In my last blog post I spoke about the importance of stories in connecting us to people and in forming a bridge to others’ lived experiences. So far, 2018 seems to be a year when the experiences of women have started to have voice and, I’m hoping, that voice will continue to get louder and stronger. In this blog post, friend and colleague, Laura Harrison, has chosen to give voice to some of her experiences.
Perhaps 2018 will become known as the year when Time was really Up. When the fight for equality became supercharged. In fact, when it came into its own as a fight rather than a bashful, polite request.
It’s a weird time. I’ve found the openness of apparently powerful women thought provoking. Female actors, leaders, ‘celebrities’ are revealing that despite their fame, money and accolades, their power is limited by context and structure. Their stories have poked at buried memories from my own education and career. Buried perhaps because I normalised them. These incidents are painful to re-encounter. And I wonder how many other women are going through the same: Oh god, yes, me too.
I’m going to describe some of these recollections. All of them leave me feeling vulnerable. None of them are in any way as bad in the humiliation they aroused or the harm they did as many women suffer daily at work. But what they have in common is that I’m sure I suffered emotionally way more than the other party or parties concerned. I paid the emotional taxes for the incident. Why did I bear the larger tax bill? Because my gender is under-represented and is too often treated as the imposter or the exception to the masculine norm.
So, some stories:
I was preparing for an important client meeting that I was due to attend with two, more senior, male colleagues. ‘Don’t worry,’ one said, ‘you’re just the eye candy…’ What was the emotional tax I paid? Ten minutes of seething anger? Boredom at the effort of having to put two antediluvian colleagues straight on this crazy thing called sex discrimination? Nope. The tax was hours agonising that they were taking the mickey out of me because obviously I wasn’t pretty enough to be ‘eye candy.’ My anxiety was that I was being demeaned, objectified and called ugly all at once. I was a professional woman with a good job, but my inner thirteen year old had been needled and I was mortified. My attractiveness, or lack of it, was an issue, and I was ashamed.
A university lecturer offered to coach me. ‘You’re very bright, but you’ve a lot to learn.’ His hand was on my knee and his arm around was my shoulders at the time. The tax I paid was to avoid him for the rest of the academic year, missing all his classes and diving into the loos if I saw him coming down the corridor – and of course to only scrape through his class. Had I ‘led him on?’ by asking for his help? Was I pathetic because I’d freaked out and (literally) run away at his advances? Months more of anxiety. I imagine the tax he paid was the effort involved in shrugging his shoulders; you win some, you lose some. Who was she again?
A trusted male colleague, senior to me, took me out for a drink to commiserate over a project gone sour. At about 4pm, after a lot of wine had been consumed, he lunged over the table at me, grabbed the back of my head. It was not a romantic moment. My tax – horror and shame. Is that what you’re asking for if you agree to go for a drink, alone, with a male colleague? The next day I couldn’t look this man in the eye, nor could I, properly, again. He had no problem. After all – you win some, you lose some.
I was the only girl in my physics class for A’level. The teachers and the other students bantered and joshed – football, sex. The not-very-subtle subtext was exclusion – this isn’t for you. That was a different kind of tax, a time tax, I taught myself physics A’level from the text book. And arrived at university to study science to be greeted by a wall of photographs of the departmental lecturers. Every one of them was male.
Worse perhaps, the empathy taxes, where you want to help but can’t. Because all the channels involve revealing vulnerability, hurt and sometimes shame, which at work must be held at bay. A dear friend was shocked – I guess in the physiological sense – by being sent a digital photo of the back view of a naked woman bent over an office desk. The email came from her male boss. She never complained, she was too embarrassed, was worried she’d done something to ‘ask for it.’ I shudder and feel sick on her behalf at the memory. She was once criticised for not having a sense of humour. A friend was passed over for a promotion she clearly deserved. Her colleagues and team were behind her. An unqualified man, deeply embroiled in a bromance with the male leadership team, got the job. What can you say? Don’t fret, don’t spend money drowning your sorrows over pinot grigio or on retail therapy? See a lawyer? Speak to someone? Resign? Find another job? Whichever way you look at it, the tax bill’s too high.
I’m wondering – and hoping – that the burden of emotional taxation is becoming more evenly distributed. That those with more-than-adequate representation are reflecting on past behaviours and present attitudes and challenging themselves to be better. The media at the moment is full of men apologising. An apology isn’t a tax. The tax would be to take the time to feel the shame or horror or regret at what’s gone before and to resolve to change. And to fight for a reduced burden of emotional taxation on women, and better representation for them too. No taxation without representation.
Laura Harrison is a senior leader in the fields of business transformation and organisation development. Her career has spanned consulting and corporate roles as well as working in the non profit sector. Most recently she was Strategy and Transformation Director at CIPD. You can follow her on twitter @LazMazHarry.
A strategist, consultant and mother to two daughters, Sam Whittaker is a lover of stories with a passion for connecting people with ideas. Sam also cares deeply about driving progressive change in the world, however, seemingly ‘small’. She (& others) blog at the-change.blog. You can follow her on twitter @itsSamActually.