A highly appropriate photo

I’ve worked in a male-dominated sphere for over 23 years now and never been touched inappropriately. Since things have come so publicly to the fore recently, there are some mornings when I don’t know how I’m going to live with the shame. I’m thinking of starting a ‘Me Too’ group on Facebook, and I may have to get counselling. And btw, the fact that ‘inappropriate touching’ exists at all suggests, logically, that there’s such a thing as ‘appropriate touching’ at work, and that’s very much ok.

Anybody care to define it? I might want in?

Seriously though, as a woman who regularly works on construction sites, when I descibe my working life to people it’s not unusual to have them ask “is that not difficult? I mean, for a woman?” I guess what they mean is that they have a Benny-Hill-esque idea of life on a construction site, outdated and probably a bit of an insult to all the folks (and there are a few more women out there these days) engineering successful developments all over the country.

A sense of humour never goes amiss of course. Frankly, I wouldn’t be without the banter (some of it, I confess, a bit wide of appropriate…), and you can’t be thin skinned, but overwhelmingly I’ve found my work with the construction sector at all levels fun, friendly, productive and well, quite outstandingly interesting. Maybe it’s time to get more women to aspire to working on site? In terms of risk of harrassment or any other form of bullying, it’s a heck of a lot safer than the House of Commons.

That’s not to say I’ve never experienced gender-based discrimination. No. In fact, I’d say I’ve had to put up with a significant quantity of that. But you know, it’s the subtle, difficult to define stuff that keeps us all so stubbornly mired in inequality.

I have to quickly say that the overwhelming majority of men I’ve met in my working journey (and that’s a lot of men) are great people. But there are some unfortunately, who let the side down. From time to time a pernicious undercurrent makes itself felt and leaves me with the distinct impression that my gender has been a significant factor in making me less ‘appropriate’ as a candidate for a particular job, project or role – and there’s still precious little acknowlegement of just how much time, energy, committment and dedication it takes to raise children well, especially on your own, while strenuously trying to build the career, or the business, you know you’re fit for.

My experience has been that the discrimination germ trickles down from close to ‘the top’ in an organisation, and it prefers its origins to remain undisclosed. As though it’s something certain unjustifiably powerful males deep down want to indulge in but daren’t – unless there are plenty of bureaucratic layers of camouflage between them and the woman (or women) they’re itching to keep down.

I was once introduced in my professional capacity to an older gentleman whose influence was going to be critical to our project. “Oh hello,” he said, shaking my hand. “My wife made me a cup of coffee before I left…” To this day I have no idea whether he thought I should be offering to make him a cup of coffee, or whether he wondered what someone of the same gender as his wife was doing being a consultant. At any rate, it certainly wasn’t the sort of ‘hello’ he would’ve offered any of my male collegues.

Hardly harassment, but oh so much more difficult to eradicate. I wonder if I’m wrong to suspect that the more titilatingly sexual aspects of inequality at work have been given too much emphasis lately? While we’re all wondering in alarm or amusement, or a mixture of both, at sackings, resignations, undefined dubious conduct, pointed accusations and outraged denials we’ve taken our eye completely off the ball. Discrimination for women at work trying to build careers is primarily a question of the abuse of power by insecure men who see us as a threat.

For those of us on the receiving end of this kind of hard-wired surreptitious contempt it’s debilitating, unjust and in every single way far less appropriate than a smutty joke among work-mates, and it’s time it was challenged.