A special place in heaven – Choose to Challenge
The theme for International Women’s Day this year is “choose to challenge”. One thing that women need to challenge is a popular belief that there is no problem in the current workplace. It is STILL a significantly uneven playing field. The issues are subtle but insidious. The centuries old paradigms of what are and are not “approved behaviours” for women still effectively add up to a silencing paradigm that makes women not want to speak or makes it hard to be heard when they do. When women are not heard, it can have massive repercussions: on their reputation, their progress, and their career. It is a major contributor to the fact that at entry level the work force is 50% women but by senior management level it is only 21%.
The reality is there are still double standards that mean if you are an assertive woman, you are labelled as aggressive, and if you respond strongly when being ignored, interrupted or spoken over then you’re labelled as a bitch, a ball-breaker and even worse descriptors.
The issues – interruption, ideas appropriation, judgement, criticism, micro-aggressions, unconscious bias – are mostly subtle so it is easy for women to be unaware of the problems and barriers they face. More than a glass ceiling, it is a glass wall that women frequently walk into – they do not realise what is in front of them until they bang into it! It is hard to challenge what you do not clearly see.
So, step one is to recognise the issues and step two is to deal with it. Not everyone is in a position to challenge issues head on, but one thing that can be challenged is the role of women’s groups. Many workplaces have them and many are helpful outlets for women to vent frustrations, but the challenge is what more can groups of women do to bring about actual change?
Madeline Albright was the first women to be Secretary of State in the USA, and she was famous for saying there was a special place in hell for women who fail to support other women. A more positive interpretation might be that there is a special place in heaven for those that do.
It’s much easier for women to support other women than for individuals to defend themselves. For example, if someone interrupts or talks over a woman, it can be hard for a woman to speak up and insist on being heard without being criticised, much easier if another woman says, “I don’t think Jane had finished her point. What was that again?” Given that it can be hard for women to be heard, other women can help amplify other women, giving them credit for their points, their solutions and achievements.
The BBC women’s group is a particularly good example of how effective women can be in helping each other equalise the playing field.
I spoke with Martine Croxall, BBC News presenter and National Union of Journalists representative, about how it started and how it works now.
“The group, now several hundred-strong, began with a letter signed by 44 women after the BBC high-earners list was published in 2017, showing that men were paid more than women for equal work. It started as a single-issue campaign for equal pay, but we soon realised there were other concerns to tackle: maternity discrimination, career progression, part-time working, lack of visibility for the work we do.
From the start, we wanted to be more than a women-only confidential space in which to offload worries and to have a moan, as important as that is. Without a mission and purpose, such a group can quickly become an echo chamber. We wanted to be part of bigger conversations, as that is where decisions get made and that includes men.
We soon realised that we could share our knowledge of equalities legislation and other employment laws as members fought their pay battles and faced workplace problems. We could accompany each other to internal hearings, propping each other up when the process took its toll.
Women often find it difficult to talk about their own successes for fear of seeming immodest. Much easier then for us to promote each other’s work, perhaps on social media so it reaches a wider audience. We also collaborate on news stories, help each other generate programme ideas, share interview contacts and alert each other to job opportunities. Perhaps best of all, we have all got to know colleagues from across the BBC whom we would not normally have met, and new friendships have formed from the network.
There are also a growing number of male colleagues who are willing to promote, champion and amplify what women do as allies in the pursuit of equality. We set out to be more than a talking shop – while there’s more to do, we have certainly achieved that.”
The BBC women’s group are a great example of creating a significant role for women’s organisations in the workplace. They also illustrate that choosing to challenge is much easier when you have safety in numbers.
About the Authors
Patricia has a broad and deep experience of being a woman in the workplace. This was initially working in senior sales management and latterly has been as a consultant. Patricia has always been a passionate advocate of gender balance in the workplace and has recently published a book called “She Said! “which is a practical handbook for women speaking and being heard, overcoming the silencing drivers and unconscious bias in organisations.
Martine worked for BBC Radio Leicester from 1991 presenting and reporting. Martine’s first television work was for the BBC’s regional news programme, East Midlands Today. She then worked for BBC Newsroom South East in 1997 and now is a BBC News Channel presenter. A sought-after event host and a NUJ rep campaigning for equal pay.