This piece details the experiences of a senior female leader working in a major organisation amongst what she describes as a boys club. While it’s published anonymously, the author is known to Women’s Agenda.
I can’t tell you who I am, for the obvious reason that I would no longer have a job if I did. But let me assure you that I hold a CEO position leading a large team within a global company. I work in an industry that is well-known for being a boys club. I am well respected. I have won many awards, and I’m passionate about women in business.
My anonymity has got to do with what I want to share with you. That is, what is it really like to work in a boys club and how hard it is to be vulnerable as a woman.
In some ways I am lucky as I work for one of the few brands in our market that would be seen as progressive. We have a number of women in senior management roles. We do have a focus on women in the workplace, however at times it is simply lip service.
Our male senior management are pale and stale, many of whom come from the school of management that believes their job title should buy them the respect they require. Collaboration is not on the agenda and they constantly refer to the other senior women as “love”, or “girls”. Sending messages with kisses or making inappropriate jokes is the norm.
Unfortunately for them I am not a shrinking CEO, I have a strong voice, I call out behaviours, I demand collaboration and I have the strong challenging conversations. As a result, I have been labelled the person who is hard to get along with, because of course instead of stepping up to these challenging conversations, we prefer to play in a world where too much of the company juice has been drunk and everything is awesome.
Despite the business knowing my ambitions, they have never had a conversation with me about future roles or coaching to achieve these positions. Unless you work at head office and you are part of the “executive team”, you are not really on the radar. The problem with the boys club in executive roles is that they don’t know how to engage talented women, they are threatened by them and so it is easier to keep them at arms length, away from where all the important decisions are made.
Regardless of my success, my connections and respect in and out of the business, I will never be any more than my current position, because I am seen as the woman who is too challenging.
There is a price to pay for being seen as this and the question you have to ask yourself is the price too high and am I prepared to pay it.
What is the price you ask? Well here I go:
Be prepared to face into jokes about women and laugh with your male peers because if you call them out, you will be told you are too sensitive and that you take things personally
If you challenge their thinking then you will be labelled as someone who is very difficult to get along with, that you rub people up the wrong way. Once this happens, understand that they win, because every time there is a disagreement or you challenge them they will tell management about how you are “too hard to get along with” and the problem will become yours and you can kiss goodbye any hope of promotions.
(If, however, you are a male leader displaying the same characteristics you will be applauded as a strong leader who is honest, who always knows where they stand and has great drive for the business.)
Be prepared to be called into a meeting and told that if you want to get along with your male counterparts, you need to find a way to make them feel important, show your vulnerability by telling them they are better at something than you are and that you need their help.
Then of course, when you display those vulnerabilities, also be prepared to be told that you are too emotional.
Yes, you just can’t win.
If you push for innovation and come up with ideas, this will be scrutinised intently, because of course despite your success there has to be something that you haven’t considered. Road blocks will be put up on implementation and instead of collaboration you will end up justifying to large committees of men why you have chosen to go down this path. Baseless questions will be asked and somewhere along the way you will become disengaged, disillusioned to the point where you go: fuck it, why bother.
And of course there are the times when you will have messages from your male counterparts with kisses on them, after a few drinks some of the younger ones will think they can teach you new sex moves. Be prepared to have your arse pinched, your sexual ability rated or discussed and, of course, if you take offence to any of this, you will become the hard arsed bitch with balls.
And what if you also need to manage a family household?
If you have kids that need care after school, during school holidays or when they are sick, you will be seen as someone who is not entirely reliable.
In that case, you will have to work harder than anyone else in the office and when you take them on at their own game and win, no one will be interested in your success, how you got there, and what set you apart.
For a number of years now, I have personally run the most successful arm of the company’s business, I did this despite the fact senior male counterparts worked together for all of that time to remove me from my role. I have been on the end of abusive phone calls, and of intimidation tactics in meetings. I have been questioned unnecessarily on performance despite achieving significant net profit.
What really broke my heart was when a senior executive once said to me that “it’s not right, but men are intimidated by the stand you take on women’s rights in the workplace.” These same men have daughters and wives. Do they not want them to have equality in the workplace?
The problem with all of this is that after a while it all gets to you.
You find yourself questioning your decisions, your motivation, your confidence erodes and you get to a point where the smallest of things “set you off”.
When this happens, you leave to hopefully a place where you are included and celebrated.
During my time in this position, I have constantly asked myself how I could have done certain things better, or what could I have done differently? I have had to seek help from a psychologist to be able to manage my emotions, frustrations and sleepless nights. And, most importantly, ensure that my self confidence is not totally eroded away.
I am lucky. I have the most amazing network of family, friends, men and women who are right there with me on the front line, but it is exhausting.
What deflates me the most is that my now adult daughter is also working in the same type of environment. Regardless of all the amazing women before her, respect, equality, diversity and parity still does not exist in many organisations.
The reality of a boys club is that it is allowed to exist because men and male leaders enable it to exist. All the behaviours I have described above become part of the culture of an organisation. And the standard the executive walks past is the standard that becomes the accepted level of behaviour.
So when we talk about vulnerability in the workplace, we have to understand that if we don’t create a safe place for people to bring themselves to work, then they wont.
They will armour themselves up everyday. They will feel defeated, drained and they will disengage. Businesses will lose talent. Workplaces will not become diverse and nothing will have changed.
Authenticity and vulnerability are not just buzz words, they are what is required today across the globe. However, what we need to understand first is why is it so hard to be vulnerable. Because let’s face it: if it was easy, everyone would be doing it and we wouldn’t be talking about it. (Brene Brown would have researched something else).
This is a major issue for leaders. Ultimately, it’s leaders who create a workplace culture that should be a safe place for people to be themselves. Leaders set the standards of acceptable behaviour, and leaders are the ones that hire and promote.
Before we can even hope to look at how we make workplaces more diverse, we need to examine how we treat people in organisations. Do we allow them to bring their best selves to the office? Do we support them? Because if we don’t, then we wont have any talent left in our businesses for diversity to exist.