From Mad Men to Bad Women

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Gone are the “Mad Men” days of rampant work-place sexism, where a bank of men sat in offices drinking whisky bedding their female secretaries and coming home to “dinner on the table” prepared by their wives. We can be grateful for this, but to those that say that gender equality is already here I would vehemently disagree. Traditional gender stereotyping, unconscious bias and ogling still continue and there is a worrying trend of labelling and blaming women for their own predicament or non-progression. I put to you a collection of modern-day work-place sexism/ gender-issue stories that have happened to my contemporaries. All the events were taken with a sigh and a “That’s life” attitude; no one was sued, nothing major happened. But if in a small circle of friends this is happening day to day, what is happening across the UK, across the world?

My friend in the city worked at a Big Bank as a junior analyst. There were equal numbers of male and female junior analysts in her team, for which she was grateful. She complained to me that the female secretaries and team PAs ignored her and prioritised the demands of her male colleagues. As a female junior doctor, I empathized. Working with male junior doctors that were treated as the next George Clooney by the majority female nursing staff, I felt like “Troll number 2” in an episode of ER. Neither of us formally complained, we didn’t want to be labelled as “hypersensitive” and “not team players”. We got on with it. Maybe its just us, maybe its not a gender issue we thought.

Going back to my friend in banking, post 2008, all the female analysts on her team were asked to leave, except for her. In times of plenty companies are happy to “do their bit” on equality, but when times are scarce, it’s still women who bear the brunt of redundancies. Maybe in a meritocracy women just can’t cut it.

A colleague in academia was given a consistently challenging work load by her boss until she had children. Subsequently to this, although she was given flexibility in working hours, she was not given any challenging work, nor pointed towards challenging opportunities. She wondered if she had done something wrong. Because she wanted to work shorter hours and more flexibly, she was judged to no longer wish to progress in her career. Maybe Nigel Farage is right and women who have children are just “worth less”.

A friend of mine went to a conference with her boss and another male work colleague. On arrival at the hotel, her boss saw someone that he wanted to introduce her male colleague to, and she was asked to look after their bags. A lawyer friend of mine went out for dinner with her team and a client. When her team left, the important client made a pass at her. At a loss over what to do as the client was important, she visited the ladies, escaped through a tiny window and legged it home. Maybe women are just oversensitive, the boss and the client were just being relaxed, new age and friendly. Maybe women just misinterpret being asked to do menial tasks as sexism and “inadvertent invasion of personal space” as an old fashioned grope.

Recently at work, I was criticised for being “forthright and assertive”. Those adjectives are like a red rag to a feminist, as being “forthright and assertive” in common parlance is synonymous to “powerful” and “leadership material” for men, but basically mean “B****” when used to describe a woman. I found this funny as a few years ago I had been criticised for being “hesitant and indecisive”, which is the other female cliché of being “weak”. When (being forthright and assertive), I asked if this was a gender issue, I was told that being forthright and assertive was an asset, but that it should be done with “charisma”. This led me to think about charisma (Noun: the special quality that makes someone attractive or influential). The first role models that sprang to mind as being charismatic were Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and George Clooney. Forced to think of women, I thought of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Angelina Jolie. The men were politically influential with traits of confidence and passion, the women socially influential using traits of empathy and sexuality. This was a problem for me. My natural role models of kick-ass women who got things done: Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher are not portrayed as charismatic in the media (although I’m sure they are charismatic in person). Other women I admire: Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harmen, Karren Brady come across as intelligent, strong, committed, practical, sensible – rarely “charming”. The only person that I could think of that was charismatic and assertive was Camilla Batmanghelidjh, but I couldn’t see her working in a conventional workplace. Maybe women just have the wrong personalities.

For some men and women this is all an over-reaction, a fuss over nothing. Gender equality has been achieved. Yet, my feeling is that just because some women haven’t experienced it directly, does not mean that it does not exist (some of Jimmy Saville’s colleagues said he was a great colleague and never behaved inappropriately with them, some patients of Harold Shipman reported good medical care). For some women exposure to bias can become a career killer, not least because many women decide to leave their career than put up with this sort of environment. Most women rarely report these issues as if they did, they would be branded as “that woman with the sexual harassment issues”, “the woman that can’t tell the difference between a grope and “being friendly””. Sadly raising any gender bias or discrimination complaint is like signing a death warrant for any future job in that industry, and women become saddled with a “bad reputation”, whilst typically little happens to the perpetrators who may not even realise that they have done anything wrong.

