About six months ago, I started back at work after having my first baby. It was with the same organisation I’d been with for eight years, but a new team and project.
On my first day back, I was meeting with my new boss. He told me there was someone else he’d like me to meet, a resident subject matter expert. Great! I thought. Always good to have someone to check in with and bounce ideas off.
She walked into the room, looked me up and down and said:
“And how much project management experience do you have?”
Caught off guard – expecting more a “Hi, how are you” type vibe – I stammered out my qualifications.
“Yes,” came the condescending response, “But how much experience do you have?”
“Umm… eight years?” (I still hate myself for sounding so uncertain.)
The conversation moved on.
Fast forward to week two. I was in a meeting with five men and one other woman, who I didn’t know. About half way through, I was smiling and nodding in agreement with what she was saying. She stopped mid-sentence and looked at me.
“And why are you here?”
Again, caught completely off guard.
“Um… I’m working on [the project] with Robert?” (You know, the other person in the room you haven’t met?).
“And what’s your background?”
“Ah… service reform, I guess?” (Fuck sake Hannah are you answering a question or asking one?)
“Yeah but what kind of service reform, specifically?”
So I proceeded to list the last six projects I had worked on before leaving to have a baby. The meeting moved on.
Despite my lack of a confident response, I wasn’t upset. I’m used to having to prove myself at work (although I obviously wasn’t expecting to have to in either of these situations!). But I was interested in the fact that both times, the “challenger” was a woman 20 or 30 years my senior.
It may not have been a gender thing; in fact my first thought was that it was about my age. But the more I thought about it, I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t stop to ask the same questions of the men in the room.
It got me thinking about my friend Samantha. She works in a very different industry to me with mostly other females, including her leadership team. It’s a family friendly environment, with some women only working 1 or 2 days a week.
She’s full time and has been there for about 5 years. Samantha is awesome at what she does, but like many women, she doesn’t talk loudly about it. She doesn’t get in anyone’s face, she doesn’t talk over people, she doesn’t make demands of her workplace. But she gets shit done.
She took a pay-cut for the job, because it was an area she was excited to move into from another industry. She didn’t mind working hard and waiting for an opportunity to take on something more closely matching her skills. This came after two years, when a number of positions at the next level in her area were advertised; some fixed term contracts and some permanent.
One of the selection panel members, a woman in her 50s with no children, casually announced that they wouldn’t be hiring more women.
“Sick of them going off to have babies!”
(A joke, of course. Ha fricken ha).
Samantha applied. She didn’t even get an interview. Neither did the other suitably qualified female applicants from her area. Soon after, Greg joined the team. The remaining positions were not filled.
Greg made a quick assessment of the organisation and identified a significant gap in their service provision. Samantha and her colleagues agreed, as they’d been raising it with the leadership team for many years. Greg went to speak to them himself.
“Great point Greg!” they said. “Please design this new service for us! ”
One year later, the empty positions from the aforementioned recruitment process were advertised again, with a different selection panel.
Samantha applied. She got an interview, as did her suitably qualified female colleagues. Samantha smashed that fucker. I’m not joking, the selection panel told her it was by far the best interview of the selection round, if not ever. She was awarded a fixed term contract and so was David, an external applicant. The permanent positions were not filled.
In the meantime, Greg wondered why he was still on a fixed term contract when there were permanent positions available. He asked the leadership team.
“Good question!” they said, and made him permanent.
Another year later, a position came up at the next level. It was a six-month contract, advertised internally as a development opportunity for existing employees. Samantha, Greg and David all applied.
Greg and David were both successful. They were offered three months each.
Samantha was advised that she wasn’t successful via email from her female supervisor (also the convenor of the selection panel). Fine. But in that email were the consolatory words:
“Please don’t take this as a reflection of our appreciation for the excellent work you have done over the last few months. We are so grateful for your contribution, especially given the fact you were planning your special day. ”
Yes, while all of this was going on, Samantha also got married! It was beautiful, yay Samantha! I didn’t mention it here though. Because it was completely FUCKING IRRELEVANT.
I started to wonder if these were isolated events, or if there really is some strange going on. So I asked around.
From the mother of three who was turned down for two promotions – one in favour of a man, one for a woman who didn’t have children – only to be told much later that her managers didn’t want to “set her up to fail” because her kids “might need her.”
“I was so disappointed that my manager and my executive director – both women – would even admit to that, let alone think [I couldn’t make my own decisions about how I handle work and family life]. “
To all of the women who, while on maternity leave, were advised that they wouldn’t have a job to come back to, or that they would need to accept a lower level position.
To the numerous other friends who have had their experience ignored and belittled, and opportunities withheld by female managers while their male colleagues were promoted and treated with respect.
What the fuck is going on?
I don’t see these as competitive situations, or part of the catty “women dragging other women down to further themselves” phenomenon that has been a popular topic of conversation. These aren’t level playing fields. I’m seeing women in positions of relative power – older and more experienced, with the opportunity to be mentors, leaders, supporters and “empower-ers” of other women in the workplace. But instead, they are – consciously or unconsciously – trying to hold us down.
Please don’t get me wrong and think I’m stereotyping all female middle managers. I have had some amazing leaders and friends in this group, and I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without them. They are the kinds of inspiring, empowering leaders that I aspire to be, and that I see some of my peers becoming. I just kind of thought we should all be like that.
Instead there’s this pattern of female-driven misogyny in our workplaces.
