On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017, technical director Clare Wildfire and equality, diversity and inclusion manager Richard Chapman-Harris discuss the challenges women can face in male-dominated environments and how we can all be part of a culture change in the workplace.
Richard Chapman-Harris: Reflecting on this year’s theme of ‘Be Bold For Change’, can you think of a time when you were ‘bold’ for gender equality?
Clare Wildfire: One of my proudest ‘be bold’ moments was when – as a relatively young engineer – I was being pressurised in a meeting to agree to a contractually significant issue that was not in my company’s interests. There was no legal reason for me to capitulate and, in front of the whole meeting, it became a battle of wills. In the end I found myself calmly saying “I know what you want me to say, but it’s not going to happen”, which brought the discussion to an end.
I’m not sure if there is a gender-specific angle to this – I sometimes have an assumption that everyone else knows more than me and I’ve read this can be a hurdle many women and men face. In this situation I was adamant that I wasn't going to be swallowed up by it. On reflection I realise that sticking to your convictions can be difficult and it’s important to be brave enough to challenge ideas, even when there appears to be consensus among others.
RCH: Is it sometimes harder to challenge when you’re in the minority? What about challenging the majority, is this a ‘gender issue’?
CW: I feel it’s especially pertinent for women like me operating in a majority male industry where some things are seen as the understood norm. Looking at things differently and challenging them provides an opportunity to improve and evolve those ‘norms’. How do you think we can challenge these everyday ‘norms’ that may prevent change?
RCH: For me, it’s important to challenge the endemic sexism that happens on a daily basis. I sometimes feel that tackling the small and supposedly ‘innocuous’ behaviours can make it less likely you have to encounter major inequality issues that require a brave or bold challenge.
CW: Do you have any tips on calling out everyday sexism?
RCH: I always advise people to call out inequality as long as you are in a safe place. The use of language and certain behaviours may be seen as relatively ‘innocent’ or based on ‘blissful ignorance’ but they have a cumulative impact in policing the boundaries of gender inequality. Starting an email or a meeting with ‘Gents’ subtly suggests to any women reading or in attendance that their presence is not recognised as the norm. Even unconsciously it echoes the message that women are a marginalised minority.
This doesn’t mean that women are emotional wrecks who spend all day hanging on every word for validation – in fact it surprises me that we don’t have more women enraged by this seemingly unending exclusion. However, at current rates, true gender equality in the workplace won’t be seen until 2187. So the next time someone commits this error, I’d suggest a gentle reminder or nudge – maybe include a link to an article such as this explaining the problem to save you having to explain again and again.
What have been your experiences as often the only woman in a male-dominated environment?
CW: It can vary where I am the only women in a group of anything between three or thirty men, and this has been the case for as long as I can remember. In the early days I was shy and stuttering, but I gradually realised two things:
Firstly, my contribution often brought a different slant to the discussion. As my day job relates to using engineering solutions to achieve better outcomes for people, citing parallel examples from other walks of life can inspire my audience to step outside their comfort zone and embrace change.
Secondly, I have a tendency to listen before contributing which I’ve noticed can be used to great advantage as a tool for summing up or smoothing potential friction or conflict.
I was very lucky that the company I worked for, ahead of its time in many things, also recognised this difference as a skillset to be nurtured.
Now, I very rarely get that ‘heart hammering’ feeling before speaking up, and I’ve honed my tools for combating it. I am now really keen to help others recognise and promote their strengths.
RCH: Any tips you can share on ‘leaning in’ – to coin Sheryl Sandberg – or ‘speaking up’ in meetings?
CW: My main advice is:
- If you didn’t get a word in edgeways at the time, don’t be afraid to return to a subject after the topic has moved on.
- If what you want to say is complex, note down your key points before you speak. If there is time, work at getting them across in as concise and ordered a manner as possible – this will hold more weight. Also, start with the punch-point and follow up with the explanation.
- If your thoughts are likely to be controversial or not what the audience wants to hear, think about where the ensuing conversation might go and plan a few constructive responses for various likely counter arguments.
As a ‘majority advocate’ in this area, what do you see as the key areas requiring positive change?
RCH: One key area I feel needs to change is the way people change their behaviour according to the gender of the person they are speaking to. We need to view how we interact through an inclusion lens and ask: do I treat everyone fairly? Am I noticing my gender biases and tackling these? Do I surround myself with men and women who are similar to and different from me? Do I teach and learn from others all the time?
Personally, I have reflected on how often I interrupt and even speak over colleagues, and noticed I do this especially to women. Reading Nancy Klein’s Time to Think helped me realise that I didn’t even know I was doing it!
Exploring Klein’s coaching principles have also been positive as it’s helped me examine how I communicate and also why I interrupt. It’s where my passion meets my impatience, something I need to tackle for my own benefit as well as those around me. It has also helped me realise the power of listening rather than a need to pre-empt what someone is saying and jumping in to respond. I’d recommend her book for #TalkativeInterruptersLikeMe.