Category: Feminism

From Mad Men to Bad Women


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.

Inspiring Women

glass ceiling

It’s International Women’s Day tomorrow. Sadly, I’m not going to write about Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie or Emmeline Pankhurst. I’m writing about a very depressing University held event that I went to recently entitled “Inspiring Women”.

It was part of the University’s on-going initiative to encourage more female scientists to remain in academia given the Government’s concern that there is an attrition of women as you move from the bottom to top in academic science. It is not just in science that the gender gap is seen but across academic disciplines. Despite the proportion of female academic staff in the U.K. being close to equitable to males (around 45%), the proportion of female professors remains low ( a dismal 19.8% of all professors). It’s no surprise then that close to a third of men in academia are in the well paid academic positions (earning > 50K), whereas this figure is only at 17% for women (ECU, 2012). You don’t even want to know the figures for ethnic minority women.

There has been much interest in finding out the reasons for this drop out. The Ivory towers it would seem are just as hard to get into as the FTSE 100 Boardrooms. Why? Just like in FTSE 100 companies, where the foot soldiers are high in oestrogen; there are plenty of XX science PhD students. Of my peers, I know 3 talented women who completed science PhDs. One, graduated top of her year in Natural Science at Cambridge with the highly coveted and rarely achieved triple first, another graduated with a first class degree from University College London. The third studied her PhD at Cambridge University. Are these 3 now all Senior lecturers or Readers en route to the Professorial track? No. They have all left academia.  They are all married with children. They are all science teachers.  This is great news for teaching and I am sure they are fabulous teachers, but given that teaching was the available career option for women 50 years ago, why has nothing changed since then?

The event got off to a bad start as it was obvious from a quick look around that there was not one Y chromosome in the room. Clearly from the institution, and society’s point of view, encouraging women to succeed in their careers is much like breast-feeding. It’s “women’s business” and men need not get involved. Women’s failure to succeed in the workplace is clearly down to them and there is nothing men can do to help this situation. Proceedings took an ironic turn as the Chair that was introduced was an ex-colleague of mine who by chance I had bumped into a month earlier. I had last heard that she had become a senior lecturer, was the “right-hand” lady to a recently knighted Professor and was touted for great things. I was therefore surprised and saddened when she told me that she had resigned from her academic position at the University because of the unsatisfactory work-life balance and unsupportive institution in which she worked. One could only be somewhat sceptical then about her putting on a cheery face to “inspire” other women.

That aside, we were then treated to the career stories of 4 female professors. It was interesting to hear the struggles that my forebears had endured in order to achieve their current Professorial positions. One Professor was required to return to work a few weeks after giving birth and to prepare data for an international conference in the first few months following childbirth. She talked about taking her child with her to international conferences, and when she had difficulties with childcare, her child played under her desk at work.  All 4 professors were clearly remarkable and driven women and had made personal sacrifice to achieve their positions.

However, I was grossly disappointed in their summation of strategies for success. Even when I posed the question of what institutions could do to support women in academia, all 4 professors deferred to personal attributes required for success, emphasising the need for “dedication, passion, perseverance and strength of personality”. One went as far as to say that “If you want to make it in science, it has to be your single passion. You cannot for instance be passionate about science and architecture; it has to be science alone.” Another Professor talked about how finding a “niche subject”, “that nobody else was interested in” had helped her get to her position as she quickly became a leading expert.

Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I found these messages deeply depressing rather than “inspiring”. I felt that clearly unbeknownst to the organisers, it was exactly this mantra that has been putting off generations of female scientists.

I could totally understand that these were things women had to do 20 years ago in order to get ahead in a “man’s world”, but surely this does not apply to the here and now?  Are women still excluded from major and competitive fields of science such that they are required to seek out an uninteresting niche in order to succeed? Why should women not aspire to succeed in a major area of science? What if your “other passion” is family? Whilst I agree that to succeed in any walk of life passion, perseverance and determination are required, can it be that women are so much less “passionate, determined and persevering” than men…? I feel we need to get beyond talking about personal attributes and thinking about systemic, cultural and institutional solutions. We already know most women undervalue themselves anyway, so the emphasis on personal attributes just means that women drop out saying and believing “I’m not passionate or committed enough” when in actuality they have as much passion and commitment as their male colleagues but systems and culture are against them. How many male Professors were the main caretakers for their children or elderly relatives, might this not impact on commitment and dedication? Shouldn’t we be discussing why these roles can not be fulfilled by men when we talk about barriers to female success?

The event soon went from bad to worse for me as we went on to breakout tables to discuss issues more intimately. I had an unfortunate clash with a Professor who compared my juggling parenting, clinical work and academia with her juggling her career with her desire to exercise (as she had no children). Aside from exercise and sex both being choices, I cannot see any comparison between parenting and exercising. One is a responsibility; the other is a leisure time activity with some health benefits. In addition, insomuch as good parenting leads to well-functioning children and adults, there is a societal benefit as they will be the people paying for our pension and healthcare as we age, whereas exercise has only individual benefit. Whilst the comparison is ridiculous to me, it was shocking and demoralising to realise that this is the view of some intelligent women who have made it to the top. And it seems that I am not alone in my feelings as research shows that women do not just need “role models” and “mentors”; they need the right kind of role models and mentors and are “put off by successful female professors who are seen as aggressive and competitive, and are often childless”(The Guardian, 2012).

Other advice from senior women I have had included: “It’s hard, but we just have to get on with it”, which was comforting until I found out that she had put her own children into boarding school so that she could “get on with it”. Many others have offered support by saying “You’ll never regret time spent with your children”, which is supportive and appreciated, and yet for some reason I had a nagging “doomed” feeling about this kind of advice. For a while, I was unsure why, then I realised, it is these supportive words that perpetuate the myth of maternal responsibility which acts as the source of guilt that is eroding female careers. I can bet no one is encouraging my male colleagues to go part-time to spend “unregrettable” time with their children. Yet, why not?

I left the event after this, but I hear it was “a great success”. The majority twenty-something audience lapped it up with their wide-eyed enthusiasm, much like I would have done a decade ago. Little do they know about the choices they will have to make a few years down the line, oblivious to the fact that the majority of them will soon be lining up to teach secondary school science.

The problem of course is not unique to academia. My husband, a banker, hears women talk about this all the time in banking. What then, can be done to retain more women in science, academia, banking, law, politics? The right role-models? Gender sensitive leadership? Varying management styles? Emphasis on quality of work rather than quantity? An end to “presentee-ism”? Increased availability of part time senior positions? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it is beyond personal ambition, and will involve changing long established systems and cultures, in the workplace, in society, in families. Institutions need to stop thinking about ways to encourage women to change, and think about ways in which they can change to allow women to succeed. I know that “systems and cultures” may be too great a task to take on, but one might hope that the brilliant women who have already made it to the top, along with their male colleagues might be able to attempt to take this challenge on.

Now that to me; would be truly inspiring. 

ECU 2012:

Guardian 2012: