I was recently lucky enough to attend Google’s International Women’s Day Summit, and the whole experience brought up a lot of questions which I’ve been thinking about since. The Ellen Pao case was on my mind that night, along with a truly frustration situation I was having with a male co-worker who insists on calling me ‘babe’ and my own increasing disillusionment with the tech industry in general. Seeing all these funny, accomplished, smart as hell women on stage at Google talking about their work was so inspirational and I think I’m still processing everything I took on at the event. One thing I talked to my Women Who Code colleagues about afterwards was the question of just taking up space as a woman and living with the consequences of that. Because, unfortunately, just the fact you are sitting at the table with the men, giving an opinion and having an extra X chromosome can be a radical thing and one that has all kinds of weird fall-out that you need to learn to navigate effectively. I can only speak for my personal experience, but I’m sure I’m not alone in some of these so I’ll just lay it all out and feel free to disagree with me.
Something that came up in conversation that night was the question of ‘office housework’ and how that gets delegated at work. Things like re-filling the coffee machines, tidying up the kitchen and reception areas, organising cards and cake for peoples’ birthdays – women are usually expected to pick up these small, extra jobs. And, like almost everything in an office environment, a task that can seem pretty benign and meaningless becomes a minefield of etiquette and expectations and hurt feelings.
I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by smart, successful women and early in my career I was advised to avoid the office housework if I wanted to be taken seriously. A manager at my last job (an awesome, supportive woman who I can’t speak highly enough of) pulled me aside when I started tidying up after a lunch meeting and told me, “Go and get one of the guys to come back in here and help you with the mess. He’ll probably call you a bitch behind your back tomorrow but who gives a fuck.” She told me later how important it is for our male colleagues to see us as equals and that doing those kinds of jobs only enforces the idea that women at work fall somewhere between a professional and a mother. I’m still trying to figure out how to say ‘No’ to a request to get a birthday card/clear out the fridge/re-fill the printer paper without having the ‘Not a team player’ strike against me, but I’m leaning towards a combination of having a sense of humour about it and also making it clear that the men I work with should be doing that stuff as well.
Which brings me to my next point: I’m getting more and more comfortable with making people uncomfortable at work and I can’t decide if this is a good or bad thing. This came up in the conversation I mentioned about taking up space as a woman and the two women I was talking with (one of of whom runs her own software company, the other is a VP at Citigroup), agreed that if you want to be a woman who is successful at her job you occasionally need to push past the instinct to make everybody happy. Women tend to question themselves more, speak up less and spend too much time worrying about making somebody feel bad. Sooner or later you need to jump over that hurdle and just say what you mean without couching it in vague, round-about phrasing to soften the blow of you having an opinion. Obviously there is a way to do this while still being polite and friendly but believe me: men do not think about this stuff that much. They think about getting ahead and impressing their boss, and they don’t have to deal with that extra level of hazy ‘What if I say this and everybody thinks I’m too bossy’ concerns. I still worry a lot about that kind of thing because of course, I don’t want the people I work with to hate me. But I’m slowly getting better at pushing those worries to one side and focussing on my job and so far it’s worked out okay.
It’s scary, but I started off practicing this in small ways, one of which actually came up while I was on my way to Google last week: I was on the tube leaving London Bridge, sat down and there was an empty seat next to me. I was typing something on my phone, so had my elbows propped up on the arm rests and at the next stop this guy sat down next to me. Cue the battle for the arm rest, and I refused to yield (this dude was wearing sunglasses 58 miles underground which only strengthened my resolve). He managed to carve out a little spot for himself on the arm rest but it was pretty clear he wanted in on my sweet elbow real estate, and I wouldn’t budge. Reading this back, I realise this seems incredibly petty and dumb but I think most women will agree with me when I say it’s hard to just be like, ‘I’m here, this is what I’m doing and you need to get used to it’. You want people to like you, you want to make everyone happy and too often that desire supersedes your professional concerns.
Joan Rivers said something once about how the most radical thing a woman can do is let people think they’re mean. I’m slowly coming to terms with the idea that part of being female, at work, and being good at your job, is that some people might not like you – because our idea of what’s good in the workplace, and our idea of what a good woman is, don’t naturally align and for some reason this is an issue that never seems to die. But I took a lot of confidence from meeting those women at Google and the one thing they all said was this: have faith in yourself and sit at the table. If there’s some guy in the meeting who thinks you should be out there picking up the coffee order, that’s their problem, not yours.