Friday, April 19, 2024

After-Work Drinks, Networking On The Golf Course & Being The Token Woman: The Invisible Battles Women Are Still Fighting In The Workplace

Would you like some infuriating facts, stats and realities to accompany your International Women’s Day celebrations? Powrsuit co-founders Natalie Ferguson and Kristen Lunman share the invisible battles that women are still fighting in the workplace – and how to work around them.

When Natalie Ferguson and Kristen Lunman first started Powrsuit, a membership network for women leaders, they saw how much of the professional conversations about women in the workplace focused on the stats: the percentage of CEOs that are female in Aotearoa, the gender pay gap, how flexible work conditions benefit women, etc. But as the former co-founders of investment platform Hatch, they knew that the stats were only one part of the equation, they don’t cover the lived experience of many women – those already in high level roles, and those aiming to get there.

Because companies can talk a good talk, and even put in positive actions to make the workplace more equitable, but the fundamental truth is that “the workplace was not designed with women in mind” says Kristen. Despite the well-intentioned International Women’s Day breakfasts, or gender pay gap conversations, there are a range of invisible barriers that mean that this generation of working women are still fighting the same fights as their predecessors.

So let’s take a deep dive into those.

1. Networking Is Not A Natural Fit For Women:

Aka Why After-Work Drinks Are Inconvenient For Most People

“Women are the nominated go-to for making sure social things happen, but when you ask your friends how often they sit down and formally talk to their friends about work, it’s virtually never,” says Nat. “So we end up having shallower networks because of that.”  

Think about it – sure, you’ll get together with your friends over a wine and bitch about your new boss, or your ever-extending responsibilities, or bemoan the state of your industry. But there’s a big difference between complaining and networking – one is a dead end, one gives you options. And with a staggering 50% of jobs being found outside of job ads, via networking, that puts women at a massive disadvantage.

But women aren’t encouraged into the networking space because, let’s face it, it sounds dry as hell – either you’re standing in a room wearing a name tag, nursing an average glass of Sav, or you’re with a bunch of men playing golf. What are we, 70? No, thank you. Even the idea of after-work drinks only works well if you’re single, childless, and, let’s be honest, young. If you are a solo parent, you’re out. If you’re juggling childcare with a partner, you’re out. If you’ve got a bad commute, see ya! What if you just don’t like drinking? It’s yet another space designed by men, for men.

Natalie recalls a recent conversation she had with someone where they were questioning why golf feels like an appropriate place for a day’s networking, but a female group heading for a spa day to talk shop would feel “flippant” in comparison, even though the reality would be chic as hell.

Action Point: Get Proactive

To find your network, you can do a couple of easy things, says the Powrsuit team. Number one, use LinkedIn more. Yes, you may have shuddered reading that because, as Nat says, “women tend to hate LinkedIn.” But it’s an accessible space to start finding your tribe, she says. “Writing a comment, sharing a post or sharing a comment about something you’re knowledgeable about is one of the easiest ways to expand your professional network with low effort.”

For a slightly higher effort move, start your own peer group to talk work. “Select a group of five or six friends who you have something in common with, on a work perspective, and ask them out for a drink to talk about work.” (We’ll have a longer piece on how to form a networking group running next week!)

2. ‘You Don’t Mind Taking The Minutes, Do You?’

Aka Women Are Still Considered The Caregivers – At Home AND At Work

The caregiving responsibilities placed on women are still ever-present, both at home and in the workplace. If you’ve ever been in a room with men who are your professional equals, and found yourself either always taking the notes, or organising the water or coffee, then this point will be all too familiar to you. “Women, on average, do 200 hours more of non-promotable work a year, which adds up to a month’s work,” says Kristen. “That can include everything from fetching coffees, to running diversity and inclusion committees – it’s not recognised, it’s just an expectation that we’ll put our hands up.”

