Feminism: Flogging a Dead Horse? An Insider’s View

A now disgraced and marginalised misogynistic male blogger whose tacky blog I will no longer dignify with a link*, suggests it’s ‘somewhat unfair to keep flogging the dead horse that there is some kind of institutionalized female oppression’.  He was referring, specifically, to the governor-general’s call for a quota to address the woeful ratio of women to men on Australian company boards.  He points to the many Australian women in leadership positions in our government and corporations, the wealth of female talent writing serious stories for our newspapers, and to women driving monster trucks on mining sites as evidence that most of the obstacles to women’s promotion are no longer in place.

Ironically, I  have some sympathy with his position.  I’m not a fan of quotas or affirmative action.  I’m probably one of those women he mentions who, if you suggested they should be appointed because of a quota system, they’d scratch your eyes out.

I’ve always felt it was a woman’s responsibility to fight her own battles in the workplace – no matter how bloody.  As a young woman in corporate Australia in the 1980s and 90s, seeking career advancement was akin to going to war; you needed a well-thought out strategy, the cunning of a fox and the hide of a rhinoceros to succeed.  But, as the male blogger says, it was possible and those who had what it takes to storm the male bastion (Julia Gillard, Anna Bligh, Gail Kelly etc.) are shining examples that women can succeed on their own merits.

On the other hand, only eight per cent of the directors on Australian company boards are women.  Come on!  In 2011 less than one in ten company directors are women?  That’s just shameful – and it’s pretty clear that it’s an institutional problem, rather than a lack of talented women that’s caused the imbalance.  After all, as he says, there’s Julia Gillard, Anna Bligh, Gail Kelly, etc – all shining examples that there’s no shortage of intelligent, educated, career-oriented women.

So, what’s the problem?  There doesn’t seem to be any overt discrimination against women in business, the glass ceiling has been broken, so why so few women in the boardroom?

I can only speculate based on my own experience but, as people on boards tend to be in their 40s, 50s and 60s, it’s probably fair to assume that my experience isn’t unique among women of this age group.  It’s true that I’ve been out of the corporate world for many, many years and it’s entirely possible things have changed.  But, based on the glaring inequity of those public board figures, I’m guessing things haven’t changed as much as they should.

I really can’t blame him for failing to understand what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace. Perhaps expecting a man to know what it’s like to be a woman in business is like expecting a straight person to know what it’s like to be gay.  In no way am I suggesting the level of discrimination is the same.  Only that, in both cases, you can relate the stories of discrimination, abuse and humiliation, but you can’t make someone who hasn’t experienced it know how it felt.

And, sometimes, there are people like him who don’t even ‘get’ that there’s a problem.  They see the end result of women succeeding as proof that the dark days of sexism are behind us – but they don’t see what those women have endured to get there. What I’d like to argue here is that success is not evidence of a lack of discrimination, nor are the removals of official barriers to female promotion.  Further, I’d like to suggest that the lack of female company directors might even reflect the number of  talented and ambitious women who’ve just silently dropped out of the executive talent pool – battle worn and weary.  Maybe it’s because what a woman has to go through to get to the top usually means that the last man standing is usually a man.

The problem is, the discrimination isn’t explicit, it’s insidious and quietly executed.  You wouldn’t know about most of the discrimination unless you were a woman – and even then, you often don’t find out what’s been holding you back.

He also mentions the problem of women’s contempt for other women in the workplace, and I’d like to address that too.  It was certainly something I experienced as a young, ambitious career woman.

In order to illustrate the kind of obstacles women face (or at least used to face) in the workplace, I’d like to share some personal reminiscenses of my own.  As I said, perhaps things have changed, perhaps not.  I apologise in advance for this being very long, but it’s time I told this story.  It needs telling.

Learning the Ropes

Very early in my career I learned that I had to stand up for myself in the workplace.  I was only twenty when my boss pinned me against the wall of the photocopying room with hopes of a quick grope.  I said, “Take one step closer and I will bring my knee up so hard your balls will be black and blue for a month.  Not only that, but I will ring your wife and tell her why I am sending you home with bruised balls.”

He backed off saying, “Oh, it’s like that, is it?”

“Yes, it’s like that.”

“OK, then.  Glad we understand each other.”

I never had another problem with sexual harassment.

For the first six months or so I worked in that job doing almost all of the office administration – while being paid as a secretary.  At length, the boss decided we needed an office manager.  I came in one Monday morning to find he’d hired one of his mates.  The man was clueless.  He  knew nothing about the business we were in or about being an office manager.

“He needed the job,” was the best excuse the boss could make for this monumentally bad management decision.

I continued to do most of the work.  When I complained, the boss had the grace to agree he should have promoted me (but it hadn’t occurred to him).  He gave me a ten percent pay rise – but also increased my responsibilities.  So, I did the admin manager’s job while earning half his salary, while he did very little on twice my income.  I was learning about how it was in business for women.

I Can Do That!

A few jobs later, I was starting to realize I was just as smart as many of the men I was working for. With a bit of training, Ithought, I could easily do their jobs.  In fact, in some cases, I was doing their jobs!  So, I took myself off to TAFE (business school) and did some sales and marketing courses to prove I was serious about promotion.

News that one of the secretaries had ambitions-above-her-station were soon flying around the office.  One day, one of the female accounts staff cornered me at the photocopier.  What is it about offices and photocopiers???

“I hear you’re doing business studies at TAFE,” she sneered.

“Yes, I am.”

“I don’t know why you bother,” she sighed.

“Well, I work in marketing, I’m interested in knowing more about it, and maybe, one day, I’ll be a marketing manager instead of a secretary.”

“You’re wasting your time,” she spat – and I can still hear the venom in her voice.  “You’ll soon get married, have kids, leave work and all that study will be wasted.  You’re just making yourself look silly.  Everyone in the office is laughing at you.”

I soon discovered they were laughing for good reason.

In an attempt to use my new marketing knowledge and ‘get noticed’by management,  I wrote a feature article on my company for a major trade journal.  My boss and the general-manager were delighted when publication of a two-page spread with photos was approved by the editor.  After work, one evening, when only the general manager and I were still in the building, he approached my desk:

“Chrys!  Just wanted to say what a great job you did on that article!”

“Thank you, Mr S!”

“But, I want to talk to you about one little thing.  As you know, this is a male-dominated industry. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I think your article will have more impact if it looks like it’s written by a man.  So,” he said with an avuncular pat on my shoulder, “I’m sure you won’t mind that I’ve rung the editor and had him put my name on it.  You understand, of course!  And, Chrys, we’ll keep this between us, eh?  Head office doesn’t need to know.”

“Of course, I understand, Mr S.  Thank you for letting me know.”

I went home and started looking for a new job.

Climbing the Corporate Ladder

The new job was as personal secretary to a CEO in an international company in the finance sector.  It was a very prestigious position in a very posh office.  I was taking over from the CEO’s previous secretary who’d been promoted into management (a good sign, I thought).

On my first day, I was called into the CEOs office for an hour of very fast shorthand.  I was told it needed to be transcribed and on his desk by lunch time.  I’d been honest in my interview by disclosing that my shorthand was rusty, but this was ignored.  I managed to get down a book full of shorthand at 120 words per minute.  I had no clue whether I could transcribe it.  But there were worse problems awaiting me.

When I sat down at my desk and looked for a typewriter, there wasn’t one.  I asked my female mentor (the CEO’s previous secretary) where my typewriter was.

“There isn’t one,” she said.  “We work on computers.  There’s yours.”

“But, I’ve never used a computer!” I said.

“Learn!” she replied.

“But,” said I, tears stinging at my eyes, “I have all this shorthand, and it has to be transcribed and on his desk by lunch time.  What happens if I can’t work out how to use it?”

“You’ll get fired, I guess,” she sneered and sauntered off.

I fired up the computer, worked out how to use it and had the documents on his desk by noon.  I still don’t know how I managed it.

Shortly after, my female nemesis flounced into the CEO’s office without bothering to check in with me, or even knock on his door.  I heard the click of the lock and then I heard them giggling together as she recounted my discomfort.  It turned out that ‘lunches’ behind locked doors were part of the daily routine for the CEO and his former secretary.  I determined that if I was going to be promoted, it wouldn’t be while I was lying on my back on the office sofa with my legs in the air.

Some weeks later, the boss asked me to bring in coffee for some visiting business executives.  I happened to enter the office at the same time as the (male) sales manager.

“Gentlemen!” said the boss – all ‘hail fellow well-met’.

“Meet Jim Jenkins.  Jim’s our sales manager and a very valuable member of our staff!”  There were handshakes all round as I stood back quietly, still holding the tray of coffee.

Then the boss spotted me.  “And this is … well, she’s the bird who brings the coffee! You don’t need to know her name!” he said with a great belly laugh.  (I might add that as well as making a mean cup of coffee, I had, that week, worked out how to use macros in Excel and designed a program for calculating hire purchase payments that saved the salesmen hours of time doing manual calculations.)

After the visitors left I stormed into the CEO’s office and said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”

“What?” he said.

But he knew what he’d done and he did apologise.  In fact, he admired my spunk in standing up for myself.  But many, many women in their early twenties wouldn’t have risked a prestigious, well-paying job to stand on principle – and who can blame them.  Even then, I knew I was in the minority.

I kept studying at night and began submitting marketing plans to my ‘other’ boss, the sales manager, Jim Jenkins (names have been changed to protect the despicable).  I soon found out that my marketing plans were being photocopied (that damn photocopier again!) with my name tippexed out and sent on to head office under his name.  When I confronted him he looked sheepish but he was unapologetic.

“Look, they’re good ideas, but nobody’s going to accept them from a woman.  I’m just making sure they get picked up.  What’s important is that I know they came from you …”

The implication was that if I was a good girl and kept quiet, eventually I’d be promoted into management.

And, sure enough, one day, the CEO called me in to his office.

“We get the feeling you want to be in management.”

“Yes.”

