Some time ago I took a gentle pop at NOWIE – the Network of Women in Events. I argued that female-only initiatives were far more likely to divide the sexes than produce parity in the boardroom.
Why did NOWIE feel it necessary to close ranks? What convinced the forum that it could only get support from the sisterhood?
But that was then. In the last 12 months, we’ve witnessed the unfolding horror that is Harvey Weinstein, followed, closer to home, by the shenanigans at the Presidents Club Dinner. Since then, women at all levels of seniority have been airing their experiences of everyday sexism and predatory behaviour.
Most of us with a penis have gone from being genuinely horrified at what our female colleagues have had to put up with, to feeling anxious that we hadn’t done enough to prevent the toxic culture being described. By sniggering at someone else’s muttered comment or off-colour joke, had we even condoned it?
This column was intended to be about confidence, not sexual harassment. My colleague – a technical genius who knows more than I’ll ever grasp about the workings of an integrated AV system – is not a natural schmoozer. He was aghast to see me strike up multiple conversations in a room full of strangers. It was only after we’d chewed this over that I realised it’s taken me 12 years to develop such a sense of ease.
My wife is an actress/actor (she goes by both) and also knows better than most how to “own” a room. So, I was quite surprised when she admitted to feeling uncomfortable walking past the builders working opposite our house. Having endured her share of lewd language, bawled from construction sites, she understandably sees that kind of pack behaviour as a form of harassment.
But that’s an extreme case – it’s hard to imagine that female event professionals could feel ill at ease in the company of their male peers. Or is it? A chat with one of our industry’s most forthright, funny and demonstrably competent women revealed that she didn’t stay long on the board of a leading trade association because she felt it was an “old boys’ club”. From her perspective, decisions tended to be railroaded by whoever spoke the loudest and most forcibly around the table. Testosterone trumps logic in a crowd.
I want my daughter to grow up strong and safe in the knowledge that she has exactly the same opportunities as her brother, with equal chances of earning promotion to board level if that’s her ambition. I also pray that no oily scumbag is ever going to put his hand up her skirt believing he can, because he’s her boss and she values her job too keenly to “make a fuss about a bit of harmless flirting”.
And as a result of all the media naming-and-shaming, the #MeToo movement and the advent of corporate guidelines on sexual harassment, it’s reasonable to believe that she will. The next generation of women should have a smoother climb up the ladder than their predecessors.
But right now, it’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it? Even those of us who are certain we’ve never said or done anything misogynistic feel we’re walking on eggshells. Is it predatory or sexist to call someone “love”? (For the record, I pretty much call everyone I know “love”, regardless of gender!)
I’ve recently started watching seminars and reading interviews with Deborah Frances-White, creator of The Guilty Feminist podcast. In a Sunday Times article touching on men’s newfound insecurities, she said: “It’s OK if men are frightened; we’ve been scared for years”.
And guess what: She also says that building confidence is the key to female empowerment. It all boils down to who’s in charge of the conversation.
In the meantime, what can men do to promote a fairer, less toxic working environment? Well, it turns out we could do a lot worse than just shut up and listen.