This Woman Can

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on women and the workplace for a while, now. My own experience has thrown a few things into relief, and as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself wanting to support and encourage younger women as they navigate through earlier stages in their careers. Ladies, women and girls, this is what I say to you.

In the words of Paul Weller, stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. Practically every woman I come into contact with in a professional situation starts apologising from the very moment we meet. I had a meeting last week in which a young professional apologised for being pregnant, having to eat because she was pregnant, and for generally, well, just existing. She was asking professional advice, and my ultimate advice was, stop saying sorry.

I hear it all the time. Sorry for interrupting you at your desk; sorry for having this idea; sorry for having to say something out loud; sorry for having an opinion. Sometimes I think it’s the only word I can hear women saying.

Stop it. Stop saying it. If you feel it bubbling up towards your lips, stop speaking. Say what you were going to say without the apology before it. I will then stop telling you off.

If someone asks you to speak on a panel, say yes. Hear your inner voice saying, ‘I couldn’t possibly do that’ and immediately crush it. Time and time again I’m told by organisations that the reason why there are so many ‘manels’ is because women say no to the invitation to speak. I nearly did it a year or so ago – and this is after many years of speaking at conferences. It was a topic I wasn’t completely fluent in, but it was within the realms of the industry I work in. I heard a voice in my head – it was a friend and mentor in the industry who had given me many platforms in the past to speak from. She was telling me that I’d be great at it, if I just did some research around it. I did, and I was.

I chaired a panel at last week’s London Book Fair and it was interesting in that the three women (it was a one-man, two-female panel, me chairing) were the most nervous about it and did the most prep. The guy turned up with no notes and just spoke from the heart (he had been given my questions though). We were all talking just before the event and I asked the panel if they could just walk in now and wing it, without any notes or prepared questions. We agreed we could. We know our stuff.

But women question their fluency all the time – it’s so-called impostor syndrome. ‘Am I really an expert in this?’ our inner voice says, even when our combined experience in the topic was over 40 years between us. The prep we did do made it a greater panel than it would have been, but I know we could’ve just started talking and made for an interesting discussion.

Let your voice be heard in meetings. I heard some advice last year from a woman on Radio 4 – her tip for women in meetings was to say something first in the room, even if it’s just about wanting a window being open or asking if anyone else would like a glass of water. Her theory was that sometimes the timbre of a woman’s voice came as a bit of a shock in a male-dominated group, and to get it out there first, made the situation less of one. I think it would also help a woman feel more comfortable with her first professional words in a meeting scenario. If she’s already conversed with members of the group in an open setting, then it would give her more confidence.

I’ve noticed something very interesting about men coming into meetings. Whilst women come straight in and find the nearest seat and sit down, men often stand at the door, surveying the scene, at once both waiting for everyone to acknowledge their arrival and seeing which seat is the most effective for them. I enjoy carrying on talking while they stand there, no doubt waiting for the trumpets to herald their arrival. I also think that maybe they’re wondering where the throne is…

I’m not really into meeting-room politics, but sometimes it does matter where you sit. Never be that person who just drags a chair in from another room and sits at the back of a room whilst everyone else is at the table.

Be at the table. Be seen. Be heard.

Remember what you are being paid to do. I once walked into a meeting with a top media entertainment firm where we were meeting with a female financial director and a range of male directors. As my group arrived, the FD sprang out of her seat and started making the tea and coffee, while the other directors made jokes about her doing it. If you ever find yourself falling into a pattern of expected behaviour like this, make a conscious effort to stop. If the guys aren’t making the tea or doing the washing up, check yourself. Don’t become the office housewife.

Know that women have been socialised to compete with each other.

We have. Because patriarchy.

You will encounter women who purport to be your friend, but are actually preparing to stand on your head or throw you under a bus to reach the next level in their career. There will be those that present your ideas as their own or bad-mouth you to the boss. Yes, this does happen between men and women but it comes as more of a shock when the ‘sisterhood’ does it to you.

Don’t let it stop you being a team-player, just know that it is a possibility and become more robust. It’s never going to stop happening, all you can do is protect yourself against it and try not to be like that yourself.

It would be hard to sleep at night, for one thing.

 

 

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The Female Gaze

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the female gaze and why it is so unarticulated in our society. I’ve been thinking about how our lives, as women, are so dominated by the male gaze that it is almost beyond articulation. It is so pervasive that we almost forget that we have the ability to gaze right back.

