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A Woman At Work: The Surprising Parts We Don't Want To Talk About

27/04/2017 17:32
David Crunelle / EyeEm via Getty Images

I haven't had a long career, but it has been an eventful one - and not always in a good way. When I say that I work in the construction sector and have faced some problems as a woman, people jump to the conclusion that these problems happen out on construction sites with tradespeople coming out with misogynistic comments. This hasn't been the case, and the reality is not what people expect. The problem trickles from middle management downwards, building an insidious culture that radiates into the wider company. Unacceptable perceptions and behaviours become something to which people become accustomed, and treat as normal and acceptable.

Let's start with cases of outright harassment: I have had a senior member of staff follow me home from the office. I've also been sent offensive and inappropriate text messages (e.g. what a colleague wanted to do to me, of a sexual nature). And then there were the uncomfortable levels of physical contact. You would assume that there is a simple fix to these issues: report it to HR. But at the time, this did not feel like an option. My co-workers told me that a complaint would reflect badly on me. I'd be seen as a troublemaker, or someone who was overly sensitive or couldn't take a joke. And besides, in some cases the man in question was very senior and important: at the end of the day, if it was between him and me, it would be easier to find an excuse to subtly remove me.

It got worse and I ended up telling a manager about instances related to one man, but little action was taken to reprimand him. I ended up taking a role on a construction site, to be away from the office (away from him) - which later backfired in my progress and pay review. My assessor noticed my absence from the office but did not understand what I was doing in that time (or why I didn't want to be in the office), nor was he willing to let my supervisor on site to undertake the review.

Then there are more subtle barriers to progression. On one occasion, I grew frustrated with the type of work I was being asked to do by a colleague. I tried to explain to him what my previous experience was, and how I could contribute more to the team by engaging some of these skills. When nothing changed, I revised my approach and explained that I felt like I was working as his secretary -writing up meeting minutes, sifting through lengthy documents and summarising key points for him to take forward in discussions with others (without me). I don't expect all my tasks to be glamorous or exciting, but doing the work I was doing as a professionally qualified engineer whilst he presented work and took on the technical aspects and credit was, in my opinion, not giving me a fair opportunity to prove myself and advance. On sitting down with him to tactfully say so, his response was, "I think that you're just being too sensitive about this."

In another situation, I was meant to replace a colleague (around my age) in a client meeting. The gentleman running the meeting (from another department within my company) rang my colleague to ask if he was planning on attending. When he said no, but mentioned that our head of department had nominated me to take the meeting, the gentleman running the meeting said that he'd rather have no one come from our department than have me attend. This was coming from a man who had seen me once, but knew nothing of my professional background, qualifications or skills. Surely my head of group would be in a better position to make that judgement?

I mentioned this incident to my director, who laughed nervously but did nothing. I asked him to have a word with the person concerned, but he shrugged it off. When I mentioned this event later, his genuine response was, "have you not got over that?". The man calling the meeting was wrong, but in my view, my director should have spoken to him and discussed the matter. He should feel able to enquire as to why this decision was made, and if necessary, should call out unacceptable behaviours.

I'm not convinced that change in perspectives or behaviours will come from the head of HR or the head of a women's network telling a company how things need to change or presenting the business case for it. Nor will it come from a compulsory e-learning module that defines words like "discrimination" and "harassment" and tells people these are bad things. From what I've witnessed, these can make such issues into a joke without conveying their impact.

Don't get me wrong, I love that I chose engineering as a career and would encourage people to go into it. I get to use my skills to solve problems - real life, tangible problems that society faces. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers provide a great opportunity to do this, and it's a shame that so few girls at school choose them. However, in parallel, we need to address the issues that women face in the work place. There is no point encouraging women into a workplace culture which will put them down and prevent them from accessing good opportunities. Sexism is so ingrained in the workplace that people don't notice it, and the mechanisms put in place to combat it are not working.

I am sharing this now because I do not want to see the young people I meet, work with or supervise go through the same things. I want people not just to promote strong women as publicity figures, but consider the workplace culture for all women and men who feel uncomfortable or are unnecessarily held back. And people shouldn't have to feel scared to speak out, for fear that it would be considered against them in future professional endeavours.

The issue is complicated. It ranges from reaction (or inaction) to direct sexism, to subtler behaviours that result in barriers to progression. This is just one set of stories, one view. I'm out of space here, but I'll share a few more in the next few weeks.

All men and women have an important role to play: even if you are a fair and respectful colleague yourself, remember to keep your eyes open. Not just for outright cases of harassment or discrimination, but even just challenging jokes or comments that are out of line, or make women or men feel uncomfortable. Remember that the feeling of not being able to speak out for fear that it would affect professional progression is not unusual for women. Just because you yourself don't immediately see what's happening, it does not mean that discrimination and harassment do not happen.

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