“So, we’ve decided we’re going to give you a chance.  But, first you have to learn the business properly.  I’m demoting you.  You’ll move down to the third floor.  You’ll work as a clerk. Nobody is to know you’re on a management-track.  If you tell anyone, you’ll remain a clerk.  If you do well, we’ll move you up.”

It was mortifying.  Everyone in the office thought I’d done something terrible to be demoted from being the CEO’s glamorous PA to a third-floor filing clerk. I hasten to add that this wasn’t how the men in the office were promoted.   But, this was my big chance, so I kept my mouth shut, did my job, studied all the office manuals and, gradually, worked my way back up to the top floor.  But there was no management position forthcoming.  The department I ended up in was headed by a female manager, and it wasn’t doing well.  There was talk of closing it down.  The female manager had another portfolio so her job was safe, but it would mean I’d probably lose my job, along with several others. Sensing my months in the filing department going to waste,  I devised a plan to save the project and presented it to the CEO and sales manager.

“Put me in charge of the department and I’ll bring in a million dollars a month,” I promised.

They examined my detailed proposal and agreed to put me on a three-month trial.  They said I would be the department ‘supervisor’.  Supervisor?  Really?  All the other departments had managers.  I demanded that I be called a manager.  They agreed, reluctantly, but said there would be no pay rise until after the three-month trial.

The promotion didn’t go over well with the other women in the office.  One night, after work, I was invited to join a few of them for drinks.  It was an ambush.  I was asked what my long-term ambitions were.  By this time, I was in love and thinking about marriage and a family.  I said I hoped to do well in my career, but, ultimately I hoped to get married and stay home with my children – at least until they were at primary school.  Now I was told I wasn’t serious about my job, I was a disgrace to the sisterhood, I was just taking up a position that someone with real ambition might have had.  I was called selfish and pathetic.  One of the women, (now a senior lecturer in business studies at a well-known university), said (and this still makes me cry, even now)!

“You know what’s wrong with you, Chrys?  You’re just an awful person.”

The others nodded in agreement.

I was being undermined elsewhere, too.  My secretary usually took lunch from 12-1. I took mine from 1-2 so there was always someone manning (or womanning) the phones.  One day, when she wasn’t back at 1.15pm I was mildly annoyed.  When she wasn’t back by 1.30pm I was getting angry.  By 2pm I was worried.  By 3pm I was just getting ready to ring the local hospitals when she strolled back into the office.  She explained she’d run into the sales manager at a nearby restaurant and he’d invited her to join his table.  When 1 o’clock came and she told him she had to get back to the office so I could go to lunch, he said, “Stay.”

When she insisted on leaving, saying that I’d be cross if she wasn’t back on time, he said, “Sit down.  That’s an order. You work for me, not her.”

I wasn’t mad at her, but I was furious with him.  So furious, I was shaking.  I picked up my handbag andbriefcase and said, “When he gets back, you  tell him I’ve gone home.  And you can tell him he’s damned lucky he’s so late, because if he’d come back while I was still here I would have bloody decked him!”

Later, I found the CEO had also found a creative way to both undermine me and rouse up the sales team.  It turns out the all-but-one male sales team were told if they didn’t pull their socks up, he’d transfer them into my department.

I’m told sales meetings routinely included the taunt, “Watch out or you’ll be working for a woman!” How very droll.

The irony was that the success of my department relied heavily on information from the field, supplied by the salesmen.  That dried up overnight as the salesmen decided to ‘starve me out’ of my position, lest they should end up working for me.

When I confronted the boss about it I was told with a chuckle it was part of my apprenticeship.  I was being ‘tested’ to show that I had the character required to be in management.  In other words, “Don’t start whining like a feminist or you’ll be out on your ear.”

Proving your worth, it seems, was more important than making money for the company.

For three months my department consistently brought in an additional $1 million in business for the company (a lot of money back then).  At the end of my trial period, I fronted up to the sales manager and asked to be put on a management salary.

“Awww, sorry about that.  Budget’s all taken up for this year.  Maybe next year we can talk about it.”

I went home and looked for another job.

You’re the Manager????

Battered and bruised, I chose the next job specifically because it wasn’t in management.  I’d had enough.  I wanted something with no responsibility, no more fighting, and no more humiliation.  I loved working as a sales rep for an international tourism-related group, but within six months I was reluctantly promoted to the job of state manager.

The reactions of male customers were interesting to say the least.  Many insisted on calling me the ‘manageress’ which I found incredibly insulting. A typical response came from a man who approached me at a trade show. He wanted to know more information about our corporate discount scheme.  I was thoroughly acquainted with it, having sold it as a rep, and I explained how it would work for his company.  As I spoke, I could see him growing increasingly uncomfortable.

“Is there something wrong?” I asked, thinking the poor man may be having a stroke.

“Yes,” he said, “I’d really rather speak to your manager about this.”

“I am the manager,” I replied, “But if you’d like to speak to someone else, you can speak to one of our other staff here – this is my secretary and this is one of my sales staff.”

“You’re the manager?” he said.  (Given the strength of the reaction, I might just as well have told him I was an alien reptile in humanoid form, sent to devour him for lunch and take over the planet by dinner time.)

