IWD 2021 What it means to me after 25 years navigating sexism at work

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I was brought up by progressive parents who told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. I saw my mother running her own business and now I run my own.

For years, as a woman, I didn’t feel disadvantaged in my career. Even in my first job when the client referred to me and a colleague as ‘the girls’ and would only talk real business with the men on the team. Even in my second job, where women worked in client services ‘looking after’ the male designers (as someone described it).

It was when I was working as a brand strategist and had my first child that my opinion changed. A cliché, I know. I was told there would be no flexibility on my return and I had no option but to move on. At that point, my earnings stopped rising while my husband, who was similarly qualified and experienced, saw his progress. This is a husband who has always gone out of his way to play his part in childcare. But it wasn’t enough. I was physically exhausted by motherhood, I couldn’t keep up.

As I get older, I see more clearly that of course I was disadvantaged. I see that I lacked confidence in myself as a young woman due to cultural conditioning that stemmed from school, that I was automatically cast in support roles, that I should have been able to continue in my job after having a child. And I now see the special kind of sexism reserved for older women, the group taken least seriously of all (see my blogpost here). This is despite having everything going for me: good education, supportive husband, financial security.

It would take me another ten years for my career to catch up with my husband’s. Only possible through working for myself: setting my own goalposts and investing in my own development. The year that my earnings again equalled my husband’s was the year we were hit by Covid, a new obstacle.

Everyone has had a tough lockdown in different ways. For some it’s been devastating financially, and let’s not forget those who have lost loved ones or suffered the virus themselves. I am hugely thankful that I had an uninterrupted income with no government assistance, no grants, no furlough. What that meant was I was working flat out at home, with two children. My stress came from trying to resolve conflicting demands for my attention.

The first lockdown, I prioritised work. We gave up on home-schooling. They would catch up. The 2021 lockdown, I went part-time, turning down projects to spend my mornings schooling my ten-year-old. Having built my business for eight years and having just got it operating it at full whack, that was hard to do. But mine was the job that had flexibility built in while my husband’s did not. I’m glad I did it, I got closer to my children and enjoyed it too.

But numerous research projects have shown that lockdown has affected women’s ability to work more so than men. The irony of the much criticised government-issued graphic depicting women doing housework in lockdown is that it was true. Women did pick up the home-schooling, the childcare and the housework to the detriment of their work.

I’ve identified as a feminist my whole life. First out of principle. Then out of anger. Now, with a determination to work towards the change we need to see.

For me, being a feminist is a belief in equality and cohesion. I don’t identify with the female-only business networks or clubs. I’m left cold by local mumpreneur groups, female life-coaches and the motivational #girlboss rhetoric on Instagram. That they help some women is fantastic, but they are not for me.

I see a risk in positioning the female world as separate. I’d like us to reduce not increase division, for everyone to take part in work on an equal basis, in the same arena. I like working with men and some of my biggest advocates in work have been men. Balance is important and men can be the most important agents of change.

In all areas of life and work, it’s good to assume that there is no right or wrong answer. We each navigate our own way. For me, equality means being part of the national if not global scene in my industry, and having voice. I’m done with being told I can’t, or telling myself I can’t. If I sometimes sound provocative on social media, it’s my way of saying: I am here and I am allowed to have an opinion. This year, I’m proud to be on the judging panel for the Design Week Awards, something 22-year-old me never dreamt I’d be doing back in that first job in the design industry.

It’s hugely poignant that today, on International Women’s Day, the children have gone back to school. And I am back in my office. The next chapter starts here. I’m a 46-year-old woman, mother and company director with a 25 year career behind me. Now is the time for me to be taken seriously. I don’t want a girl posse and I don’t want a fight. I just want a little respect. As Aretha would say.