I said something at work today that I don't think I've ever said before. The conversation went something like this:
Phil: But do you think that maybe the donor just hasn't understood the way we calculate our fee rates?
Me: No. They understand it fine, and they don't have an issue with that. The problem is that we got our calculations wrong.
Phil: Really? I'm pretty sure I checked them and it all looked fine to me
Me: I know, you said, but as I said, the problem wasn't obvious. I've talked to Karen, I've talked to the donor and I've gone through the figures myself with a fine tooth comb. We screwed up and if we don't admit our mistake and correct it today, we're likely to make a horrible loss on this project.
Phil: Can't we just fudge the numbers a bit?
Me: Nope, it's too fundamental for that. Sorry, but I know I'm right on this one.
Not "I think I'm right" or "I'm probably right" but "I KNOW I'm right." You might not believe it from reading my rather opinionated blog (anonymity is great!), but conviction does not come naturally - I tend to be a little circumspect in all my dealings at work, as I don't like sticking my neck out unnecessarily or committing to absolutes. Today's declaration however was prompted by frustration (this debate had been going on some time and "Phil" just wasn't getting it) and an absolutely certain belief that I was right. After I said it, I half expected a klaxon to sound and someone with a wagging finger to burst in and proclaim me wrong, or arrogant, or both. Instead Phil just sighed and said "OK, fine. I'll talk to the donor and we'll sort it out." And he did.
Being authoritative felt good. More importantly, it also worked, and got me wondering why I don't do it more often - it's certainly not through a lack of situations in which I have a viable answer to the problem at hand. I suppose my timidity is the result of three factors. First of these is my basic personality. I am a bit of a perfectionist and slapdashery does not sit well with me. If I'm going to make a statement on anything, I want it to be absolutely ship shape and watertight, so if I'm not certain enough of the facts, I generally remain quiet. Second is my personal experience of humiliation (usually at the hands of the 'cool kids' at school), which has left me with a pathological fear of looking stupid. I'm not stupid, I know I'm not, but the thought that someone might laugh at me, or write me off as some blonde airhead because I say something a bit daft brings me out in a cold sweat. Which is unfortunate really, because I am a little prone to moments of catastrophic dizziness. Thirdly, conversely, I don't speak up much because I don't want to sound like I'm showing off, imposing my will on others, or trying to 'outdo' my colleagues. This is probably because I'm faux Dutch (i.e. English - if I were really Dutch, I'd have no such concerns over propriety), but also, as much as it pains me to say it, because I'm a women. I may not fit the blonde airhead stereotype (mostly), but unfortunately I do sometimes fulfil the social expectation that it's unseemly for women to wear their brains on their sleeves. Hearts fine, brains no.
Sexism in the workplace is a topic that has been discussed to death, but what rarely seems to be addressed is the fact that it's not just about men leering and jeering, or companies treating women unfairly. It's also about the more subtle limitations and pressures that women place on themselves in order to 'fit in' or be seen as 'acceptable', often entirely subconsciously. I will be honest - I have been very lucky and have never really been on the receiving end of any overt sexism in my career, or indeed anywhere else for that matter. Except for one time in Year 9 when my Design Technology teacher made some very ill advised comments about girls being better suited to domestic science, prompting a classroom wide "knit in" protest the following week (20 mins of sitting there knitting/sewing and refusing to do any work). I think we genuinely scared the shit out of him, as he made us all promise not to mention the incident to any other teachers or our parents. What a twat.
Anyway, I digress. I work for a research charity in which 60% of the staff are female. We have an excellent maternity leave scheme, a pay system that tries to ensure equality, a very relaxed attitude to flexible working, and no discernable 'glass ceilings' (our previous director was female, and nearly all of our senior management team are women). It's a really good place to work, especially as a new Mum. Yet if I think about general attitudes towards particular staff members - especially the most vocal ones - there is definitely a more critical stance taken against the women (bossy, pushy and difficult are all words I've cringingly heard used) than the men, simply because this is how wider society tends to view clever women. This in turn affects the way I behave.
Still, in an organisation like mine, being an uppity sort of lady might actually get you promoted if your assertions are robust and well evidenced. In other places, I know this is definitely not the case. I have one friend that regularly has to pretend to be far more bimboesque than she actually is to avoid 'threatening' her male peers. Another, who works for a large financial firm, has to do the opposite, and was recently told to "man up" when making redundancies so that the individuals affected wouldn't think she was a soft touch who could be persuaded to offer a better redundancy package. She largely ignored this instruction and even hugged a couple of people who ended up in tears, but spent the rest of the week paranoid that her boss would somehow find out she'd been 'nice' and discipline her for it. The problem with having to pretend to be somebody you're not in situations like these is that it's unsustainable. Either you grow tired of putting on an act and quit, or you put on an act so much that you become permanently desensitised to others and end up becoming a person you don't really like.
I don't want to push myself too far outside my comfort zone for this reason, but I do think I can probably relax a little more and stop being quite so worried about appearing big headed. Modesty is a positive attribute: it makes people nicer to work with and nicer generally means more approachable, more collegiate and thus more productive, whatever that obnoxious knobhead of a boss you once had might have insisted. There are times when it gets in the way though, and it's better just to be upfront and declare yourself right. So yes, clever ladies of the world, I call on you to join me in having courage in your convictions, and speaking up if you think you have the answers! I know it is hard to quash that little voice inside that tells you to be humble, but we won't change social norms if we constantly hide our intellectual lights under self-deprecating bushels. So don't be shy! I know I'm right about this! I mean I probably am... Possibly. Well anyway, it was just an idea...