by Judith Jackson
As a UK born and UK educated woman, whose formative teenage years were in the later part of the nineteen-nineties, I took for granted that gender was a convenient means to describe my anatomical make-up and characteristics of my disposition, rather than a means to define my role and place in society. I assumed, somewhat naively, that this “lip-service” to gender was the status quo in the corporate world and that 21st century organisations had transcended beyond the tensions of gender of the previous century.
In 2009, at 23, I started working in a global management consultancy. I was correct in my expectations day-to-day – gender, on face value, played little to no role in the responsibilities that I assumed. However, my organisation was like many of the UK’s FTSE firms at that time; notably less than 20% of the UK executive were woman. This was made clear during my induction at the firm; one of the ‘lucky 20’, when presenting to the group said with tongue-in-cheek “I’m French and I’m female, so I’m in a minority in most meetings I attend”, and more seriously noted, “I see this as an incredible advantage”. Such a blatant and unapologetic assertion of gender difference perforated my gender neutral view of the world, and is a sentiment that I has echoed throughout my career since.
As a “new joiner” I was immediately thrown into a role that could make the best of what-ever limited career experience I had. Having previously worked a short stint in software licensing I was, to my horror, thrown into a project on IT security. I was the only female in the team, the most junior, the least experienced. Socials meant curry and a pint, the work was technical. But I was accepted as part of this team, partly through willingness to partake, partly because I brought something new – an open, unashamed questioning, because there was no expectation that I should know the answer.
By 2011 I had been promoted, my industry expertise was in the Energy industry. At the time, I worked closely with a super-major oil company in downstream operations. At 25, I was responsible for shaping the IT strategy for a portion of their retail business. My clients were uniquely male, middle-aged, Dutch and Texan; serving some interesting meeting dynamics. I was utterly convinced as a young female, I would hold little to no clout. Three years on and the strategy that I designed has been implemented. The client manager I had been working for praised me for the professionalism and leadership.
I hadn’t approach the issues in a particularly novel way, but I believe that I was myself, in this context, ‘novel’, and so my recommendations carried weight. Perhaps my sexuality not my gender had boosted my influence? I certainly made no effort to dress like a man; I rarely wore a suit to work, preferring the colour and softness of a more varied wardrobe. But, I was not overtly sexual, I was just “female”, and so de facto, different. In speaking up, my tone and innovation would be different to others in the room. I could command attention, firstly at intrigue at such an interloper, but later through respect. I could build relationships, but not through bantering; what interest does a Texan have in soccer or a Dutchman in American football? I was not held back by organisational stereotypes, because there was no precedent for females in many roles. I was at an advantage.
In 2013 I was promoted to “Manager”. I’m told I am a valued and trusted line manager, and I believe that my gender gives me an advantage here too. Women have an inherent ability to hear tonality, they infer meaning from body language, they value work-life balance, family, and well-being. These factors serve to promote a sense of trust and openness within my team, and they are traits that I value in both the male and female leaders that I look up to.
Gender balance in the workplace
As organisations evolve there is an awakening to the value of a “mixed team” in producing results. I no longer believe this means homogenisation of the workforce, or a gender (ethnic, culture or religion) neutral environment. Difference is a means to career success. Whilst profiteering organisations are steeped in masculine values, there is room for feminine characteristics in the meeting room and board. Women will continue to stand out in the corporate world and should capitalise on the advantage this presents.
Ed Comment: A recent MIT study by Sarah Ellison demonstrated that shifting from an all-male or all-female office to one split evenly along gender lines could increase revenue by roughly 41 percent.