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To Boldly Go Where No Woman Has Gone Before…

I read with great interest the recent BBC announcement that a woman is to be the new Dr Who from Christmas this year. Had this been announced on April 1st, it might have received less attention, but as it was it appeared to be the third great shock of the last 12 months following on from Brexit, Donald Trump and now Dr Who.

Like the other two seismic events, there was another unprecedented outpouring of emotion. First of all, we do need to understand this is a fictional character, who by the very name and background could be male or female. Time Lords were both men and women to anyone who hasn’t seen a single episode. But we are hardly saying that a man is to play Florence Nightingale or a woman is playing Winston Churchill. This is fiction – and let’s not forget women have been playing male leads in panto for years and no one bats an eyelid except children when they reach a certain age and ask why? When what we should be asking is why women don’t get to play lead roles as themselves, and why the hero in pantomimes is always a man, and not a woman, but that’s perhaps too big a leap to start with. He’s behind you by the way.

The bigger story here is that the same BBC that has courageously challenged tradition and enraged traditionalists viewers alike, was shown in the same week to have a huge discrepancy between its top male earner earning up to four times more than its top female employee. And sadly, despite the backlash from female BBC presenters about that, the story didn’t generate a quarter of the press time and reaction that the Dr Who announcement did. It is hard to applaud a business for challenging the norm when their fundamental structure remains flawed.

If we follow that company ethos through, I worry for Jodie Whittaker and what she might inherit when she regenerates. Will her Tardis simply be an old dustbin, and her sonic screwdriver merely a basic Swiss Army Knife with just the can opener and blunt knife attachments, both of which will snap when trying to prise open a Dalek? Will her companions be gorgeous intelligent young men and women or will she have to make do with the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ on a tenth of the budget (that panto theme again). More importantly will she be paid the same or more than her co-stars…?

There is still a big difference today in 2017 in the image that many companies portray and what really goes on behind closed doors. This has to change and we also have to take responsibility for that change. When women work on an image to be ‘one of the boys’ and fit into a male dominated industry, are they simply changing their beliefs in order to survive or progress up the career ladder and is this genuine progression for women in the workplace? If that is not who they are the minute they leave work then who is winning? If we have to change our values to be successful and not be true to ourselves that cannot be right.

I spoke with a male CEO recently who has spent many years fighting traditionalism and sexism in his industry when appointing females into key roles on merit. Not because he should but because they were the best candidate for the job, and more so because they could challenge the team he had in place to think differently, and raise their game. It has not been an easy path for him. Likewise, I spoke to a leading law firm who agreed they look for people to challenge their traditional culture and supported the view that the best companies should have the best people in the best positions to be successful, regardless of gender or race or any other deep seated belief.

My CEO colleague suggested that in many industries, globally, including the armed forces and other arenas, men tend to fall into three main categories. Those who believe for evermore that certain roles should be for men only, and, worse, that a woman’s place is at home (unconscious bias?). Secondly, those who find this view uncomfortable, and express it behind closed doors, but when it comes to supporting a female colleague in the board room or key meeting, they fall silent, the pressure of keeping their jobs and their own career paths being too much to risk. The third growing group is those who truly believe in equality and are prepared to make a stand for what they believe in for the good of their business and see all staff as employees and their colleagues as peers, and not as men and women.

Men can be cheered for having to leave early to look after a sick child as an enlightened hero, while the lady slinks away to boos from the audience as the panto villain for daring to care about her family again. And sadly, there are women that join in the booing because once again they are nervous to do otherwise.

I do not advocate that tomorrow you chain yourselves to the railings outside Argos or that every one of you stands up in the office and rants against the chairman or company. But neither should we just conform either. Carrying on the Science Fiction theme I started with, I have heard the word ‘assimilated’ more than once recently and that’s what it feels like to many women when they adapt their true self in order to survive in their business and progress, as if the Borg have taken them over. And in truth, many young male employees probably do likewise in many different industries, but they will still probably have a better chance of success and be better paid.

Companies will not change overnight, regardless of a female Time Lord in their midst. They are oil tankers, not speedboats. But if we keep working at it, and standing up for what we believe in and who we are, then eventually, they will change course. Having a career should not be about surviving and navigating the rapids of sexism and discrimination every day. It should be something to be proud of, where we not only enjoy the ride but look forward to it every day. The ride can be terrifying in these uncharted waters, but exciting too, and then we really will boldly go where no one has gone before.

And if we can achieve that and earn respect through the quality of our work, and how we can enhance the company, rather than by falling in with the masses, then we will truly regenerate the future of women in the workplace.

Posted by Dr Samantha Collins, CEO and founder of Aspire on Monday, September 11, 2017
Tags: women leaders, appointing on merit, dr who

Building Blocks for the Girls

We have to believe inside that we deserve to be where we are, and to achieve what we have achieved. But we also have to understand that we cannot hold a belief that society owes us anything and instead make our own destinies, and likewise complain that nothing will ever change without understanding that we can control our own reality.


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