I spotted her sitting with two men. She had her bottom perched on the edge of a chair, rather like how a 19th century lady would sit; forward, attentive, back straight – ladylike. She was holding a pen, ready to write on a notebook. Her eyes were wide. And it was her expression that gave her away.
A woman among men. A girl among gentlemen. They talked over her and her eyes darted between their conversations. Desperately, she tried to fit in, to be valuable, to contribute. She laughed a little when they did, seconds later, when she realised she should.
Oh, how I’ve been you, I thought. Oh how I know exactly how you are feeling. Lost. Uncomfortable. Dying to be somewhere else. Racking your brain to say something clever, business-like; political.
Her clothes added to her desperate air. She was wearing a female copy of a man’s suit; wide black trousers, loose white shirt and black suit jacket. She thought it made her look powerful. But to them, she was weak.
In my ten years or so of being an official member of the full-time working world, I’ve come to learn a lot about women in the workplace. I’ve had time to study how they behave, how they are reacted to and how they are treated.
I’ve seen a woman cry while being bullied and berated in front of other staff – a situation that I was too terrified to stand up to. I didn’t want to be associated with the ‘weak’ woman who had been performing badly. I too felt so out of my depth, that my main activity in front of management was staying silent.
I’ve seen women have their appearance constantly remarked upon, criticised in jest and pointed out for all to note and snigger at. The girl confessed to me that she had cried in the toilets afterwards and she didn’t know how to make it stop.
Recently I attended an event and got speaking to a woman who was managing her company’s stand at the exhibition, next door to ours. She asked me if there were many men working at my company. ‘Oh lots,’ I told her, explaining the work place was almost all male. ‘And how do you get on with them?’ she enquired, a look of concern spread across her face. ‘Great,’ I said. ‘No issues at all.’
She told me that she was being sexually harassed by her boss, and that the male employees around her were so derogatory, filthy and lewd, that she worked with headphones all day to block them out. Her boss constantly mentioned that she was 35, single and needed to hurry up if she wanted to have kids. She had no management structure to complain to and having recently left a good job for this one, she didn’t want to leave again so quickly.
It’s easy to say that women are generally discriminated against in the workplace. That we come up against obstacles, glass ceilings, assumptions, childcare nightmares. And yes we are, we do. But the truth is much more complex than that. The truth is the workplace is full of women we admire, look up to, are our bosses or in management.
In those ten years of work, I’ve encountered remarkable women who have bowled everyone around them over with their intelligence, work ethic, presentation skills and personalities. They were and still are respected by everyone, male and female.
And for me, that’s the key. It’s not really about whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s about how capable you are. The experience you’ve clocked up. The confidence you have in your own skills, in your own talent and what you personally contribute to the job.
The petrified girl I encountered in the coffee break area of the conference looked terrified because she probably was way out of depth and was being put in a situation she wasn’t able for or even wanted to be in. When I had those feelings of feeling inadequate, it was because I was inadequate and in over my head and struggling to cope with the pressures I was under.
The only difference I see is in outward appearances. If the young woman had been a young man, he probably wouldn’t have caught my eye. He might have blended in with all the other men, sitting there quietly.
And so ladies, we must fake it till we make it. We must throw away the men suits, and dress like women, to reflect how we want to look and not like we ‘think’ we should look. We don’t need to sit at meetings, perched to a tilt, trying to look clever, like we’re invaluable. We can sit quietly if we want. Like how a young man might. Bored even.
Let’s stop using our gender as an excuse to be overlooked or mistreated or sexually alluded to. Let’s stand up to the sexism we see around us, to say stop when a smart comment is passed about a woman’s bulging shirt or shade of lipstick. Only we, with our experience and talent can prove to ourselves and the working world around us, that we deserve respect and that we demand it.
Nine to five, Dolly Parton, Rock on.
This is an updated version of an article I first published in April 2015. If you enjoyed this you might also like to read Five Reasons We Should All Be Like Jessica Jones. Everyday.