Workplace equality. The holy grail of every forward-thinking company.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a workplace where women are paid equally, treated equally and represented equally at all levels (particularly the higher ones)?
We’ve all asked for it, campaigned for it, protested for it (well I have, but then I was quite feisty at Uni) and hoped that “one day” it might be a reality.
But sometimes I wonder.
I’m a big fan of the ‘paid equally’ bit and a huge fan of the ‘represented equally’ part – I’ve read no end of studies that show how companies and employees thrive when managed by women – but I wonder if the treated equally bit is all it’s cracked up to be.
Not one of the boys
I’ve worked in the IT/Digital industry for the best part of 20 years. So it goes without saying I’ve worked with a lot of men. And I’ve watched how they treat each other.
I’ve also spent time around adolescent boys – I have two nephews and a step-son – and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the blokes in the boardroom and the boys in the schoolyard. (Sorry chaps, I don’t mean this as a put-down, merely a comparison).
The way our menfolk compete for dominance is remarkably similar to their adolescent selves. Very different from the way us girls interact.
Yes, we have our ways of competing but power and dominance are not our goals.
Some of the tricks my husband and his best mates play on each other, I wouldn’t try on my worst enemy.
Hierarchy and the pecking order are important to men. Whether you’re the smartest, tallest, strongest or simply the wittiest in the group, men need an “est” to define themselves.
They need to feel they stand out from the crowd.
Boys to men – they all need to prove themselves
If you look back over time, in almost every culture on earth, becoming a ‘man’ (transitioning from boy to man) meant a chap had to pass a series of ‘manly’ tests. You could be born male, but you had to earn the right to call yourself a man. These tests usually included proving strength, independence and the ability to survive ‘in the wild’.
Women just had to reach the age where we could conceive and bear a child (yeah, we just had to get our periods). Our ‘status’ didn’t really change. Same chores, same respect (or lack of) just more work – that would be the conceiving, bearing and raising children bit.
This hasn’t changed much down the years. Just look at 20th/21st pop culture and you’ll see two types of messaging:
Men should be: tall, strong, commanding, good at sport, the provider.
Women should be: pretty, caring, seductive, domestic, the nurturer.
It’s no wonder we’ve learned two different sets of behaviours. And certainly not surprising that this has led to different behaviours in the workplace.
And this is how it plays out at work
This brings me back to my ‘adolescent’ workmates. I’m sure you’ve met them. They’re the ones who always talk over each other in meetings and spend their free time arguing over who has the fastest car, loudest stereo or best gadgets, or who can eat the hottest Indian food.
Compare this with the women in the office – we listen more in meetings and our arguments are usually over who’s going to win “MKR” and where to get the best deals on the latest fashions. We may indulge in bitchy gossip now and then, but when we’re not picking holes in the fashion sense of the latest “Bachelorette” we’re swapping ideas on how to best navigate the ins and outs of the corporate jungle.
Sure we compete – we’re human after all – but we also support each other and swap strategies on how to succeed in the patriarchy.
Are we losing out by not competing?
Women and men play by different rules. Hell we play completely different games! Men take great pleasure in setting each other up to fail – look at the popularity of shows like “Punked”. They seem immune to insults, practical jokes and other humiliations their ‘friends’ inflict on them. They don’t get upset, they get even.
Women don’t tend to play such tricks on each other. (Yes, I know I’m generalising outrageously, bear with me.) Whether it’s because we find this behaviour childish and beneath us or whether we’re merely avoiding retaliation, we don’t feel the need to sabotage and undermine each other.
I wonder sometimes if this very lack of competitive behaviour in women is what is holding us back. Maybe if we competed more and spent less time looking after our sisters (and the bros) in the workplace, we might find workplace equality just happens naturally. We’d end up on top by playing the game man-style.
Certainly that is a strategy more of us could benefit from trying outside of work.
We’re certainly behind the 8-ball at home
Did you know that, according to the 2016 Australian Census figures, women do up to 14 hours’ unpaid domestic housework each week? Men reportedly do under five hours a week.
But wait, it gets worse. When men and women live together (ie shack up) women end up doing more domestic work and men end up doing less.
It is no wonder workplace equality is such a hot topic, we don’t even have workplace equality at home!
So what’s the answer?
Gosh I wish I knew! For an issue this big, I don’t think there is one answer. I do have some suggestions though.
- We women need to stand up and value our soft skills (and not see soft as a bad word). We’ve been the unsung heroes of the workplace for decades:
- The secretaries without whom the boss could barely tie his shoelaces, let alone run the company.
- The nurses who made doctors look good (and made sure patients didn’t die from neglect).
- The teachers who taught all those little boys to read and write so they could become men.
- The wives, mothers, housekeepers, hostesses, cooks, cleaners and waitresses who ran the household and made sure their husbands never wanted for a thing.
- And the many other jobs we’ve taken on because no man would ‘lower’ himself to do women’s work.
It is time we recognised the work we put in – at home and work – and stopped belittling our own talents.
Stop letting men talk over us, talk down to us or talk for us – we’re capable of speaking up and making ourselves heard – in stand-ups, meetings, workshops and contract negotiations. If we don’t speak up, someone else (a man) will speak for us and our voices will never be heard. We’ll remain the (quiet) women behind the (louder) men.
- Let’s take them on at their own game and show them how to play. We’re in the workplace now, we’ve been watching the boys play their power games for decades. There is no reason why we can’t play those games and make the rules suit us.We don’t need to drive a faster car, have a bigger desk or drink more alcohol to ‘win’ in the boyish games. We have skills and tools they’ll never have. We might as well use them 😉
Let me tell you about a workmate of mine. She’s beautiful, very feminine and she dresses to take advantage of her every curve. She prides herself on being ‘high maintenance’ to the point where I’ve nicknamed her ‘Princess’.
You’d think that this paragon of womanhood could be belittled or sidelined by our XY colleagues. “She’s too pretty to take seriously.” “She wouldn’t want to break a nail by working hard.”
On the contrary my friends. Princess holds her own with senior management on a daily basis. She owns her beauty and her high maintenance exterior and wields it as a weapon in her arsenal of workplace tools. No man can withstand her combination of pin-point perfect presentation, needle sharp wit and sheer hard work.
If she can do it, ladies so can we.
- But it’s not all up to us. Our friends in the testosterone camp have work to do too (and if they want their dinner on time and not in the rubbish, they’ll get that work done).I don’t think I need to tell you that workplace inequality is not of our making. The boys created this situation so they need to put some work in to change it.
They may need a bit of education from us, but that’s nothing new. We teach them everything else – from tying their shoelaces to how to dress for a first date – we might as well give them some tips here too.
For us women to be truly equal in the workplace, our natural skill-sets need to have equal value and status in that workplace. The male tools of aggression, posturing, one-up-man-ship and ‘length’ comparison need to make room for more female tools like communication, compassion and understanding.
We put in as effort into work as they do (sometimes more, when you think of all we have to do just to just GET into work) we need to credit ourselves for that and work with our menfolk so they credit it too.