It is starting to edge its way into our consciousness, as the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is framed with a woman’s gaze in mind. Allegedly, it is made for her viewing pleasure, and the conversation is extending into female-friendly porn, in which the focus of attention is not only on the pleasure the woman is receiving, but on the beauty of the man who is delivering it.

But from the onset of puberty – and let’s face it, some time before that, if we’re honest – women are raised to be aware of the eyes of men upon them. It starts with a gentle commentary on your appearance from both women and men in the family and their friends, and becomes a way of life. We must look a certain way to please men, we are told, and we find ourselves actively pursuing it, even if we are just on the way to the gym. We run marathons in makeup, we wear heels to go to Homebase and we stop ourselves from having a nice dessert in case our thighs make us into undesirable objects.

No one appears to be actively setting these rules. They’re just there. And everyone buys into them and passes them on. Women and men, boys and girls. The fashion designer Oscar de la Renta once gave this advice to women: “walk like you have three men walking behind you.” When I first heard it I smiled, and thought, “yeah, I’d sashay away.” Recently, though, I’ve thought, “what happens if I’m the one walking behind three men?” And I’ve discovered an unusual thing.

Men get really freaked out when you turn the tables on them and gaze back. Try it. Walk directly behind a guy (not too stalkerishly close), or stand behind him quietly on an escalator or in a lift. He’ll slow down to let you pass, he’ll turn round to check who’s there, he’ll manoeuvre round so his back isn’t to you any more. I see it happen almost every day. If I sense a guy is running too close behind me in the park, gazing at my behind, I slow down to let him pass. He sprints away or stops, unable to have my eyes on him. Because, you know, I might be critiquing him in the way that he’s just done to me. Unthinkable.

This week, on one single trip up and down the street I live on, I saw two men empty the contents of their nostrils onto the pavement and one who spat in front of me and then again just behind me. This followed an extraordinary scene where I’d witnessed a neighbour of mine picking his nose in full view of everyone on the tube. I’ve always been fascinated by these acts of public indecency – especially men who pick their noses in cars, oblivious to who may be watching. Then it occurred to me. They do it because they think no one is watching. They’re not used to being watched so they assume it’s not happening.

Believe me, there is always someone watching, and it is usually a woman. Just because we’re not loudly commenting on what men are doing, it doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed. Theirs is a shouty spectator sport, ours is a quietly watchful game of chess.

As I’ve got older, I’ve had to adjust to the ‘cloak of invisibility’ slowly descending around me, as the male gaze opts for a younger, fresher target. At first, I felt really sad about it, but as the months have gone on, I’ve realised that it is one of the most liberating things that has ever happened to me. I’ve realised that I don’t need that approval and I don’t need to seek out the validation, as I used to do. What has happened is that my own gaze has been fully activated and I’m suddenly seeing the world outside myself differently. And it’s good.

Far from being invisible, I am achieving another level of eye contact with all sorts of people. I make a choice about the objects of my own gaze and often find a woman of the same age with whom I’ll exchange a smile, or a younger man, having a sneaky peek. There are people out there who see you in different ways, and not just as a sexual object. I find myself looking beyond the hot guys on the tube (if there are any not picking their noses) to the full range of people sitting around me. It’s almost as if not being gazed at as much has allowed me to look outside myself more confidently and find connections that I may well have missed before.

Of course I’m well aware that this could all be just a huge coping mechanism that my brain is initiating to allow me to experience ageing without knifing myself. And do you know what? It might be. My brain never fails to astound me with its ability to take each supposedly devastatingly awful birthday milestone and turn it into something unexpected and rather wonderful. I don’t have to make eye contact with the guy who is trying to attract my attention by shouting as I run round the park, or smile when he says, ‘cheer up, love.’ I can choose to look ahead, and smile at a young woman who is running the other way, or watch a dog fetching a ball.

My gaze is the one that matters, and my eyes have never been so focused on the road ahead.

Complimentary

This weekend, I found myself sitting alongside Rebecca Adlington on a train. My first thought was, “there’s that amazing Olympian”, and the second one was, “who’s been viciously trolled on the internet.” I wanted to tell her straight away that she is an inspiration to me and many of my friends, that we thought she was fabulous before she lost huge amounts of weight, and still think she is fabulous, especially with her Commonwealth Games swimming commentary. I spent the whole journey formulating what I was going to say to her when I got off at the next stop, talking to my friends on Facebook about it during the journey, with them all urging me to tell her that they think she’s great too.

