I am Not the Secretary

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There are many conversations taking place at the moment and, unless you’ve spent the past six months on a desert island with no access to any form of communication, you will be unable to ignore them.

It all started with accusations against Hollywood Director Harvey Weinstein followed by the #metoo hashtag campaign. It encouraged more people in the entertainment industry who had been sexually exploited and harassed to speak about their experiences. Many said they had been too scared to say something at the time. Others had complaints ignored or silenced with threats, contracts and money.

Now the #timesup movement is spreading on the internet. The campaign is for all women from all industries to say #timesup for sexual harassment. The message was brilliantly conveyed in a powerful speech by Oprah Winfrey at this week’s Golden Globes. Most of the stars who attended the Globes also wore black to stand in solidarity for all the women and men who have been silenced by discrimination, harassment or abuse.

It made me think about my life in business over the past 17 years as a lesbian woman whom, at a young age, was introduced into a very male dominated industry. I experienced many things that reinforced the inequality and discrimination embedded in business culture.

After a couple of years in the PR world, I became Marketing Manager for a national insurance company, aged 24. I attended many meetings (with mainly males) with my boss at the time (who was also male) and it was regularly assumed I was his secretary. I was often ignored, often received minimal eye contact when talking and often had my opinions dismissed.

It wasn’t all negative however, I was very lucky that my boss was a huge advocate for me. He was someone I admired, respected and learnt a lot from. So, on occasions when I was rudely handed a bag to look after, or an umbrella to carry or simply ignored, he would make sure my hand was shaken, my opinions were heard and I was respected in meetings. I was also confident, which I think helped, as I had conviction in my knowledge and ability – but I continued to get frustrated being called the secretary or PA when I was often there to lead a meeting and help make decisions.

I know secretaries and PAs perform important roles so I am not mocking their status or contributions to business, but I just found it a little insulting the assumption was the male was the boss, the female his secretary.

Over time, as I developed my own businesses I would take my team to meetings and when I would be talking/pitching or discussing ideas the responses were directed at male members of the team. This was not always the case but it has happened on so many occasions.

I also recall in those early days in the business world there were never really any females at the top of the companies we worked with. There were no role models for me to look up to and there was little diversity in the companies.

As my role developed I would go to meetings alone and enter rooms of male teams who were clearly shocked when this mid 20’s woman would be leading a meeting alone.

I had, ‘oh is it just you here today?’, ‘do you understand what we are discussing today?’, ‘shall we rearrange this meeting when x can be here?’ Hilarious.

I loved the challenge and would feel a great sense of satisfaction after a meeting when I did earn the respect from the room when they realised I knew what I was doing and talking about. Had I been a male walking into those meetings they would have no doubt had a different experience initially.

Even a few months ago when I was in a meeting and we began discussing a fairly simple admin task, one of the male delegates in all seriousness said ‘oh just get a woman to do that. I have women to do those jobs’

1 in 3 women have been sexually harassed at work. 71% of those women said they did not report it.

Now, fortunately, I have never experienced things as terrible as some of the awful harassment and exploitation accounts we have heard over the past few months. However, I have had inappropriate propositions from men at business events and inappropriate touching which is totally wrong. At the time I dismissed is: ‘oh he’s a bit of a slimy bloke and so I’ll ignore him and tell him to f*@k off’

Also when I have been away at events or conferences and asked about my boyfriend and I’ve told them about my girlfriend I’ve had the ‘oh you haven’t met the right man’, ‘you need to sleep with me’, ‘you’re too pretty to be lesbian’ or ‘what a waste’. A waste to whom?? Men of course, as all men should have first choice of whomever they want!

To add to this I have met some amazing businessmen over the years who have been totally respectful, inspiring and supportive.

1 in 10 senior leaders are women.

As a partner and company director of various businesses I am pleased we have equal representation in our management and senior teams of both women and men, gay and straight. But sadly this is not the case in most businesses which is so disappointing. Having diverse individuals, personalities and perspectives makes for much more varied and fairer discussions and decisions.

However I still regularly get asked by certain people I meet ‘So they are your companies? You actually own them?’ with real surprise in their questions. These are things my male partners do not get asked. Again it leads back to some people’s preconceived stereotypical beliefs that men run businesses not women.

Even taking men out of the equation there is currently a bias towards white, cisgender, straight women in the workplace. But, I am confident, equal representation, opportunities, benefits and pay, greater representation of women of colour, ethnicity, and lesbian, bisexual and transgender women is going to happen.

Change is on the horizon and for this the world of business will be a much better place.