I recently met a young woman at a family event; she had no idea who I was and we were making general small talk as you do at social occasions. Someone asked her about her career and she replied that she had a new job but couldn’t believe how much sexism and misogyny she was facing in her new role. She had never experienced it before and was upset, shocked, but perhaps more importantly, didn’t know where to turn and felt isolated as most people in her organisation accepted this as normal behaviour. She was 32 and genuinely had never encountered it before. She said ‘ before this happened, I really thought sexism didn’t exist, was a thing of the past’. Her dismay was genuine and I sat by her side to hear a little more.
In brief, with some details changed to protect her identity, this was what she told me:
She was an Oxbridge graduate with specialist qualifications in her chosen field. She’d worked at a responsible, senior level in one of the most prestigious projects in the UK (almost anyone anywhere in the world would know it) and had had great success. That project was time limited and she’d taken a job at a lower salary with another famous British institution to add some extra depth to her career. Since which time she’d found out that:
- she was being paid less than the men
- she was expected to do a lot of menial tasks the men weren’t
- she was regularly ‘put down’ when presenting her ideas
- she had been told not to outshine her male counterpart and was to make her work look like it was his idea when she could to spare his feelings (which were presumably likely to be hurt at having a woman be better than him)
- she was told she didn’t have to aim so high (the equivalent of ‘calm down dear?)
And this is what I (very briefly) told her:
- At some point soon you will have to challenge this, at a time when you feel comfortable and strong, but you will have to challenge it or your confidence will become eroded. There is legislation in place to address the equal pay but it’s cumbersome and will need specialist advice.
- Stay true to yourself and don’t be misled into thinking you have to behave like the men in this organisation. It’s doubtful whether this organisation, which has employed you because of your impressive CV but is seemingly unable to accommodate a high flying woman, deserves you.
- If you can’t change them (and after listening to her I am doubtful whether one woman can bring about the necessary changes in this dyed-in-the-wool, misogynist company) change your job before your confidence is sapped any more.
- Offer a helping hand to any other women in the organisation and try to find support somewhere.
- In the words of my Mum, ‘It is not you, it’s the other bu88gers’.
I was upset to hear what she had to say but not at all surprised. As I told her, I work frequently alongside women in a similar position to her but usually it’s much more covert. In many respects the blatant discrimination she is being subjected to is easier to challenge; the huge problem of course, is that women who challenge this are subject to ridicule and defamation of character. I am thinking particularly of the wonderful Miriam O’Reilly who took on the might of the BBC (read a brilliant speech of hers here, or my interview with Miriam O’Reilly is here. No wonder lack of confidence is frequently cited as a reason why women are not in more senior positions. Lack of confidence is caused by a myriad of reasons but not least rampant sexism in the workplace disguised as women not performing well enough – for which we could perhaps read ‘women not behaving as men’?
And then I read about Martin Belam’s spoof twitter account where he posted some tweets in the name of dead influential women and experienced for himself first hand the misogyny directed at women who raise their head above the parapet. But I’ll save that for another day.
Meanwhile, dear woman from that event, if you read this, do get in touch! You don’t have to go through this alone.
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Posted on July 8th, 2013 by Jane