When it came to it I was a gibbering wreck. I felt sure she must have thought I was mad, but she politely thanked me as I wittered on, telling her we all think she’s amazing. I like to think that although I didn’t quite get the words out according to plan, that I made her feel good with my girlcrush declaration.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we dole out compliments, or not, why we find it so difficult to do, and the effect that has on a person, especially a woman. I’m only writing this blog because the night before I started it, some girlfriends at a party started telling me they thought I was clever. I was absolutely stunned. One of them said, “Surely people have said this to you before?” Nope – not since I got a first in my degree and one of the lecturers was urging me to do a PhD. I’m pretty sure that was the last instance, and interestingly, I didn’t believe him.

I spent the day after that party basking in the memory of what my friends had said to me. I started to think: why do we spend so much time complimenting our girlfriends on their great hair/weight loss/new handbag when actually, telling them they’re clever has such a profound effect? After that party, I started my blog, went about my working week with renewed vigour and felt like I could take on the world just that little bit more effectively.

Throughout my life I’ve noticed that the non-compliment has a very powerful adverse effect. You think you’ve done something well or looked particularly good one day, in fact you are confident you’ve nailed it, but there is a certain set of people who can’t bear to tell you that. You start to doubt yourself because there is no validation of your actions coming back to convince you that the confidence you feel at that moment is right.

One of the things I’ve learned is that the less certain people say in response to these moments, the more you know you’ve nailed it. And I’ve learned that this sort of person isn’t my favourite. They always ‘like’ things on Facebook that are bad news for you, and never respond to the good posts. (I’ve actually stopped posting anything particularly negative to cut off their ‘food supply’). They’re seemingly there for you when the chips are down, but are nowhere to be seen when the chips are up. These people are mean-spirited, foul-weather ‘friends’.

I’m not just talking about women, although they are the predominant non-responders I’m referring to. One of my exes admitted he was afraid to compliment me because he thought ‘my head would get too big’.  Unfortunately, it made my head look for compliments elsewhere. I had been happily doling out compliments to him to make him feel good. Where was the reciprocation?

I think we have a problem with confidence, particularly in this country. Many people can’t bear to see it and do their best not to feed what they perceive as a vulgar trait.

Why bolster someone else’s confidence when you’re struggling with your own?

It occurred to me last week that as a nation, we’ve only been able to truly welcome two of our biggest sporting talents (sport requires confidence, obviously) when they’ve been seen to buckle on screen and cry their eyes out. Andy Murray and Rebecca Adlington are now only acceptable because they’ve shown some ‘humility’, but they were never cocky so-and-sos in the first place. Weirdly, we love cocky so-and-sos and find them easier to handle than people whom we perceive to be more like us. Bradley Wiggins or Usain Bolt are seen as lovable ‘characters’ whose confidence appears to be so unassailable that we don’t even begin to have a go at them for it. No – we go for the relatively quiet ones.

Nice.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve never felt a pang of jealousy about something a friend has achieved and not wanted to feed their moment of glory by adding my praise into it. I usually have a harsh word with myself and force myself to face their achievement square in the eye and shake its hand. That feels so much better than seething with resentment in the worst part of my brain.

As I’ve got older, I’ve begun to feel a lot more sisterly towards women (of all ages) and it’s part of the reason behind me starting this blog. Various events, particular in the post-marriage era of the last four years have made me realise how much women have to put up with in life and how our culture has set up a dynamic where we’re pitted against each other. Divided and ruled. Magazines allow us to jeer at other women to make ourselves feel better and we find ourselves laughing with our male and female friends over a bad outfit choice of a woman in the pub. It’s not on and we know it.

Behind the ‘bad’ outfit is a person trying to make their way in the world, who could be in a job where she is routinely told she’s rubbish by a bad boss, in a relationship where her partner never tells her she looks nice or in a panic because she is about to go on holiday and has ‘failed’ to achieve the bikini body. Why would we want to try and make that situation worse?

You can see the effect on a friend – or even a stranger – when you go up to them and tell them they’ve done something great. They look slightly startled at first, because they’re not used to people doing it, but then their eyes shine with pride. They feel good. You feel good. The effect lasts for days, weeks, months. But the effect of not saying anything lasts much longer.

I think we all assume that people we admire in our circle of friends must be being complimented on their intelligence/beauty/achievements all the time, so we don’t bother to do it. But what if everyone thought the same thing and the person you think is an incredible doesn’t actually know it? Just telling her or him might make them face the world with a clear, undaunted eye.
Just do it.
Because you can.