As luck would have it, Voco’s newest team member - Claire - joined us just in time for International Women’s Day, and given she’s, ahem, a little bit younger, we thought it was the perfect opportunity for a cross-generational conversation about women in the workplace.
Claire: What obstacle am I still to face that I may not know yet?
Katie: The biggest obstacle I crashed into was the disconnect between what I thought my experience of work would be, and what it actually was. As an only child, with very supportive parents, I’d never been told I couldn’t do anything, so to be faced with a metaphorical brick wall was quite challenging.
I’d, perhaps naively, never really considered that my gender would play a role in my career - and because I started out in a female-led PR agency, it didn’t. But as I moved on and up, I began to encounter implicit sexism, both in the work and opportunities I was given and the way my views and opinions were received, and it shocked me. The age-old example of the woman in the room being told to take notes, even if she’s not the most junior, was certainly true back then! Raising the subject of sexism was also tricky and was often dismissed with comments like ‘oh, you’re just having a whinge’ or ‘don’t take things so seriously’. I’m sure that wouldn't wash now!
I think for your generation, there’s so much more awareness of explicit and implicit sexism, and so much more expectation that it won’t happen, but I’m not actually sure that much has changed, so encountering the disconnect might hurt even more for you. But there’s also a much bigger opportunity to call out inequality and to reset the dialogue on women at work and in leadership, so there’s also hope that we’re now in more enlightened times than we were 20 years ago.
Katie: What challenges do you think women in the workplace face today that I didn’t 20 years ago?
Claire: I think that, because of the success of movements like Me Too and Time’s Up, we are now hyper aware of sexual misconduct and bias in the workplace. Mostly this is a huge positive but I believe it can also serve as a negative as it can push certain aspects ‘underground’, and it puts the responsibility on those being harassed to find and report it.
For example, if I were to find comments that a colleague made inappropriate or gendered, because there is this implicit agreement socially that this behaviour is bad and we want it to change, it is my responsibility to always call it out. The onus is still on those experiencing the issue to fix the problem. I must be the one to report the behaviour, if I don’t then it comes back to me and questions are asked like why didn’t you say anything.
Also, the spotlight on male behaviour has caused some to operate in a more covert way: being sexist in a way that is difficult to detect, disguising contempt with backhanded compliments and so on. Although these instances seem small, they’re clearly based in some form of bias that you can’t emphatically prove like traditional sexism and so it is left to fester and grow.
Claire: What part of work culture are you glad I no longer have to face?
Katie: I may be wrong, but I think there’s less pressure now to be ‘one of the lads’. In my 20s and 30s there was definitely pressure to be seen as a ‘cool girl’ at work, to laugh at inappropriate jokes, or to downplay my womanhood. I felt like there was a huge need for women to be ‘in the line of sight’; to make sure you were on certain trips or nights out so you were thought of for projects or promotions, and if you weren’t you would be looked over.
I think now there’s less of a need to go along with things, or to compromise who you are or your boundaries in the workplace - well, certainly in the industries that I’ve worked in anyway. And I hope now that projects and promotions are awarded based on merit rather than social skills outside the office!
Katie: As a member of Gen Z, how do you think about gender?
Claire: I personally believe gender to be a construct. I find it odd that people prescribe materialistic things to gender like colours or clothes. The idea that someone would have an issue with whether I wore male or female clothing to me is almost laughable. There is the curiosity with those who are outside of social norms but there is absolutely no valid reason to police it. Obviously there are lines drawn when it comes to revealing clothing in the workplace but it should be of no concern to an employer how I dress.
I personally find that gender is something I can play with and I use clothes to express how I feel that day, sometimes choosing more masculine or feminine pieces but having my personality be the thing that shines through the most. There is no need to constrain people, people should identify, dress or act how they feel most comfortable and confident, it is no business of mine.
Claire: What do you think still needs to be addressed for women in the workplace that my generation needs to conquer?
Katie: There still aren't enough women at the top, and I think the inequality in terms of attitudes to parental leave is the root cause, and I’m saying that as a woman without kids! Despite attempts at introducing shared parental leave in the UK, the reality is the burden of childcare - and the resulting negative impacts in terms of career development - fall on women. That stalls progress, and means women are consistently seen through a lens of having to have chosen the career or the family; whereas men are generally free to proceed without having to choose.
I also think inequality in parental leave negatively impacts women without kids too, as too often the women in leadership debate is centred on the need to ‘have it all’, and women without kids are criticised for not being ‘motherly’ enough - just look at how Angela Merkel, Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May were all vilified for not having children! Until men and women bear equal responsibility for their family choices, all women will suffer. I think it’s no coincidence that Denmark, Sweden and Finland all have female prime ministers when you consider how progressive the Nordic model of childcare is!
Katie: What superpowers do you think Gen Z women have that Gen X women can learn from?
Claire: I think our superpower is our boundaries. We are very sure of ourselves and assertive when we don’t agree with someone or don’t feel comfortable. We don’t ‘um and ah’ about whether something is right or wrong; we are assured in our decisions.
I don’t feel nervous about setting a boundary with my employer. Simple things like please do not send me work items over the weekend is something older generations would be worried to say in case it showed a lack of commitment. Whereas my generation do not view career and the be all and end all, and know that in order to be happy and fulfilled there must be a balance. I feel very lucky that I do not have the burden of questioning my worth.
Claire: What’s your favourite part of being a woman in the workplace?
Katie: My favourite part is just being a woman! Overall, I think I have been pretty lucky professionally and haven’t been held back too much by my gender. I like being able to bring my empathy to bear, and to have the freedom to work hard on the things that I care about.
As a woman I don’t have to prove my dominance and assert myself in a similar way to a man, which in an odd way is liberating. Many men seem to have this sense of what they think is expected of them, and with that comes a pressure to achieve and be a 'breadwinner', whereas I don’t have those gendered constraints and can choose my path without the pressure of needing to fulfil the ‘masculine’ role.
Katie: What did you want to be when you grew up and did your gender influence your choice?
Claire: That’s a tricky one for me. I grew up in a very literary, progressive household, my dad was a journalist and my mum was a publisher. So I always felt like whatever I did it had to be righteous and important, and I had to solve one of the big world issues that my dad would talk about. I daydreamed about creating an app to tackle the refugee crisis or finding a cure for something, which when I look back now almost seems sweet. But in total, honestly I secretly wanted to be a ballet dancer - the ultimate vision of female perfection!