“Yes, I’m the manager.”

“Oh yes, I see!” he said, recouping his senses, “You’re ‘A’ manager, but I didn’t mean the office manager, dear, I meant the real manager.”

“Oh!” I said, “The real manager.  You mean the state manager?”

“Yes!”  he said, looking relieved and handing me his business card.  “Perhaps you can get him to call me?”

“Well,” I said, “I’d be happy to have the state manager call you, sir, but I don’t think that’s going to satisfy you either.”

“Why not?”

“Because, sir, I’m the state manager.”

“What?” he said, his eyes bulging in disbelief, “of the whole state?”

“Yes, sir, I’m afraid so – more than the whole state in fact.  My area of responsibility extends from Coff’s Harbour to Port Douglas and west to Roma.”

He gave me a look of utter contempt and stormed off.

Despite this kind of opposition I did a great job in this role and I have the many letters of praise from the general manager and the chairman of the board to prove it– including a hand-written note from the chairman saying, “Superwoman lives!”

So, my confidence renewed, when the position of national marketing manager became vacant, I decided to apply.  I’d just organized a very large, successful, international convention for the company so I took the opportunity to present my application to the general manager at the end of the convention.  He thanked me and put it into his briefcase.  I waited, and waited, and waited and heard nothing.

At length, I rang and asked him if he’d had the opportunity to consider my application and whether he’d put it to the board (some of whom had asked me to apply for the position).  He said, “Oh, that’s right, you gave me an application, didn’t you?  I forgot all about that.  Too late now, I’m afraid, I’ve just appointed someone else.”

The ‘someone’ was a male (of course) with no experience in our industry. He proved an absolute disaster.  I think I counted fourteen good people who left the company because of him, and learned that the same thing had happened in his previous job. Several months of antipathy between us (had someone told him I was after his job?) ended in a phone calling from the general manager saying, “I’m sending Robert up to Brisbane to sort things out with you.”

In anticipation of what was to follow, I spent the evening clearing out my office.

Robert arrived in my office the next day saying, “The GM says either we sort this out between us, or you’ll have to leave.”

I said, “You have no intention of sorting this out, do you?”

He smirked.  “No.”

I said, “I thought not.  I’ve already packed my things.  Can you help me carry them down to my car?”

And that was it.  Best job I’d ever had – gone.  I heard later that he died.  I felt like Morales in A Chorus Line –

“Six months later I heard that Karp had died.
And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul…
And cried.
‘Cause I felt… nothing.”

The Joke (1)

I moved on to a job as a marketing manager in a subsidiary branch of a major Australian corporation.  Within days it was clear to me that sales were abysmal because the product was inferior.  Doing my job, I argued that even though supplying a better quality product would cost more, the market would stand a small increase and there would be offsets in substantially more sales.  The suggestion was met with a bemused chuckle from the boss.

“You don’t really understand this business yet,” he told me dismissively in a thick, German accent.  “The product is fine.  Just do your job.  Let me worry about the product.”

But my job was about the product, so I kept pushing and he became increasingly more hostile.  The situation denigrated to screaming matches in his office (him screaming, me standing firm, but trying to calm him down.)  Finally, there was a confrontation in front of the general manager.

I explained, “I’m just trying to do what’s right for the company.  People just aren’t going to buy this product – it’s not value for money.  Give me a better product, increase the price by twenty per cent and I’ll sell it. Just give me a chance.  But, please, stop this guy screaming at me in the office.”

The boss said, “Rolf, are you prepared to stop screaming at Chrys?”

“No, I’m not,” he said, “I’m German.  I scream at people.  That’s what I do.”

“Well then,” said the general manager, “there you have it, Chrys, I guess you’re going to have to put up with it or leave.”

I’d just won them a $2 million a year contract, but I left.

I later found out the reason why the product couldn’t be improved. Apparently, there was a cozy arrangement between middle management and the supplier of the raw materials.   This provided a nice little kick-back for ‘the boys’.  As a woman, of course, I hadn’t been privy to ‘the joke’ – although it turned out all the men in the organization knew about it.

An ‘Interim’ Joke

A friend’s husband offered me a job as manager of a travel company he was negotiating to buy. I was offered an impressive salary, a company car of my choosing and extensive international travel. Instead, as negotiations for the purchase of the company dragged on and I insisted I couldn’t wait interminably to be employed, they ‘found me a place’ in their existing business. Here, I essentially found myself doing menial secretarial work, driving a 20 year old car that had been through the Charleville floods, and having to beg each fortnight for the measly retainer they’d given me until the ‘big job’ came through (it never did).

At meetings, it was assumed that *I* would take the minutes. At one meeting, despite the rest of the staff having been told clearly that I was one of the senior management team, one of the male sales reps asked the boss, “Can you get your girl to get us some coffee?”

A death stare from me prompted a blushing boss to mumble, “Ummm, Chrys doesn’t *do* coffee.”

The Joke (2)

I was shut out of ‘the joke’ at my next job, too.  This manufacturing company was losing $4 million a year in Queensland and my job as the premium brand manager was, ostensibly, to fix it.  It soon became apparent they hadn’t hired a woman to fix it – they hired a woman because they thought a woman couldn’t fix it. I was a huge disappointment.

Despite the inhibition of having ovaries, it didn’t take long to realize two important problems.  First, products, quite sensibly, were costed assuming they would be built once.  But, in actuality, the production management was so abysmal, and retail staff so poorly trained, products were routinely being sent back to the factory for two or more remakes.  This meant we were often selling to our retailers at less than cost.

Secondly, our largest retailer was not only buying from us at less than cost, he was taking 90 days to settle his accounts, and his staff were responsible for many of our remakes (for which they were not being charged).  Further, while ‘Mr Best Customer’s’ business accounted for around fifty per cent of our sales, his staff took up around eighty per cent of my staff’s time.  The solution was simple – sort out the factory, build a margin into the costings for remakes, charge the retailer for remakes arising  their errors, insist on payments within thirty days and invoke penalties for late payments.  I remember standing up at a management meeting and explaining in minute detail how, under the current situation, the more products we sold, the more money we lost.

My suggestions were met with horror.  The production manager insisted that the remake problem could be fixed with a new $1 million computer system. I insisted that teaching reps to use a measuring tape would be a much cheaper fix.  The head office was aghast that I’d suggest ‘heavying’ our best customer to pay more for his products and to pay us on time.  They didn’t want to know that pandering to this rather aggressive member of Queensland’s ‘white shoe brigade’ was largely responsible for the $4 million annual loss.  I was told to ‘back off’.  I even had an after hours visit from Mr Best Customer who sat in my office and recited to me, chapter and verse, what I would and wouldn’t do in my new position.

“I have a relationship with this company, lady, and you need to understand that,” I was told.

“Your predecessor and I had a good relationship.  She understood how important my company is to your business and she did as she was told.”

I explained to Mr Best Customer that I was the manager of this division of the company and as long as I was sitting on this side of the desk, I’d be the one making the decisions, not him.

I later found out my predecessor had been sleeping with Mr Best Customer in the nice little inner-city unit he supplied for her.  Funny, he didn’t extend the same offer to me.  Perhaps he thought my teeth were too big.

A new general manager had been appointed at the same time as me.  He was a nice bloke and he was also trying, unsuccessfully, to get the company back on track.  We both met with opposition all the way.  It seems that neither of us were in on ‘the joke’.  I suspect the operation was never intended to make money.  I suspect it operated at a loss for tax purposes and that we were brought in as the pigeon pair (or should that be the pair of pigeons) most unlikely to solve the problem or uncover the truth.  In the end, we were both called into the board-room and retrenched on the same day.  I was given a cheque for $15,000 and was told I looked remarkably happy for someone who was being fired.  I went home and had a bottle of champagne – glad to be out of it.  The general manager went home and blew his brains out. He was married with two teenage daughters.

Viva the Sisterhood

At my next job I had a female boss in Sydney, but reported to a local (female) chairperson.  It was a nightmare.  After several months in the job, I attended the management meeting in Sydney.  After a ‘getting to know you session’ with the other managers, we were asked to fill out confidential forms about how sales could be improved.  As this was confidential, we were asked to be brutally honest with our observations.

I filled out my form, noting that some of the other managers didn’t seem to have much sales or management experience and that, perhaps, more training may be called for.  I was appalled when the female general manager (a well-known ‘management expert’ and motivational speaker) published the comments with my name appended to them – bringing the wrath of all my co-workers down upon my head.

To further put me in my place, when it came time to hand out the bonus cheques, she did so publicly.

“And, Susie, you’ve done a great job this year.  Here’s $500 for you!”

“Michael, you’ve had a significant improvement over last year.  We’re so thrilled to give you a cheque for $200!”

And Chrys, you haven’t been with us long, but we didn’t want you to miss out, so here’s something for you.

I opened my envelope to find a $2 scratchie. The public humiliation made all the worse for it being intentional.

At the end of my second year in the job, the stress of working with a harridan of a general manager and a shrew of a local chairperson had brought me almost to the edge of a nervous breakdown.  There was a big end of year event planned and I rang my female boss, explained I was unwell, and asked for one of the Sydney staff to fly up to provide some assistance.  I was told, bluntly, “No.”

The chairperson, (a corporate ‘fairy’ who makes a living writing and lecturing with fluttering eye-lashes and a ‘little-girl’ breathy voice about how  love and light and other new-agey things can bring sparkle to your business) was similarly unhelpful.  I staged a successful event, while having a full-scale nervous breakdown,  with no help or sympathy from ‘the sisterhood’.  I paid my brother to give me the assistance I needed and buried it in the costs.

When it was over, I quit.

The Flogged Horse Lays Down and Dies

I was so over it all.  I was sick of being opposed at every turn by both men and women.  I was sick of being seen as a threat.  I was appalled at having to spend eighty per cent of my time politicking in order to keep my job instead of giving my full attention to making money for the companies I represented and their shareholders.  I was sick of listening to lies. I was sick of being told to tell lies.  I was sick of being set up as the office patsy.  I was sick of having to do my job three times better than the men in the office – and then having them promoted over me.

