It’s been great to see that a lot of people have been thinking about International Women’s Day this year. It has triggered some really interesting conversations. So much of the problem with inequality between men and women is not conscious, not intentional. It is ingrained in society. That’s why it is important to talk about it, to share experiences and learn from each other. This will enable us all to challenge the norms until there is equality.
My professional background is property: a male dominated industry. According to the latest newsletter from the governing body, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), only 17% of surveyors worldwide are women. I am fortunate to have rarely experienced outright sexism in the workplace. What I did experience many times was being the only female in the room (often accompanied by being the youngest and least senior). The vast majority of the time I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who noticed. I never felt I was treated any differently from or by my colleagues, but I was aware of being different.
In moving to a portfolio career of board roles and training/speaking, issues of equality are just as prevalent.
Women and the Boardroom
I’m a member of Women on Boards, a wonderful network promoting the benefits of diversity in the boardroom. The fact that an organisation like this exists shows that there is a need for it. The recent Hampton-Alexander review reports that the proportion of females in the boardroom is increasing – 34% females on FTSE 350 boards. There is however still a huge disparity between the number of male and female CEOs – only around 5% of CEOs of FTSE 350 companies are women.
Speaking to a friend yesterday, he mentioned how relatively soon after we’d met in 2014, I’d told him I wanted to be on the board of my company. I was always ambitious and interested in the boardroom. I had reached a relatively senior position and was confident my career would continue to progress. Maybe I’d have made it to the board as an executive eventually if I’d chosen to stay on that career path, however, there were no female surveyors on that company’s board. It is hard to look up and not see anyone like you. Someone who you can be inspired by and aspire to achieve what they have.
I once had a conversation with a male colleague about the issue. He could not understand why I was upset by the lack of females on the board, because I freely admitted that I’d never felt that I’d been treated differently or badly due to my gender up to that point of my career. The composition of the board looked like him. In a male dominated industry, he had never experienced what it was like to look around and not see someone like himself. Perhaps he simply didn’t think of me as different, great in some ways, but maybe it made him unable to appreciate the transformative power of role models leading the way for more women.
The same is true in the world of professional speaking. I attend a lot of keynotes and seminars. Both male and female speakers inspire me, but there are not as many female speakers out there. In the last major in person personal development event I attended before the pandemic, there were four speakers, three of whom were men. I admired the female presenter, she was a skilled speaker, but her particular message didn’t connect for me. One of the male speakers also didn’t engage me, whilst the other two did. A 50% hit rate is pretty good, but it would have been nice for the balance of male/female speakers to be equal, so there was more of a chance of being inspired by a female too.
I would love to see more women speak, whether giving keynotes, on panels or in leadership roles. That is why I am passionate about helping develop communication skills in those who are nervous about putting themselves forward as speakers and leaders. We need more women to do this to inspire other women to follow.
Language and Sexism
I am fascinated by language. Gender inequality is so ingrained in certain aspects of society that we often do not notice it – this includes language. There’s the fact women change their title depending on their marital status (Miss to Mrs), whereas men don’t. Women are referred to as “Miss” until they reach a certain age (judged by the person addressing them) at which point they become “Madam”. A man is always “Sir”.
I still often hear people refer to female colleagues as “girls”, e.g. “I’ve asked one of the girls in my office to look into that for you”. Somehow that is prevalent and acceptable, yet can you imagine a similar sentence referring to your male colleagues as “boys”? I’m sure most people who do it do not mean to be disparaging. It is an unconscious part of how our everyday language has developed. Yet it undermines women. Female colleagues are professional adults, not children. Early in my career, I used girl to describe female colleagues, because it was a norm in how language is used. Fortunately, I got to a point where I realised how awful it sounded and vowed never to do it again. Consciously controlling our language is something we can all make an effort to be aware of and do.
So what am I doing for International Women’s Day:
- Having more conversations about inequality that still exists
- Encouraging women to put themselves forwards for roles in the spotlight (and where I can, helping them to develop skills that will help)
- Being conscious of how I use language in a way to promote equality