I sometimes, do feel a bit sorry for employers as I think that the territory is new and perhaps they have not had training in “How women rising into middle and senior management would like to be treated”, in some respects, women themselves do not know, and women differ in their opinions on these issues. Take Kirstie Allsop who recently advised her hypothetical daughter to start a family instead of going to University. She was instantly lambasted by other women who advised women on the importance of an education. In a personal example, I complained bitterly when at a return to work post-maternity discussion with my then boss, I was told that “Babies need their mothers” and if I didn’t take a year off for maternity, I would “always regret it”. I felt made to feel like a “bad mother”, for suggesting I come back at 7 months. I was sure that my male colleagues on becoming fathers were not given the same “You need to be with your children” advice, and was worried that I would be left behind in my career.  In contrast, a friend complained that she was harassed to return to work as soon as possible.

So, some would argue, it’s all “bad” women’s fault: “Women: make your mind up. You can’t have it both ways.” You can’t want equality on the one hand, then special treatment on the other. I think my response to this is that women don’t want it “both ways”; they want to be treated like an individual human being, and for their employer to be sensitive to their individual needs. For my previous example, I don’t think any woman would complain about an employer that said “Come back when you are ready to come back. That decision is yours and we will support you to come back whenever you decide to. Whatever you decide, it will have no impact on your career progression.” Further, most women would like their employers to be saying this to their male colleagues as well. Now with paternity leave in the UK a possibility, why should employers “expect” it to be the women that should be taking the time off? By employers actively encouraging men as well as women to take parental leave, this will encourage a greater paternal presence in the home and end the discrimination against 30-something women and mothers in the workplace; allowing equality in career progression for both genders.

The days of rampant sexism are over, but gender inequality, gender stereotyping and gender bias are still very much alive and well. For any female junior doctor who has waited at the (still largely female) nurses station behind all the male junior doctors to request assistance, to all the female junior analysts who have to wait in line behind all the male executives to access the (still largely female) support staff, to the women who are still being ogled and groped at by employers and clients, to the women who are being bypassed due to maternity and the middle management women who are given mixed messages on how to behave: more charismatic, less sexual, more assertive, less forthright, more empathic, less emotional – ours is a difficult path to tread. It is no wonder that more and more talented women are shunning the conventional work-place environments to start out on their own (Jo Malone, Hilary Devey, Cath Kidston) so that they can for once just be themselves, create their own work-place cultures and build their own empires on their own terms.

Please share your workplace gender issue stories; I’d love to hear them. And if you can think of any other overtly charismatic but non-sexual female role models, let me know.

4 comments

  1. MarinaSofia

    I went back to work when my first child was 4 months old (maternity leave was shorter back then) and made sure to leave the office at 5 p.m. sharp to catch the train home, so I could breastfeed him before he went to bed and actually get to see him, since I was leaving quite early in the morning. I would often resume work after he’d gone to bed and be tapping at my computer from 7:30 onwards. My (female, but childless) boss took me aside after a couple of months and said: ‘Don’t you think it’s time you stopped breastfeeding and left the office at a normal time, i.e. later, like everyone else?’ I resigned shortly after.

  2. Chris

    Firstly: clearly what you’ve written is important, eloquent, and highlights some truly outrageous behaviours.

    However

    I realise all Cambridge graduates have a mastery of irony, and I know I really shouldn’t rise to such things but (para 7) ‘For men… this is an overreaction’. All men? Really?! In a piece on sexual discrimination?
    For what it’s worth, I certainly have no doubt that sexual (and indeed every other type of discrimination) is alive and well. From my own personal experience (off the top of my head, as you asked!), I know for a fact I was turned down for a job specifically for being male. I have been groped by both a male and a female colleague (and no it wasn’t what I wanted). I have also been asked to see violent and/or abusive patients on several occasions because of my gender, despite the fact that statistics suggest I am at *greater* risk of assault.
    I’m not trying to claim I have had an especially bad time of it, and I’m sure there’s a number of readers of your blog who’s experiences would dwarf my own.

    Attributing characteristics to, and one’s behaviour towards, groups of people based on appearance is a universal human tendency – it lessens the cognitive burden in navigating through a social environment: it is surely best to work on *this*, collectively, so that *whoever* wields the power does so without discrimination (and not only because the law says so)

    and yes I realise that last paragraph is pure hand waving.

  3. Shrinkgrowskids

    Thanks Chris, duly edited to “some men” – yes, sloppy writing rather than intent to cast a slur on all men! PS will have a rather more man-friendly post for Father’s Day next week, promise! Thanks for engaging! Please join my email list, it really helps my site stats. 🙂

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