None of the discrimination was ‘overt’.  If anyone had seen me in those days I would have seemed like the poster girl for female corporate success.  Sure, I made it into management and for a while there I earned very good money.  But it was at the cost of being insidiously undermined, having my work used to fulfill others’ ambitions, and being constantly bewildered as the ‘boys’ network’ made sure I was starved of vital information. Ultimately, it destroyed my health and confidence so badly I was unable to work full-time again.

The sisterhood was never there for me.  I was seen as a threat or a bitch by other women whose sole purpose in life often seemed to be either to pull me back down to their level or cut through the rungs of the ladder  above me so that any attempt I might make to reach their level would result in me breaking my neck.

I finally ran up the white flag.  Tired, sick and horrified at the person I had had to become to keep a job in the corporate world I left it behind.

Sure, it’s just my experience.  Maybe women have it better these days.  But, gentlemen, don’t think for a minute that because women have broken the glass ceiling they managed to do it without getting ripped to shreds as they moved through that pane of shattered glazing.  Achievement at the cost of your health and self-esteem isn’t equality – it’s masochism.

I decided I couldn’t be a masochist any longer and still live. It was that serious. I expect many other talented, ambitious women have felt the same.  Maybe that’s why women like me didn’t go on to fill positions on corporate boards.  It doesn’t look like discrimination when a woman finally gives up.  Perhaps that’s why men like you are so perplexed when women still complain about their lot in life, while they see no evidence of discrimination.

Perhaps it’s just that too many mares have been flogged to death on their ascent up the corporate ladder, and our corpses are buried well away from the boardrooms of corporate Australia.

Chrys Stevenson

*The original version of this post referenced ‘the male blogger’ and his website. Since then, his misogyny has become so rampant, so crass and so distasteful  that I will not provide him with any oxygen here on my blog. Accordingly I have expunged his name from this post and from the comments.

22 thoughts on “Feminism: Flogging a Dead Horse? An Insider’s View

  1. AndrewFinden

    just… wow..

    Makes me so glad that I’m in a job where, well, the boys and girls can’t take eachother’s jobs – though things in the pit are very different.. still only 3 ladies in the Vienna Phil. apparently, and even then, they’re not full members! Only one female – an Aussie – has ever conducted them too.

    Seriously, you should think about turning some of these experiences into literature – a novel based on them or a screenplay or something; could be very powerful! (Did you see the broadcast of the opera Bliss on the ABC?)

    Reply
  2. Elizabeth geary

    Apart from the fact that I worked in accounting and financial management, this so closely mirrors my experience I could have written it myself. I eventually packed it in and opted for work as a temp – plenty of work, no hassles, and I could sleep o’nights. Then I went back to university, got a couple of degrees, and now teach English to overseas students – in my own way, at my own pace, and as my own boss.
    Bliss!
    But I’ll never own my own house, or be a self-funded retiree: independence comes at a high price.

    Reply
    1. franc hoggle

      Elizabeth, no disrespect, but you remind me of a line that replays itself in my head. Guys have a problem with this idea of a “glass ceiling”. Why? Because most of us can’t see through the “glass carpet”. Having a dick no longer guarantees anything.

      Reply
  3. Mike

    If I can open up your discussion a bit, my observations are that once the “barriers to entry” are removed, there is not much difference between the men and women who rise to a certain point on the corporate/management/government ladder.

    What is perhaps most absent from those ranks is those who have a combination of leadership ability AND social empathy. One might further argue that our social norms correlate those more with females than males.

    In the 25+ years since I entered the full-time workforce, I’ve had a pretty even split of male and female managers. My two best managers and single worst were women. All the best (regardless of gender) were extremely proficient at the nuts and bolts of their business and all-round fabulous people to work with and for.

    I did one of those personality trait tests some time ago that pitched me as “Considerate Leader”, which is how I would assess the great people I had above me. Of course that doesn’t necessarily pay off in terms of how ruthless narcissists higher on the ladder may view their more than competent employees.

    I worked in the boys-club that is known as “investment banking” for about 7 years. The sexism is rampant (probably moreso in Australia than other parts of the Anglosphere) but it’s also a boys-club of beer, golf, footie and top-less waitresses that doesn’t admit males who don’t conform. I’ve heard similar reports from friends in more female-dominated areas like Human Remains Resources.

    The other way to move up the ladder is to be recognised for your goodness elsewhere and be shifted sideways or sideways and upwards onto another ladder. Here I think of celebrated scientists or workers in the social sphere who are invited to manage outside their core zone.
    Perhaps this is the key to moving ahead.

