Advocating change for women in the workplace

Women are struggling to have their voice heard in the workplace, but several high-profile characters are advocating change, writes Deirdre Reynolds.    
Advocating change for women in the workplace

IN the final chapter of The Hunger Games, out next month, post-apocalyptic heroine Katniss Everdeen picks up her bow and arrow one last time as she battles to free the people of Panem.

Off camera, however, it’s Hollywood sexism that star Jennifer Lawrence is taking aim at.

From goofing around on the red carpet to going on holidays with Amy Schumer, the Oscar winner has been voted one of the most likeable women in show business.

Now in an essay for for Lena Dunham’s newsletter Lenny, the 25 year-old has told how she’s done with playing nice when it comes to her career.

“A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way,” she wrote. “The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me), said, ‘whoa! We’re all on the same team here.’ As if I was yelling at him.

“All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.”

Her viral Lenny letter — entitled ‘Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Co-Stars?’ — continued: “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likeable.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard. It’s just heard,” she said.

Earlier this year, hacked Sony emails revealed that American Hustle stars Lawrence and Amy Adams earned less than their male co-stars including Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale for the 2013 flick.

With an estimated €54.5m in the bank, the Dior ambassador could hardly be described as being on the bread line.

And, as Ireland’s gender pay gap stretches to 14%, it’s her standpoint on parity not profit that’s struck a chord with working women here, according to Network Ireland president Olwen Dawe.

“Without going overboard on statistics, as Jennifer Lawrence rightly pointed out, women are still likely to earn less than their male comparators and this gap also widens when you look at higher level positions”, she says.

“If we’re thinking gender politics, we’re probably also talking about the amount of women seen at leadership level — which, depending on where you look, averages at around the 20% mark.

“When you’re in the minority, as sometimes women will be in certain types of meetings, it can be hard to get your point across,” Dawe says. “I don’t think it’s a case of [women] not being taken seriously, but more about not being heard.”

In 2011, a study by Stanford Graduate School of Business claimed that ‘masculine’ women — those who are confident and aggressive — get 1.5 times more promotions than agentic (masculine) men, and twice as many as communal (feminine) ones.

But only if they ‘self-monitor’ by strategically switching those stereotypical male traits on and off at work.

“There is no evidence that ‘acting like a lady’ does anything except make women more well liked,” said co-author of the study Olivia O’Neill.

“Women with ultra-feminine traits, in fact, are still seen as less competent in traditional managerial settings.

“The interesting thing here is that being able to regulate one’s masculine behaviour does not simply put women on par with men, it gives them even more of an advantage. This shows that for women who do want success at the managerial level, the paths are there,” she says.

Despite the findings, and just like J Law, Dublin-based career coach Jane Downes says many of her female clients still worry about “coming across as a brat” — among other “b” words — in the boardroom.

“Growing up, we’re programmed to think that women are softer, gentler beings,” says the author of The Career Book.

“Then when we go into the workplace, we’re expected to keep that going — but that doesn’t get us places. Certainly young women setting out in their career do not want to be tagged as being ‘the ball-breaker’ or ‘the bitch’.

“While their male colleagues might get away with this sort of hard-ass delivery, as a women it just doesn’t go down well.

“As a career coach, I work with people to manage the message they’re giving out in the office,” she says. “For women, it’s about gently asserting yourself from the start so that people know what you’re willing to tolerate — and what you’re not.

“Where it goes wrong and where women get a bad name is if we over-assert ourselves out of frustration.

“Working mothers, for example, who have so much going on outside of their working life, tend to overwork and not lighten up. They’ve no time for time-wasters.

“Sometimes it’s about relationship-building as opposed to delivering all the time.”

In the US, where the 2016 race to the White House is hotting up, presidential hopeful Donald Trump last month faced fresh cries of sexism after describing would-be rival Hillary Clinton as “shrill” and “very boisterous”.

However, one recent poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, which found that the Democratic presidential frontrunner is viewed unfavourably by 48% of likely voters, suggests he may not be the only one to think so.

Although she recalls being blown away by a speech once given by the former first lady, publisher Norah Casey agrees that while it’s nice to be important, as regards the glass ceiling, it’s even more important to be nice.

“The most important trait of any entrepreneur is likeability,” argues the author and TV personality. “I learned on Dragon’s Den: Don’t follow the idea, follow the person.

“I do think that women struggle quite a bit in that space when they are trying to be either politically or corporately astute and adopt leadership skills, they come across maybe as unlikeable.

“It’s a very hard line for women because the first generation of women who grew up in the boardroom where there was no gender equality really had to elbow their way in.

“That was the Margaret Thatcher era where women had to wear suits and be more manlike than men themselves.

“Now it’s the period of authenticity where everybody talks about having to be yourself.

“I don’t wear suits anymore and I certainly don’t want to be manlike,” she adds. “I’m just as comfortable having a chat about what lipstick a woman is wearing as having a chat about the finances of Ireland.

“But I think sometimes women who are from that era still struggle a little bit with that — they feel it might be a sign of weakness,” she says.

Despite being just one of two female councillors representing South East Dublin, Green Party councillor Claire Byrne says she has no interest in joining the old boys’ club.

“I try not to buy into that feminist narrative that women have to be more aggressive or behave more like men to succeed,” tells the Environmental Education Specialist.

“I always try to be assertive rather than aggressive no matter what the situation. I’m not saying sexism in the workplace isn’t real and palpable, and it is something I experience on occasion. But men and women are fundamentally different and both have something to offer.

“Being a nice woman or indeed a nice person doesn’t make you submissive and certainly shouldn’t be seen as a weakness,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s about the type of person you are regardless of your gender, and I don’t think that is unique to politics.”

After discovering she’d been American hustled earlier this year, Hollywood Nice Gal Jennifer Lawrence confessed she didn’t get mad at the system — she got mad at herself: “I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.

“I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need … I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled’.”

Organisation is the key to being seen and heard in the boardroom, according to Irish Business Intelligence founder Olwen Dawe.

“The dynamic in more male-dominated meetings can be a bit closed, but that’s no reason not to get your point across,” she says. “Having your voice heard means not being afraid to really speak your mind — regardless of who else is around the table.

“I find being clear, organised and factual is the key. But don’t be afraid to use your emotional intelligence to read the room either,” she says.

“Be authentic” is Harmonia CEO Norah Casey’s advice to young female graduates: “If you’re naturally good-humoured and witty and if you talk in a certain way, I always advise women to follow that, because you always feel more confident when you’re being yourself, Nowadays people see through those sort of false personas.”

Peggy Drexler, assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, conceded that while Ireland’s enduring pay gap is “confounding, frustrating and totally illogical”, women here could learn a thing or two from Jennifer Lawrence’s Lenny letter.

“Lawrence makes a good point that is too often overlooked in the conversation about the pay gap — too often we direct our anger at, and blame other people — the patriarchy; the government; corporations — for women’s inability to get ahead, get what’s fair, or get rewarded in equal measure.

“But while blame for the gap does lie in all those places, it’s really up to women to speak up for themselves, insist on fair and equal pay, stop apologising for demanding what their male counterparts have been demanding for decades, and not back down until they get it.

“That’s how women will get ahead in the workplace.”

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