Speaking as a woman

Jul 28


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Helen Whitten

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Speaking as a woman

I’m not going to pretend I know the reason why women’s salaries are lower than men’s but over the 25 years during which I coached both men and women, and was a woman running a business, I did become aware of some of the trends that would have led to these outcomes still being commonplace.   The headlines commenting on the BBC salaries and the apparent inequality of income between its male and female presenters has led me to think again about gender roles, prejudice, unconscious bias and value.   It has made me reflect on my own life and the experiences of women my age and younger.  It has reminded me what a tricky journey it can be to rise to the top as a woman, when working within what has been a history of a male-dominated environment.  So I am going to share a few of those thoughts and as always will be interested in your comments.

Cultural gender legacy

Firstly, it has made me remember the  social culture in which I and other older women have grown up.  This is not intended in any way as a whinge as I am not one to believe in that.  It is intended to help us remember some facts about the environment in which girls grow up.

When I grew up in the 1950s the boys were often treated as if they knew best, even if they didn’t, and this is still the case in some families and cultures.  Parents were more lenient with boys in terms of domestic duties.  As girls when we went to parties we had to risk being wallflowers, waiting for a boy to ask us to dance.  If girls got pregnant they would be shamed while the boys could go off with their honour somehow intact.  It gave girls the message that men had more power and can still do so.

At dinner parties in the 60s and 70s men would quite often talk over us, as if we had nothing to say because, after all, they were so important in their working lives that they couldn’t imagine that we had insights they might never have.  I grew up with teachers who assumed that I would be a nurse or secretary rather than doctor or boss.  In the 60s, when I started work, men were in charge and often asked you to make the tea or coffee for your seniors, whatever your qualifications.  It was the rare determined girl who would see herself beyond this, rather than muddling through and then making it to the top despite the put-downs and stereotypes.

As a married women I would receive cold calls to the home where a sales rep would immediately ask to speak to my husband, or say “is Mr Whitten there?” rather than consider that I could be intelligent or responsible enough to make a decision about a purchase myself.

Even in my generation of Baby Boomers I knew some husbands who did not want their wives to work – perhaps because their attention might be called elsewhere than from on them but also due to a potential sense of loss of pride.  After all, if their wives were working it might suggest that they themselves were not earning enough to keep their family.  That same kind of husband might also spend more money on sending their son to a good private school and not their daughter.  Certainly women frequently felt guilty and exhausted by trying to juggle work and family.

It was less than 100 years ago that women got the vote on the same terms as men.  It was only in the early 60s that women were able to take control of their bodies and lives through contraception.  Throughout history and into the 21st century, wife-beating and domestic violence occurred frequently.  These are facts and should not be forgotten.  It leads many women to experience being undervalued as a norm in society and especially in the workplace.

All this created the backdrop to the environment in which women of my age grew up.  Inevitably this shaped our sense of self identity and esteem.  Unfortunately it probably also had an impact on our daughters – we hoped to provide them with a world where there was real equality between the genders but sadly, as the BBC revelations show, things have not changed as much as we had hoped.

I don’t suggest that women should think of themselves as victims.  I don’t believe that an identity of victimhood does anyone any good.  It certainly doesn’t empower them to make changes.

No, these experiences were what they were.  They need to be accepted as historical facts.  It was a different world and men felt they had the upper hand .  They did and, in many ways, if you look around the world, still do.  Many women bought into this too.  Our beliefs and opinions are influenced by the norms of the society we grow up in. Our brains are shaped by the messages we receive from parents, teachers, community leaders.  We can be duped into thinking something is right when it patently evidently isn’t.   Women in other parts of the world and in other cultures can still be treated as having a lesser status than men.  Boys are often still brought up to think they are special, more powerful.   It is parenting that needs to change, alongside expectations in school and the workplace.  We need to bring boys up not to feel intimidated by bright girls so that they don’t feel the need to put them down.  We need to show them that to treat women with respect does not make them less of a man.  This isn’t a win-lose situation, we are looking for a win-win.

Women’s perception of self

Over my years of running Positiveworks I coached many bright, ambitious and capable women who couldn’t see the point of endlessly promoting themselves or pushing for higher salaries in the way that their male colleagues did.  At the same time I noticed a hesitancy, a doubt about whether a woman felt she deserved an increase – not with all women, of course, but with a majority of those I coached.  And HR departments report that women only go for a job if they feel they have 100% of the skills required whereas men will go for a job sometimes even if they have only 60% of the necessary skillsets.  In my own work I had to constantly adjust my fees if I became aware that male consultants were charging more.  I have to admit that thinking about fees was not my top priority.

