The letter from our auditors kicked off my thinking about the role of women in my workplace – and I found my eyebrows in my hair and growling just a little bit. Our lead auditor is a woman. I’m the CEO, and I am a woman. Our Board Chair, programme manager, accountant and some of our most active Board members are all women.
And still the letter started “Dear Sirs”.
Sound Seekers helps people with hearing loss in sub-Saharan Africa. We’re based in the UCL Ear Institute, where we’re working on a joint project with two senior (female) lecturers there on improving the quality of the audiology course at the University Of Nairobi. I love what we do because good hearing is at the heart of work and relationships, and a small, low-cost intervention can make a huge difference to someone’s education and work chances. I ended up in this very female workplace through a variety of other roles. They include a highly toxic six months working as a senior governance adviser in Afghanistan (all the reading in the world couldn’t have prepared me for quite how sexist, aggressive and male-dominated it was), a thoroughly fulfilling two years with an almost entirely-female Academy Trust in London and a year as an adviser to the Prime Minister in Rwanda, a country in which women theoretically play an equal role to men. I say theoretically, because although more than half of Rwanda’s MPs are women, I observed endemic ignoring of less publicity-gathering female talent in the middle ranks of that most essential engine of government, the civil service.
I like working and I like working with men. But I particularly like working with women.
It’s true that I’ve lost an element of office flirtation that I used to have in my old lives, but I’m amply rewarded by a working environment in which we listen and talk in equal measure, take feedback without getting defensive, and deliver from start to finish rather than throwing a grand idea like a bone to a hungry dog, announcing that “I’m an ideas person” and wandering off, leaving the implementation to others. And nowadays, the only conversations I have where I notice that I am only saying “mmm” and someone else is doing all the talking are phone-calls with men outside the team.
Strangely, though, I miss one thing more than anything else – righteous anger.
I don’t mean that I miss antler-clashing men who can’t bear to be corrected or challenged. I mean that it’s hard to process what happens when women are angry but are simply not comfortable with expressing or owning that anger because of years of being subtly told that it’s not professional, or not what women do. So I see and sense rage. And I hear “I am a bit sad” and “I am disappointed” and “I am upset”. I see rage turned into passive-aggressive jokes, making light of what’s happened. I’m all for courtesy and certainly, seven years in the British Civil Service taught me fluency in and respect for elegant, coded sub-texts. But this dissonance between what you unmistakeably sense with all your instincts, and the contrasting words used to describe what’s clearly the case is hard to handle, and hard to respond to.
I’d like women to take a deep breath and say “I’m angry about this”. Perhaps we could start by saying “irritated” and move up to “incensed”.It works.
Last week I saw the Chair of our Board tell people on one of our African project teams, for the first time, that she was angry. It was a huge step forward for us, as we’ve tried to mirror the country’s famed cultural politeness for years – but to little effect. We’ve had to get a lot tougher. It was also a step forward for her. I loved watching her roar, and we should all do more of it.
The next letter from the auditors (whom I rate highly, by the way) started “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen”. Which had a pleasing hint of the music-hall about it, and was also a much better indication of who’s in charge.