I’ve written over the last few days about my experiences around getting my voice heard at work. My whole career has been spent in male-dominated workplaces, in which all of the senior roles have been taken by men. During 25 years in the same firm I’ve seen an awful lot of things change for the better, but I still haven’t seen more women getting into senior positions, despite advances in such areas as flexible working. Like Cressida Dick, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why. Of course childbearing and the (still) unequal division of domestic labour has a lot to do with it, but it’s not the whole story.
Sheryl Sandberg’s work (I won’t say book because there’s a lot more to it than just a book) goes a long way to explaining. You’ll have to read her book yourself if you want the full picture, but I will talk a bit more about that word “bossy”, because to me it sums up a lot about the problems that women face in getting to positions of authority. From looking at the use of the word bossy it seems to be overwhelmingly used of women and girls, and with definite negative connotations. In our culture, women and girls who tell other people what to do, who behave like bosses, in other words, are viewed negatively. Women who successfully tell other people what to do and rise up the ladder of power are seen as less likeable than their male peers by both men and women. It would seem that at some level, whatever the reason, we just don’t like the idea of authoritative women.
And there is other stuff too. Men are promoted on potential, women on achievement, so a woman has less chance of promotion than a man with the same CV. Women are expected to do favours and help out colleagues more than men are. Women who negotiate for personal gain (ie for say a pay rise or promotion, rather than a deal for their employer) are likely to be viewed unsympathetically and so are less likely to get a good result; men who negotiate for personal gain pay no such penalty. As I’ve discussed, there are all sorts of reasons why women can find it hard to get their voices heard in male-dominated environments. And so on, and so forth.
There are, of course, things we can do to help ourselves – Sheryl Sandberg writes about how men are often looking for the next rung in the ladder and will put themselves forward for promotions or projects regardless of whether they are fully qualified. Women are much more cautious. Hence, perhaps, the issue I cited above, of men being promoted on potential and women on achievement. But is this because women don’t put themselves forward as much as men, or do women not put themselves forward because they know they won’t be promoted? Chicken or egg, who knows?
I wish I had an answer for this, but I don’t. I believe it’s helpful to talk about it, to bring it into the public domain. At the very least, being aware and making other people aware that it’s happening makes it perhaps a bit less likely to happen. We had another management meeting yesterday. I noticed that my boss made an effort to stop himself if he interrupted me and to make sure that I had a chance to speak if I was trying to. For my part, I did my best to make sure that my interjections were crisp and to the point. At least that’s a little bit of progress right there.