We need to remember too that in the early part of the 20th century, so not so long ago, women were frequently resented in the workplace.  They were accused of taking male jobs.  After having contributed much to the war efforts they were nonetheless sent back to the kitchen in the 1950s.  Women were forced to resign when they got married.  So perhaps it isn’t surprising that when women got jobs they would  sometimes feel grateful and not wish to make a fuss or cause trouble by being demanding about pay or promotion.

In surveys women tend to rate themselves as equivalent to co-workers but 70% of men would rate themselves higher.  Where a working woman has a family I found that she often felt guilty and was also made to feel guilty by family members such as mothers, aunts, grandmothers, for working alongside parenthood.  She could feel stretched, leading to a sense that she wasn’t doing any job well.  Even when a woman was the main breadwinner she would often have to be doing the thinking about what was needed in the home.  Even though her husband or partner would help, it was her who had to do the planning and take the initiative to address domestic chores and needs.  All of which could be tiring alongside a demanding role.

Attitudes and behaviours in the workplace

As late as 2005, when I was running Positiveworks, I remember a call coming through to my male assistant.  “I’d like to talk to your Managing Director,” the male caller told him.  My PA passed the phone to me and I said “Hello, what can I do for you?” at which the caller said, very irritably, “I asked to talk to your Managing Director!”  I asked him “What makes you think you aren’t talking to the Managing Director?”  The caller huffed and puffed and said “Well an MD is usually a male”.

I found that a woman would be judged more harshly than a man.  In appraisals a man would be rewarded for the success of a team whereas the feedback of a woman would be that she had “great team support”.  Sadly also male managers would avoid appraisals all together as they feared an emotional response from a female staff member.  They could manage anger, a more male response, it seemed, but they couldn’t manage tears.  Therefore they would postpone appraisals and the female employee would therefore not receive the encouragement and development feedback she needed to succeed.

Success criteria has been defined by men and expectations in the workplace and outside have been shaped by social norms.  The idea that men make better leaders is historic and bought into by both genders but I hope that now we see Trump as President in the US and think back over the disastrous male dictators of the past we shall alter this perception!

Even now though, in many departments, a sense that the way men do things is the ‘right way’ and so women try to fit in.  Although a woman will bring as much skill as a man to a role, the way she does a job or leads a department may be different and sometimes they can feel that this difference means it is the ‘wrong way’ which can lead to a sense of isolation.

Most companies these days promote the concept of diversity.  It just doesn’t always result in a willingness to practice the consensual listening skills and discussions that really optimise diverse perspectives in terms of creative problem solving.  I believe governments and organisations would benefit from learning to practice this kind of debate more frequently.  This idea is backed up by a Catalyst report that showed that mixed-gender boards outperform single-gender boards.  However, one token person of the minority gender is not sufficient to influence the group.

There are plenty of excellent women in the BBC and beyond who deserve parity when their skill and experience have been proven equal.  I’d like to think of my granddaughters growing up in a world where their sense of themselves is equal to that of their male peers and where their managers acknowledge their achievements.   I would like them to accept that their way of working and communicating may be different but is as justified and valuable.  For this to happen we need to encourage the view that women may not promote themselves with so much noise but can be every bit as competent and deserve equal status and pay.


I question whether women traditionally have put as much importance on monetary income.  I am not convinced that money and status has had the same impact on their sense of value in themselves as it does for some male colleagues.  I have noticed that having an interesting, fulfilling and balanced life is often what women seek.  Reports demonstrate that women bring a social and ethical sensitivity to the workplace, alongside achieving the qualifications and skillsets that match males.

But women obviously do want to be valued and acknowledged, so there needs to be more understanding from managers and leaders that they deserve to receive equal pay for an equal role.  I remember one female manager saying to me that she noticed her male peers demanding large annual increases but she felt she had an extremely good salary and would not have asked for more had they not all been doing so.

My hope for the future

We need women’s voices and perspectives in the world of business and government.   We have a long way to go before we have equal numbers of men and women at the top which, in my view, is the ideal balance of energies and perspectives for good leadership of the world.  We can’t change the past but we need to realize that there is more work to be done.  In today’s world young women are being undermined through body image, sexual objectification through the porn that young boys are watching, and an aggressive macho-boy culture that has built up in some communities and organisations.

So we can’t be complacent.  We need to continue to support our daughters, grand-daughters, nieces and great-nieces to feel as powerful as their male peers.  We need to encourage them to feel confident and believe they have as much right as others to speak up, to demand equal positions and equal salaries.  We still have to question society’s bias.

I’m sorry, I said to a friend this week that I would write shorter blogs – I haven’t succeeded but as you might guess I feel rather strongly about this issue!


2 Responses

  1. I really relate to all this Helen and it brings back many memories particularly relating to self esteem.

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