Years ago, browsing through one of my favourite websites, I stumbled on a story about Baroness Greenfield – Britain’s most prominent female neuroscientist of the Royal Institution. She was suing the Royal Institution for gender discrimination after being ousted as director of the company. At first, I wasn’t really interested in the story. Not because I do not sympathise or believe that gender discrimination exists. I was simply in a hurry to get to my favourite columns on the website. As I was about to leave the story completely, a phrase in the article caught my attention. It was something about the baroness believing she was a victim of the ‘boys club’.
The Boys’ Club
Months before that, a former colleague had come to me regarding alienation by her male colleagues and team lead. I had given the usual advice to ‘keep being your best.’ It may have seemed flippant and naïve, but I suspect it was because I had not personally faced that type of situation at the time. Don’t get me wrong, I knew gender discrimination in the corporate world existed, but I hadn’t paid close attention to it. I was surrounded by a network of women doing well. Some of them were Bank Managing Directors, Executive Directors and General Managers all across different sectors.
Fast forward to when I read about Baroness Greenfield, and I found myself thinking. This was a woman suddenly told that her role no longer existed. Prior to that, she was the only female appointed to the position of director throughout the 211 year life span of the Institution. That an organisation that old had produced only one female director convinced me that the many traditional men in the male-dominated field must have found her position a little out of place. I am not saying they wanted to relegate her to the bottom of the organisation outrightly. After all, they probably recognised that she brought intellectual contribution to the table. What they may have wanted then was simply to shake her off the helm of affairs. Perhaps all of this is a conspiracy theory from my imagination which tends to run wild, but it is something I can picture clearly.
It is something I’ve now learnt to recognise. It often starts with simple things like inside jokes that exclude the woman. Men phrases common only to the men at meetings, or meetings that occurred when the men were out hanging together.
My former colleague who had complained about alienation by her male colleagues told me how even the most mature men could act childishly, just to alienate a woman from the ‘boys club.’ For her, it had been so subtle that the woman on the receiving end could run the risk of looking petty if she tried to address it.
During discussions with an elderly male American I met on a trip, he told me his son was a marine and that they often prayed they had fewer women in their groups during a project. He said his son said women just ‘spoil things.’ I asked for more clarification and he said ‘they simply change the dynamics’. I probed further but he still could not explain, so I told him my opinion. That men felt the need to compete more or prove themselves more in the presence of women. Consequently, that may be the reason why they feel that women change the dynamics.
What really worries me is how it appears that the business of men grouping together against women begins from childhood. Even my little boys tell me with an attitude that ‘they are going out with Daddy’. Their voices ringing with excitement and the implied exclusivity: “it’s a boy’s only outing, no mummies!” But I have this to say to men from all cadres of life. It would be difficult for women to ‘leave men alone’! Not when women have paid the same amount of fees and worked hard to better themselves as well as men have. Not when women have ambitions too.
The Drain on Women
Years ago, in California, USA, a crop of female leaders in Entertainment, Finance, Education, Law, and Media joined a group of high school girls and college women to discuss the status of women and girls in California. At the event, participants learnt that women in the state earned more Associate, Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees than their male peers. However, only 62 percent of these women were employed full-time, as against 72 percent of men. Women still occupied traditionally female and traditionally undervalued occupations like health care, education, and administrative jobs, and worse, men still made more money than women in all those fields.
Common sense tells us that women’s educational successes should translate directly to workplace gains. Yet, it hasn’t worked out like that. And I fear that in some ways, women’s success early in life only intensifies the rude awakening women receive when they are ejected out of the boys’ clubs in the corporate world. One particular participant at that California summit reported that male dominance in her field left a persistent drain on her. According to her, powerful women were often dismissed as bitches, and then ‘neutralised’. Some of the women dropped out and had kids. Naturally, this participant’s career ambitions narrowed. She started to see every other person as a threat, including women. Perhaps, she had internalised the idea that there was no room for all of us. She didn’t have any ledger on which to chart this slow sexism that marked her industry, no objective report to confirm that the bias mattered. And so more often or not, it continued to be dismissed with a wave of a hand!
After reading all these, I recalled a Mentor to Protégée advice I had read somewhere. Interestingly, it was titled ‘how to break into the boys club.’ Here, the Protégée was advised to study the sports page of newspapers even though she may not be a fan of golf or football. The reason was simple; women will need to talk sports with their male bosses some day. I wonder: Should we have or even need to do this?
I am not sure the debate can be fully exhausted. We women will have to keep probing and keep sharing our experiences of office alienation. Hopefully the men, as well as some women, will listen and learn. Hopefully the younger generation will do way better.
Please share your thoughts and any interesting experiences you may have in the comment section. We would love to hear from you. We believe it’s important to keep speaking about Women’s Issues.
*This article first appeared in BusinessDay and is republished with the permission of the author.