Being a woman in a man’s world
Working in a male dominated environment.
Last week I was invited to be part of a panel with four women from my office. We were joined on the panel by our MD who is the only female member of the Board. The event was prompted by International Women’s Day earlier in the month. The industry in which the company operates is considered a male dominated environment and as such one of the questions for the panel was about being a woman in this environment. Our MD stated that it had never really occurred to her that this was the case until someone else pointed it out to her a few years ago.
Her answer really resonated with me. My career has, thus far, been in male dominated industries, but in truth it isn’t something that I am really conscious of most of the time. I put a lot of it down to having grown up around the Army. My father was in a regiment that, at the time, did not, allow women to serve in its ranks. To add to the predominantly male environment that I inhabited, my boarding school had only started accepting girls a few years before I started, having been a boys only school since 1885. As a result, the ratio of boys to girls was still very heavily weighted in favour of the lads!
So starting work in a male dominated industry didn’t seem strange at all. In fairness I think my trade has a relatively high ratio of women to men, but nevertheless there have been a few moments over the years that have highlighted to me how much of an ‘odd one out’ I often am at work.
I’ve had a few instances of visiting factories or workshops where the workforce is (or appeared to be) all men and they had Page 3 of ‘The Sun’ (or similar images from other papers or magazines) pinned onto their lockers and workbenches. Now it’s not that the images shocked me (they’re ‘par for the course’ when you hang around with soldiers!), but as a professional trying to do her job I do remember feeling a little uncomfortable. Were they looking at me like that? I suspect not, but when you’re wanting to be taken seriously for your brain, your competence and your knowledge that’s the last thing you need!
On another occasion, on a visit to a supplier in Italy I walked into the MD’s office to discover he had images from various years’ Pirelli calendars hanging on the walls. I mean it’s more tasteful than the centrefold of ‘Razzle’ ripped out and blue-tacked to the walls down on the factory floor, but it’s still a little off-putting when you’re the only woman in the group! I was already nervous about having to negotiate with this man for the purchase of machinery. Scantily clad ladies staring me in the face while I’m trying to do my best work were really not helping!
Back on the panel, my friend recounted a time when she was assumed, by a room full of men, to be the receptionist and asked to make the tea for the meeting attendees. As it turns out she was not the receptionist, but leading the meeting on behalf of her law firm. She wasn’t sure how to react and so made the tea to avoid any kind of awkward confrontation. I can only imagine their faces when, after handing them cups of tea, she went to the front of the room and proceeded to talk business! The sad thing is that this story doesn’t surprise me. I’ve experienced an older male colleague suggesting that I should be making the tea and coffee because I was the only woman in the meeting. Cheeky b*stard!
I’m pleased to report that it’s been years since these incidents occurred. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still happening out there in workplaces, of course, but not for me personally. I’m not here to bash all the men out there, I promise! I really enjoy working with men. You’ll have to forgive me ladies, but I often find that there is a sort of frankness, a straight talking, no nonsense type of attitude to the male approach to work that I find easier to deal with.
I have been told by a few male colleagues that they think that being a women (i.e., in the minority) is a strength that you can exploit, for want of a better word. You are more memorable for being the only woman in the meeting and as such your contribution does ‘carry weight’ with men. It is easier to stand out and make an impression because you are different. Whilst I am sure there is some truth to it and I’ll admit that it does provide some comfort, it still sits a bit uneasily with me. I’d really like to be memorable for my contribution only because it was useful and insightful.
I appreciate that this is an absolute minefield of a topic, but I hope that in the foreseeable future we won’t need to be having these discussions at all and there will no need for a specific day to celebrate women and their contribution. We won’t need the targets or the quotas for women in the workplace because it won’t matter whether you’re a man or woman, you will be hired and promoted on merit alone. I’d like to think that we could honour and accept the differences, where they exist, between men and women and combine the strengths and skills that each bring to be successful as teams in the workplace. So here’s hoping we will ‘level the playing field’ someday and I for one am really looking forward to it!