I saw his office walls.
The images made me uncomfortable. Made it clear what my place was in his world – or would be if I fitted the sexy, anonymous-faced profile before me.
Would I want to look like that? No. But it made me feel as if I should in some miserable kind of way. I knew this man would never treat me as his equal. What’s more, I didn’t think I was.
The other contact we had there was a different matter.
Cherubically plump and dark-haired, he dressed like no-one else. Wore a sweatshirt instead of a jacket. Was sparky, vivid, thought out loud.
I liked and respected him. And on this hot summer’s day, it was his opinion I wanted.
I remember exactly what I was wearing. You know how it is, those days when things feel as if they’ve changed forever – and you remember every detail?
It was a dress I’d made myself. Cotton. Sleeveless, v-necked, v-backed – but far from risqué. Just a summer dress. With a belt. And a flared skirt.
I rang the cherubic client – which took nerve. The boys always did the talking, even to deputy top-dawg.
He was interested, happened to be free. Suggested I grab a cab, head over, we could talk about it.
I told my director … who told me to wait.
He and MD would come with me. Or rather, I would go with them.
I popped to the loo and thought I’d dab on a drop of cologne. Chanel 19.
The bottle slipped. A deluge. Nothing I could do except wipe at my skin with wet tissues.
We flagged a cab down opposite ‘Blondes’. My boss opened both back windows to their fullest extent. Asked me what the perfume was.
Did I blush? Probably. Was I mortified? Certainly. Did I find out what I wanted from our client? I’ve no idea. All I can remember is embarrassment – and irritation at having my pitch invaded.
Not long afterwards I was invited for a rare ‘chat’ with a female director who occasionally wafted in from abroad, borne on exotic credentials.
Perhaps I should consider more formal clothing? Suits, for example?
Pretty summer dresses were hardly appropriate.
It was my wet t-shirt moment.
My dress sense hadn’t held me back so far. I knew my clients valued my work. But I couldn’t afford a round-the-world ticket and I wasn’t ready to leave. Yet.
I bought some new clothes. Not navy blue suits and striped shirts, but fitted dresses and belted jackets.
It was the heyday of the shoulder-pad. I embraced them and tottered around on high heels. The height made me feel good.
I wore bold, unusual jewellery.
I never adopted the corporate look and I think it actually helped my career. I stood out against the suits. But I never felt confident in myself. I acted.
I was a sham.
Inga Beale turned down a promotion, didn’t feel she could do it. She was sent on an assertiveness course.
Each participant made a collage of images cut from a magazine that they felt represented themselves. Inga did hers – and then the others described how they saw her.
The contrast changed her life.
Recently, I had a bad experience. A person in a group took against me, accused me of things that weren’t true. I was really upset.
Then a nice person from the group wrote to me, about me, ‘you should see what I see’. And told me what he saw.
I’ve never before felt as I did when I read that – it was a mini-version of Inga Beale’s epiphany.
It hasn’t stopped me caring about what people – even people I don’t respect – think of me.
I know. What a waste of care.
But I’m working on it. In jeans. And a crumpled linen shirt. And a big, turquoise necklace.