    Reply
  4. Greg

    It is sad that I had no trouble visualising the scenarios you experienced as I’ve seen examples too many times over a 45+ year life in the business world.
    Early in my career as a senior manager I learned that all the corporate talk of equality etc was merely window dressing and I came to expect negative reactions nearly every time I promoted females (on merit) into managerial jobs. I asked one capable woman why she hadn’t sought promotion earlier and she said she didn’t need the grief as she had seen too many women damaged by their treatment in the boys only culture that was widespread. Apparently it was understood in her group that I was the only exec (out of 6) who actually played by the rules. My success in business was definitely due to the quality of my team which was predominantly female. Sadly after my eventual retrenchment following a restructure my replacements managed to alienate many of my appointees who left and now 6 years later the business has just appointed its 4th exec in a doomed endeavour to halt the ongoing business decline. Maybe one day one of the whiz kids will work out that simply treating all staff as equals regardless of age, sex, race, gender or sexuality is the key to success.

    Reply
  5. Kirsty Bruce

    Thanks Chrys for another wonderful post. Opening up the way you have, so that other’s might learn a hard lesson the easy way, is a gift and I am grateful.

    In his condescending feedback in the comments section, what [the male blogger] really fails to acknowledge during his lecture on how we must all endure ‘life lessons’, is that nobody actually wants to write an essay like this. Nobody wants to be labelled a whiner. Nobody wants ‘defeat’ to be their epitaph. And some of the words which he uses, such as ‘choices’ and ‘own path’ only further highlight his lack of understanding about this topic.

    And so for his benefit, I would like to move the conversation to the real point of feminism. It is not in the boardroom that we should measure its success or failure but at the back of the queue. Most women on the planet have no rights over their own bodies let alone career paths. This is not a dead horse but a mass-grave.

    Recent commentary in the media surrounding International Women’s Day indicate that more people would agree with [the male blogger’s] point of view than mine but there is one thing on which we can agree, and that is that quotas are not the answer.

    Reply
    1. Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear: Assorted Rants on Religion, Science, Politics and Philosophy from a bear of very little brain Post author

      I hasten to add that I don’t feel in the least ‘defeated’. In fact, I believe the decision to leave behind an environment that was slowly killing me, and opt for mature-age tertiary education followed by a retirement in which I am still politically, socially and intellectually engaged is a triumph.

      I also agree that leaving corporate Australia is hardly a tragedy compared to the fate of women in third-world countries and cultures. But, ultimately, if we in the first world can’t combat the inequity we face in our societies, how can we hope to help the women whose freedoms are so much less than ours and who face sexism and patriarchy far more deeply entrenched.

      I don’t think it is helpful for anyone to suggest that Western women should stop whining about their ‘privileged’ lot and turn their attention to our sisters in the third world. It reminds me of complaining about having to eat peas as a child and my grandmother telling me to think about the starving children in India. I could never work out how me eating my peas was going to alleviate the suffering of even one poor Indian child!

      It is not an ‘either’ ‘or’ situation. Western women need to continue to insist on equality AND they need to support women in other cultures. But, while we can’t even achieve equality in our own culture, we have to be realistic about how much help we can be (and how much harm we might do) in cultures with which we are far less familiar.

      Reply
  6. Doug Steley

    As a male in the workforce I have often seen things like this happening.

    Active and passive discrimination against women, I have worked in both male dominated and female dominated workplaces and noticed very little change in attitude.

    Many of the female bosses seem to actively prefer male workers to female ( though not for overtly sexual reasons they still do )

    I have lost count of how many meetings I have attended where smart capable women are ignored while men cluster together and congratulate and support each other.

    For many years I had a sad cartoon on my desk ( amongst many others )
    of a company meeting that said “That is a great suggestion Miss Jones perhaps if one of the men would care to make it we could act on it ”

    I did what I could to ensure my female employees and co workers got the recognition they deserved, this kind of action removed me from the mainstream “Group” and killed any hopes of promotion I may have had.

    If you want to get ahead you not only need to have balls you need to make sure you do not show you have them.

    It is a very selective pecking order and does not like those who would disrupt the way things have always been done.

    Reply
  7. RichardJ

    Wow. The experience you had makes me feel ashamed to be male.

    I wonder if I’m blind to it, but thankfully I have only seen one instance of the behaviour you experienced. In the early 90’s my wife was victimised by her manager; expecting her to do her job without any training, then shouting and being very vulgar, saying that she should have known.

    I’m so sorry that you had to deal with some many shitty people. That’s what they were/are.

    Richard

    Reply
  8. Shaun

    I now work in a company that is 80% women (including senior management). There are politics but there isn’t the male-driven ego games that I experienced in IT. It is a refreshing change and I like it.

    However in IT I did work in a department where all senior managers were women and it was hell. I ascribe that to the bizarre ideas of “good” management that Chrys notes as being a contributing factor to bad management. But I have seen blatant discrimination in IT against women. A good example is women in tech roles who were ignored no matter how good they were. And that was by women managers just as much as men.