The first thing most of us think of is fear. One woman shared her experience with a new manager following a company merger:
“She told me I had no experience when I had been working there as a trainer for nearly 20 years, with successful graduates all over the world. She decided I was only suitable to teach the lower level courses while the male teacher in the same role would take the higher levels.
I think she finds other smart, strong women a threat…instead of recruiting me to help her learn about the sector she thought insulting my intelligence and capacity would put me in my place.”
I’ve heard a lot of this type of thing. But I also know many women are tired of the extra work they perceive to come with managing a part-time workforce, and recruiting and training staff only to have them take off on maternity leave.
“When I announced my pregnancy, my female manager freaked out more than my male regional director or colleagues. I think she was scared that all the work would land on her.”
I do understand what they’re saying. Before my first pregnancy, my job was my life. I was always ready to do the extra hours, take work home and generally rearrange my life to make sure shit got done. It was frustrating when other team members didn’t have the same level of commitment. Taking day after day off to look after their sick kids, no contingency plan to finish their tasks, no flexibility to help out on days they didn’t work. I get it.
But good leaders establish systems and processes to meet the needs of their team, in a way that doesn’t place extra pressure on themselves or others. They also recruit well, and performance manage their staff within the conditions upon which they’ve been hired.
Not every woman has children. And we all have different approaches and levels of commitment to our jobs. Many mothers of young children manage to perform at a high level at work. Now that I’m a part-time working mum, I’m the one leaving early to pick up the sick kid. But I am much more concerned than I used to be about how productive I am with my time at work. I still go out of my way to be flexible and make sure I don’t let my colleagues down. I know it won’t always be possible; my daughter is my priority. But by being organised, thinking ahead and calling on my networks when I need them, I manage to make a valuable contribution without placing a burden on my team.
I have a colleague who is a single mother with three children under five, who works full time and goes to the gym twice a day. I’m not saying this is the Holy Grail of working mum life, or that her choices are easy. It’s not something I want to do myself. But she chooses to, and the workplace benefits from that. If her employer had decided to override her choices and not give her the job because of her family situation, they would have deprived the organisation of an amazing resource.
So much of this conversation is about working mums, but if I can just go back to Samantha for a minute. She doesn’t have kids. But she is at an age where she might, and of course she just got married. So no doubt her supervisor thinks she’s about to become another one of those annoying employees who takes a year off and then wants to come back to work two days a week. No risk of that when you employ a man!
But if Samantha or any other woman – kids or not – is performing well in her role, and she has proven in a competitive selection process that she is capable of doing what she says she will do, then it’s no one else’s right to question that. If she’s not performing in her role, then she needs to be performance managed like any other staff member. If she’s not competitive in a recruitment process, then she needs to be told why. It shouldn’t be about her family situation – potential or otherwise – unless it has already proven to get in the way of her performance.
And if she does go off to have a baby? A good leader with a vision for the future will do what they can to support her return to work.
But maybe this is about more than poor management and leadership. Perhaps it’s something a little more insidious. Something that affects all of us on some level.
“Internalised misogyny is the involuntary internalisation by women of the sexist messages that are present in their societies and culture.
Basically, that means we hold misogynistic ideas about ourselves, even through we are women. It’s involuntary because the sexism that is present in our culture is taught to us through socialisation (the process of learning culture through social interaction), a process we don’t have much say in.”
This is from a really eye-opening article by Erin McKelle for everydayfeminism.com. She explains it much better than I can, but essentially it doesn’t matter how pro-feminism we see ourselves, we’ve all taken on some level of the sexist messaging that is part of everything we do. It’s apparent in how we speak, (“Um, I think I have eight years project management experience? Is that ok?”), how we sit, whether or not we wear makeup or shave our legs. We can’t help it.
So a potential explanation for female driven misogyny in the workplace is that some women in power actually believe that men are, or would be, better at the job. That as a man, you are more qualified, more reliable, your opinions have more weight. This would certainly explain Samantha’s situation, especially the way Greg was so much more easily “heard” by their leadership team.
It also makes a lot of sense in those situations with a significant age gap. Obviously we have made some progress with gender roles and expectations in the last 30 years. So when Samantha’s 60-year-old manager looks at her and thinks she’s about to have children, and when she does, she won’t have the time or energy to commit to this role – she’s probably thinking of herself 30 years ago. She likely had a husband who didn’t help around the house (because it was his job to work) and if she had a family network, they might not have been supportive of her working when she should be taking care of the household. Her entire focus probably was child rearing, cooking and cleaning, and there wasn’t room left for a meaningful career until her kids were older.
Thinking about it this way gives me a bit more perspective. Maybe these aren’t just nasty old women being protective of their jobs. Maybe in their own way they are trying to be protective of us?
But in doing so, they override our choices. I’m not saying that women don’t have children, or that things don’t change when they do, or even that they should be focusing on their career when they have children. I’m not saying it’s easy to be a working mum. But if I have the skills and experience to do a job and I understand the requirements, I am perfectly capable of deciding whether or not I can make the arrangements to meet those requirements. And I am trying to understand why other women don’t believe that.
Despite the length of this post, I feel like I’ve barely touched the surface… I know it’s raised more questions than answers. But I do hope it gets you thinking and talking to people, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you experienced anything like this? Or do you have a different perspective on the behaviour? What have I missed, or misunderstood? Head over to my Facebook page and let me know – I want to keep this conversation going!