Women, Working & Discrimination….still an issue?

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

6 Responses to “Women, Working & Discrimination….still an issue?”

  1. From my own experience, discrimination has more often involved assumptions about a woman’s role in the workplace – rather than having to ‘man up’ to be accepted, I’ve had to pour tea in meetings, pick up dry cleaning and endure having a department of savvy professional women referred to as ‘the girls’. I’ve even had a man even stop his car at traffic lights and ask me to post a letter and was once asked to stay late at work for an evening meeting ‘to make the place more decorative’.
    I’ve found a polite refusal or designating it ‘boys day to pour the tea’ more effective at challenging sexism. Asserting my right to be treated as an equal is how I’ve dealt with discrimination – if I accept less then I need to reassess my own equal opportunities beliefs!

  2. Kay says:

    I agree that it’s much better than it used to be. I don’t miss the centerfolds in the shop at all. One thing I’d never thought of before starting work, was the importance of having a women’s room that is accessible. I’ve been several places where the women’s room is so far away that I have to tell my customer or coworkers whenever I need to take a break! And these places tend to have very disgusting men’s rooms, so I’m not tempted to use theirs. I’ve found that the attitude of the workers often correlates with toilet availability for women.

  3. Laura Sambrook says:

    Interesting article. I’ve never felt discriminated against and I think some of it comes down to what you consider to be “male” or “female” behaviour. I guess we all change our behaviour slightly with different people but if you find you’re constantly modifying yourself to fit in that’s not good!

  4. Maureen Johnson says:

    I was Managing Partner in a small Roofing & Building business for 30 years until Leukaemia came into my life in 2007 and forced me to stay in hospital for months at a time. HMRC then kicked me in the teeth when I tried to get a business loan to pay the revenue debt. HMRC put a charge on my house which made it nigh on impossible to get a loan. When I was well enough to return to work HMRC forced the business down.

    In my 30 years experience in the roofing/building industry I have often felt discriminated against. I had the feeling that when some men saw me at trade assoc meetings (I was the only female Roofing Contractor) their body language and voice tone implied I was a threat to their massive egos, especially where work opportunities were present. I remember one meeting with a certain trade association and large national material supplier who were forming a system where an enquiry/lead came into their head office and a few select experienced contractors would be selected on a rotating basis to price for the work. My business had purchased sufficient quantities of roofing material from this large supplier to be included on the list on a rotating basis. Obviously, the “Old Boy’s Network” nod, nod, wink, wink came into play and my business was not consulted or even considered, although similar sized companies with the same credentials as mine, was included.
    20 years ago the Building Industry had, then and still today men parading as new age men but with dinosaur clothing on.

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