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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Awareness is All

Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my take on feminism. It informs most of my blog posts, and indeed I started this blog (in part) to retain a public ‘voice’ when I was being silenced in a very male environment. I generally don’t use words like ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘women’s rights’ in my posts because I know they can attract unwanted attention and put some people off what I’m trying to say, but all of those things inform my writing, and I think about them every day.

But today I’m saying it out loud. My name is Lisa and I am a feminist. I haven’t always been, but it’s become an important part of my life in the past few years, with the rise of the female voice, particularly in social media.

Last week I went to the launch of Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist book in Waterstones Piccadilly. She is a journalist I really enjoy keeping up with, both in her Grazia magazine column and her Twitter feed. She is a strong voice in contemporary British culture and I’m interested in what she had to say. I’d heard her on the radio the day before and been surprised when I found myself disagreeing with her stance on feminism – and it took me a while to process it. She is in favour of a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ take on women’s rights, stating that she’s quite happy to let a bit of manspreading, all-male panel shows and wolf-whistling go by, in order to concentrate on the ‘big’ issues of rape, the pay gap, female genital mutilation (FGM) and abortion rights. She states that she loves fashion, beauty and staying skinny, but maintains that these are things entirely for her own love of them, and nothing to do with doing them for men. At the same time she says she loves being sexy and fanciable. Hmm.

This is where she and I part company on the subject. To me, all of the small stuff that objectifies and demeans women gives rise to the big stuff like rape culture, and there is no doubt that an urge to be sexy and fanciable to men comes from socialisation among women to do so from a young age. Fashion, beauty and body-consciousness come from the same source but Vernon is unable to see the connection between these elements. She has rebadged them as her own desires, seemingly completely unaware of where they came from.

This is when I realised what sort of feminist I am – one that advocates awareness. I am all in favour of women doing exactly what they want – whether it’s being a housewife, making a living in sex work, living for fashion or a being a glamour model – as long as they know WHY they have the urge do those things. We’ve been socialised to want to please men, be sexy and beautiful for them and be their homemakers while they go out to work. If you decide to turn that into a way of life or a way of making a living, then that is your right, but just know why you’re doing it and be happy. Like Vernon, I want to be sexy and fanciable too, and I love the odd ‘hello beautiful’ comment, but I know why I want those things. I try not to need them, as a way of managing my expectations, but the urge is there and I know where it comes from. I’m not going to pretend that I want to look sexy purely for myself.

Similarly, men have been socialised to objectify girls and women, to see them as something they are entitled to comment on, touch and have sex with. Relatively few men are aware of that fact, which is why there is a such a backlash from them when we refuse to accept their comments or have sex with them or when we say we want Page 3 removed from our papers and more women on panel shows. We’re rejecting a thing that is so ingrained in our culture that many people, men and women, refuse to believe it’s actually there. They think we’re making a fuss. In fact, the main reaction I’ve had from (mainly male) friends when they’ve asked about my feminism is a questioning whether what I’m saying is actually true. I believe that the scale of it is so massive that they’d rather deny it’s even there or that they might be party to that male sense of entitlement to women.

I usually point them in the direction of Laura Bates’ excellent 2014 article: “10 common comments on feminist blogposts”. The very first comment, that ‘this is not an issue specific to any gender’, cites the statistical evidence (from 2012) that floors any argument to the contrary. Women are not yet equal to men in any sexual, political, or economic arena and yet Twitter is filled with people arguing with feminists to prove that what they’re talking about is real with yet more facts and statistics. We certainly have them, but why should we keep having to prove it? To me it feels like the science vs creationism argument – the science behind feminism is so obvious to me that saying that it doesn’t exist feels like I’m arguing with someone who maintains the world was built in seven days by a man with a beard in the sky. I might as well give up. But I’m not going to stop believing in it.

I can understand why men feel under attack from feminists because we are directly attacking the male bias in our society – otherwise known as ‘patriarchy’. It’s not their actual individual fault that it’s there, but many men feel as though we are saying it is. We’re not. They’re a victim of it too – does no one think that there is a correlation between the high rate of suicide among young men and the pressure on them from a young age conform to traditions of masculinity? I’m fascinated by the subject, and Shakespeare was too. His tragedies are littered with men who fail to conform to the norm and are angst-ridden and suicidal because of it.

If you’ve grown up in a culture of male privilege and entitlement, where you are the privileged one, then you’re not really going to have a clear counter-view you, are you? Just accept that, and be aware that this social system has an effect on you, as well as all the women around you. If you’re a young woman who thinks there’s no need for feminism because ‘we’re already equal’, just know that we’re not. Yet. If you’re a young man who says he has a ‘problem with feminists’, stop and think about what you are saying. You are saying that you don’t approve of equality for women. Most men I’ve met who’ve said that clearly don’t believe in inequality.

Awareness, awareness, awareness. That’s all I’m saying.

This is my feminism.