This week, I was asked to take part in an interview to discuss gender balance in the workplace. I hesitated.
I’m not shy in speaking about inequality, but to be asked to formally express my views (albeit anonymously, but we all know that there’s anonymous and there’s ‘wink, wink’ anonymous) made me pause. If I spoke candidly, and it wasn’t truly anonymous, would there be retribution? Could my comments be linked back to me? What would people (i.e. my (mostly male) superiors) think? Putting to one side the fact it really grates on me that in 2019, little in the way of meaningful gender parity has been achieved (certainly in my line of work), the fact that I had been asked to express my deeply-held views scared me. If I speak, will I be even more disadvantaged than statistically I am already – and my current disadvantage stems primarily by dint of fate that I was born without a chipolata between my thighs. Will I be seen as even more ‘militant’, ‘feisty’, ‘outspoken’, ‘stroppy’ – words so familiar to women that choose to call out unfairness when they see it?
It really made me think. How will we ever rectify gender imbalance if women are scared to speak honestly about their experiences?
I’m 43 and a senior lawyer. It’s taken getting to this age before being confident enough to call-out inequality when I see it. 43 years of having to batter down doors that others have had flung open for them. 43 years of being judged for: my looks, my brains, my pregnancies, my clothes, my voice, my social-circle, my education, my hobbies, indeed, pretty-much everything.
Think I’m being facetious? Think I’m over-exaggerating to get my point across? Think I’m a radical feminist?! Think about this:
- On your first day of legal work, dressed in a smart black skirt and a Laura Ashley floral shirt, did your boss look you up and down and say, ‘the other trainee will really like you’?
- Are you regularly the only person of your gender in a meeting?
- When entertaining with work, do you find yourself smiling and nodding along, having nothing meaningful to add to the football/cricket/rugby banter? And by the way, no, I don’t know so-and-so because I didn’t go to school with him/drink with him/see him in the gym…add endless list of similar social scenarios.
- Yes, it is ‘so disappointing’ that I don’t play golf, isn’t it? I agree, it would be very convenient if I did, if I had a spare 3 hours a week to hone my skills so that I could make life easier for you. I do really look forward to you taking netball lessons so that I can look embarrassed for you when you tell me your handicap (don’t even get me started on ‘you’ll be fine, it’s stableford scoring’).
- I wear clothes. Shocker. But guess, what? I don’t want to have to wear the female version of your shirt, suit, tie/checked shirt and chinos uniform to be considered ‘professional’. I’m always smart, well turned-out, thought-through. But please don’t assume my IQ has fallen simply because I don’t have a grey pinstripe on.
- If we’re in a meeting, you know, you could pour the tea or coffee for everyone. You have the same arms and legs as me (remember, it’s only that chipolata that’s different) so please, pick up the teapot and don’t expect me to play mother.
- Yes, I do have children and, get me – I actually want to spend some time with them before they leave home. Wait! Haven’t you got children too? Oh, so doesn’t that make us EXACTLY THE SAME THEN?!
- Of course I know how much you hate sexism and, yes, I do (genuinely) believe your conviction when you say the workplace offers (or should offer) equal opportunity to us both. But, forgive me, there’s this little thing called ‘unconscious bias’ that you have very little control over but which dictates many of your beliefs, actions and decisions. And unfortunately, your social conditioning plays a big part in why I’m not actually seen as your equal. Wife at home? Mum didn’t work? You’ve never really done much house work? Been a bit of a player in your time? Tell me again how that hasn’t all had an impact on how you see me in the workplace?
- The words ‘mansplaining’ and ‘man-spreading’ have entered the modern lexicon for a reason. Can you imagine what you’d think if I came in to a meeting room and sat with my legs wide apart, arms behind my head? (Goodness, your chipolata must be HEEE-YUGE for you to need to sit like that!). Or if I automatically took the seat at the head of the table, despite you being more senior than me? Or if I sighed before addressing you and proceeded to speak to you s-l-o-w-l-y, so that I can be sure that you understand the point I’m making but with which you don’t agree?
- No gender pay gap, you say? I am, of course, incredibly grateful that you pay me for all of the hours of skill and expertise that I put in. But what’s that? Ben along the way does exactly the same work as me, but gets paid more? No of course that’s okay, he is, after all, a man.
- Who inspired you on your way to the top of your profession? George Carmen QC, your law professor, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates (maybe I should change my name from ‘George’ to ‘Bill’?!)? Someone less famous maybe – your boss? His boss before him? His boss before that? Crikey, what a lot of mentors you had, and how similar you are to them now! Any women feature in that path? If so, were 50% of them women? And were they unapologetic about having children and their desire to maintain a stable and varied life? Forgive me if I seem a little upset about the lack of role models like me, but, hey, I’ve got equality, right?!
Of course, I’m being deliberately inflammatory. Women go to work every day and rarely face blatant sexism and inequality of opportunity. But this is a snapshot of some (and I literally mean some) of the issues that I’ve faced over 20 years in law and which, when taken as a whole MUST have an effect on a woman’s career progression. Look at the stats: more women than men qualify as lawyers, but as they rise up the ranks, as soon as the women hit peak baby-years, their careers plateau, the men overtake them and the cycle is allowed to continue. Is it just because they have kids though, or is it they’re also so fed up of the system?
I’m bright, I’m capable, I outperform many of my contemporaries. And yet, I don’t quite enjoy their levels of success. Why is that? Is it because I’m not committed enough, because I put a few red lines around time with my family? Is it because I’m not part of the golf club/rugby club/gym club/drinking club? Is it because I’m vocal about inequality, am I too ‘feminist’ for you, does it make you uncomfortable? Is it because I’m not what you (unconsciously) think I should be, or that I don’t act in the way you (unconsciously) think I ought? I don’t know. But what I do know is it’s so very tiring having to work harder than you to get less. Especially when the only reason for that is you were lucky enough to be born with that chipolata.
Note: nothing in this piece is reflective of any particular place of work and no criticism should be deemed directed at any such. It is a piece written with a view to promoting conversation about addressing gender inequality in the workplace only.