    Reply
  9. Jarrah

    When I started to read this article I thought, “Another one who just doesn’t get it”. But as I read on I saw my own experiences over and over again.
    I (a woman) was hired the same day as another worker (a man). We were both mature aged IT graduates and neither of us had “experience”. (I had previously been a teacher not sure what he had been but not in IT).
    Despite the fact that “Bob” (name changed to protect the innocent) was argumentative and would often refuse to do jobs he didn’t like, he was earning 10k more than me.
    I had no system tester (due to illness of the tester) and was hauled over the coals when my work had bugs in it (everyone’s work had bugs initially but the system tester picked most up). I complained about having no system tester but was shouted down.
    My boss criticised me for being “too emotional” every time he yelled at me. Eventually I had a nervous breakdown and left.
    Now I teach seniors how to use computers and love it. Just like Elizabeth I’ll never own my own house or be a self-funded retiree. However I know my students respect me. I have had this first term off due to depression and I have had cards and letters wishing me to get well and come back. This would never have happened in my IT job!

    Reply
  10. DanDare

    My wife had very similar experiences and they lost a very competent manager when she, like you, decided she had had enough.

    And yes [male blogger], condescending was the correct term.

    You say life is full of injustice and hardship and “get over it”. You are implying you “got over it” and that that is the right thing to do, and anyone who doesn’t is just a whinger. I have a better idea, bear arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them.

    There are many arseholes in the corporate world. The treatment of women is just one way they perform their arsehole behaviour. Those who are competent and justice minded should do their best to stop this in as many battles as are needed.

    One of the difficulties, as my friend Chris Wilkins pointed out this afternoon during a rambling phone chat, is that corporate structure is the last refuge of feudalism, where higher ups are the lords (and sometimes ladies) of the manor and everyone else is a serf.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Down Under Feminist Carnival #35 | Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony

  12. meerkat

    So when you say “I’ve always felt it was a woman’s responsibility to fight her own battles in the workplace – no matter how bloody,” do you mean “You will have to work 5x as hard as any man for 1/5 the credit, so suck it up and work 30x as hard?” Because that is what it sounds like.

    Reply
    1. Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear: Assorted Rants on Religion, Science, Politics and Philosophy from a bear of very little brain Post author

      I meant that, throughout my career, I sought to fight my own battles. I made sure I was of economic value to each company I worked for and demanded remuneration based on that. If I didn’t receive it, I sought employment elsewhere. When I was treated with a lack of respect, I stood up for myself. When I was sexually harrassed, I defended myself. When I was interviewed for a job, I sought to show that I would bring better value to the company than any other applicant – whether they were male or female. When men put forward my work as their own, I confronted them and found ways to ensure it couldn’t happen again. I refused to act like a victim.

      Did I always win? No. Could I have used some ‘back-up’? Sure. But I wanted to ‘make it’ based on my own merits and fight any battles along the way in the same way that my male colleagues would – ‘man to man’. I don’t really see that any of the battles I had to endure would have been diminished by anti-discrimination boards, quotas, legislation or otherwise. In fact, I think the resentment would have been made worse.

      That doesn’t mean I think that anti-discrimination laws don’t have a place, or that women shouldn’t resort to the law where they have been badly aggrieved, but, on the whole, I think that we have to teach young women to stand up for themselves and be their own advocates – while encouraging older women (and men) to mentor the next generation rather than see them as competition.

      Reply
  13. pornonymous

    Hello– I recently came across your blog because [the male blogger] has excellent taste in subject matter, and a good recognition for women who transcend the tropes and stereotypes, and who actually get busy changing the world–not merely complaining about the need for change.

    If I may quote you? “I meant that, throughout my career, I sought to fight my own battles. I made sure I was of economic value to each company I worked for and demanded remuneration based on that. If I didn’t receive it, I sought employment elsewhere. When I was treated with a lack of respect, I stood up for myself. When I was sexually harrassed, I defended myself.”

    This echoes my own experience completely–and I am a man! What other options are there, really?

    Generally, I am not a fan of modern incarnations of feminism, or, long articles.

    However, this is the most insightful, and poignant article I have ever read on the matter of a woman’s experience in the workplace–and all that without sole reliance on the glass ceiling metaphor!

    A very gripping read, and I empathize fully with your experience–and I feel those jerks who did those things to you–I am actually mad about how it works. I can’t honestly say i wouldn’t have bopped a few of those guys ( and gals!) in the nose!

    A very good read, from start to finish.

    I hereby award you the Versatile Blogger Award for your insight into the issues of employment harassment, and how good women fight to make the world a better place–starting with themselves, as fighters.

    If you would like to participate, you can pick up a VB badge on my front page.

    Reply
  14. dcarm85

    I am so saddened to hear your account, Chrys! It just makes me ask (yet again) WTF is *wrong* with Australian men? (I know not all Australian men are like this – I’m one of those Australians who happens to be male and consistently supports women in the workplace) I’m even more saddened and angered to hear that this ridiculous situation continues to this day in Corporate Australia. Shouldn’t we be better than that?

    And yes, there are women who are doing it worse. I believe that social movement needs to happen on all fronts at all times. We need to push the boundaries at the top end, while gathering up those who are worst off and improving their lot also. If you refuse to move forward at the “best” edge until everyone is equally off the “worst” edge, progress is slowed significantly. The people who are best at forging ahead pre-fight a lot of battles for people, provide landmarks and precedents while the rest of the movement support them and move to bring the most disadvantaged toward the centre of the window, helping them to improve their lot in life.

    Reply

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