And there’s the ever-present mental load at home. “Women are expected to take on most of the caring duties, so we suffer from the juggle,” says Kristen. During Covid, when women were doing the majority of home schooling their children while also maintaining their jobs, there was a rise in flexible working conditions because, well, there was simply no choice.

But as the acute part of the pandemic shifts away, those hybrid working models or working-from-home options are slowly being stripped from a lot of roles – and it’s women who suffer the most. “The roll-back of these policies is quite dangerous; the demanding of everyone to come back into the office and the return of ‘9 to 5’, is very shaped around men – because women have only entered the workforce in modern times,” Kristen says.

Action Point: Practise Saying No In Different Ways

“Awareness is key – and once you’ve got that, you can start practise saying no,” Kristen says. This can be hard for all of us, because women love to be helpful and also tend to be seen as difficult if we start drawing boundaries around ourselves. But it’s all in the wording, she says. Her suggestions: “’That sounds like an incredible opportunity, can I learn a little bit more about what is involved?’” or “That sounds like an incredible opportunity, but my plate is full and I can’t take that on right now.’”

3. The Subtle Bias Of ‘Confident’

Aka Why We Need To Watch The Language We Use Around Work

Executive presence. Confidence. Leadership. “We have very strong ideas around what those words mean and for me, confidence has become a real bug bear,” says Nat. “It’s so weaponised against women, because somewhere along the line we have conflated confidence with competence – but confidence is strongly male, when you think about it in terms of leadership. It’s strongly masculine – that idea of walking into a room and being physically bigger, being louder, being more assertive and more autocratic. And if you don’t have those same traits, then you’re not seen as confident.”

Nat recalls speaking to a Pasifika manager who missed out on a job because she wasn’t seen as confident enough. This was a woman who had all skills, all the experience, and was respected by her team as a high achiever. “But she didn’t appear confident enough, because she took a far more collaborative approach to leadership, rather than an autocratic one.” These words that then become labels that get applied to different people have bias built into them, Nat says. “As a result, women don’t identify as leaders because they think they’re missing the things they need to have to be a leader, because they don’t see role models that look and act like them.”

Action point: Focus on your strengths

“Ask the people around you to identify your top 3-5 strengths and start to build your own unique leadership identify, rather than feeling like you have to adhere to one you see everywhere,” says Nat. “Because given the leadership stats as they are, you will probably find you don’t have a lot of role models who look and act like you.”

4. ‘Oh, It’s Just Tokenism’

Aka Why It’s Hard & Lonely To Be The First Or Only.

“Quite often I’ll get speaking gigs and I know it’s because I’m the token woman,” Kristen says. “I know it! I’ll take up the space because I always say yes, because I don’t need to prove my self-worth to anyone. But it’s a very hard space to be in.”

If you are in a space where you don’t yet fit in – be it in age, ethnicity, or gender – then not only are you having to constantly prove that you belong there, while dealing with your own feelings of tokenism and self-worth, you’re also constantly fielding the micro aggressions that come with that loneliness. It could be anything from navigating the same dumb jokes to dealing with inappropriate language – and it’s exhausting.

In good news, “there’s an inflection point of critical mass where it changes,” Kristen says. “For instance, when a board goes from being totally vanilla and homogenous to nonhomogeneous and it’s 30%.” So when 30% of a board includes diversity, you shift the behaviour and culture of a group. “But as the first and only, that behaviour doesn’t change.”

Action Point: Allies, Get Involved

“This is an action for allies,” Nat says. “If you find yourself in a position where you have under-represented groups – and a minority of them – then your job is to amplify their voices.” It can be as simple as repeating what they say and allocating it to them – rather than letting them be talked over or ignored by the rest of the group.

“Keep track of how many people are speaking in meetings and track where the loudest voices are, make space for other voices,” she adds. “These are very simple tools that allies can use to be aware that these spaces don’t happen by accident, you have to be proactive about working your way towards better representation.”

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