Occasionally when I’m talking about women in the workforce and the issues we face, a woman will say to me: “But I don’t have any of those issues. I have never been discriminated against“.
Which is great and I am genuinely pleased for them. If I can, I like to probe a bit further. The last time I had this exchange I asked the woman who said this to me what she did for a living. No surprises that she ran her own business; she had about 3 separate businesses on the go.
I asked her what she had done previously and she told me she had been in the armed forces. From that I surmise that she was a woman who was very comfortable with ‘male’ ways of behaving (I’m using a kind of shorthand here and not implying that she was at all ‘male’ in looks or behaviour.) For some women adapting themselves to a male working culture is not an issue. (And I acknowledge that it is for some men!)
Brothers & Sisters
I grew up with two brothers, no sisters, and what seemed like hundreds of male cousins. At one point I used to profess loudly that I preferred being around boys and saw myself very much as a tom boy. It seemed to me being a boy was a much better deal in terms of freedom to roam, and jobs you could do when grown up. I was quite disdainful of ‘girly’ girls. (Forgive me my transgressions against the sisterhood!)
This stood me in good stead when I first entered the world of work in the late 70s when sexist attitudes were rife and unchallenged; I could give as good as I got, and better! (I also worked as a barmaid while at university for three years and that really honed my quick fire retorts and rude response skills!)
But just because I could handle it well didn’t mean I was spared being discriminated against, and it didn’t mean my career prospects weren’t adversely affected. They were. And just because some women have not experienced discriminatory behaviour directly doesn’t mean that there isn’t an issue for women at work. No one would use the language and behaviour that was the norm when I started my working career. But discrimination still exists; it’s less overt and possibly unintentional but it is still an experience that very many women have at work.
A Woman’s Work
If a woman goes to work where male behaviour is accepted as the best way of behaving, where male behaviour is rewarded and built into the culture, her options are usually to leave or to adopt the male behaviour to get on. (Think particularly of old institutions like the law, parliament, banking…) If she’s comfortable with this she may not perceive it to be an issue at all; and it probably isn’t if she can adopt the norm required with ease and not feel compromised.
If she’s not comfortable, she knows she’s facing discrimination because she isn’t a bloke, and with most organisations having a barrage of policies and procedures professing how much of an equal opportunities employer they are it’s a hard one to challenge.
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Posted on June 26th, 2012 by Jane