When I was a child, I did NOT have a burning desire to work in supply chain and logistics.
My ambition was to be a lawyer, so less hard hat and more grey wig. I was a straight A student with an offer from Oxford, and off I trotted to university to study the subject I’d always wanted to do. Imagine my horror when I discovered, very quickly, that the ‘dryness’ of law bored me to tears. Where was I going to be able to be creative? How could I get variety into my days? And did I really want most of my conversations to be so adversarial?
Dropping out of university was a low point for me. At the age of 19, I had no Plan B. What on earth DID I want to do when I grew up? This question dogged my early to mid twenties. I ran a pub for a while. I had a stint in recruitment. I worked briefly for a company that imported tropical fish – although my job didn’t officially entail scooping dead Koi out of the containers each morning, that unfortunately was a part of my life for several months. Suffice to say I didn’t pursue this career opportunity.
After some years during which, if I’m honest, I completely lost my way, I landed in this industry on a temporary contract at the age of 27. It was only meant to be for 6 months. 15 years later, I’ve never left the industry and so have found myself permanently in that much-maligned place: The Male Orientated Environment.
Have I come across blatant sexism over the years? Of course. Have I come across implied sexism? Oh yes. Does it make me angry? Well, yes. But I don’t want to spend my working life in a boiling rage, and there are a few key lessons I’ve learnt over the years to deal with what is, essentially, the minority of men.
Lesson One: Always be me.
“You’re too direct. You need to learn to use your feminine charms more”.
I was in my early 30s and in a reasonably senior position, but too new into it to feel I could challenge my Director, who gave this piece of ‘advice’ to me in a 1-2-1 session. It dumbfounded me. I’d never tried to flirt my way into getting people to do things for me. Should this be my new tactic? It didn’t sit well with me. It still doesn’t. Personally, I like doing business with people – whether women or men – who don’t play games and don’t manipulate people; those who own their actions and are true to themselves. This is the type of person I aspire to be. Do I try to be charming? Of course - in that I try to be pleasant and approachable. But charming is one thing; ‘feminine charms’ is something completely different. Google tells me that the definition is ‘The acting carried out by a female towards a male in order for her to obtain something from him’. Ah yes. I’ve seen it in practice. Is it successful short-term? Often, yes. Is it something that drives respect and long term allegiance? Not in my experience.
I couldn’t bring myself to take my Director’s advice and, at the time, I saw this as something of a failure on my part. That was nonsense! Over the years, I’ve come to see it as a strength, as I think those around me do. I act with integrity, and I try to treat all people with respect, whatever their gender, age or position. At the end of the day, I have no problem looking myself in the eye in the mirror, and that’s something I won’t compromise on.
Speak up – if it’s not funny, it’s not ‘banter’.
I once sat in a bar on a team night out whilst my male colleagues made rape-related jokes for what felt like hours. It wasn’t funny. It was threatening, it was sickening and it made my palms sweat. But I was in my twenties and I wanted to fit in…. be part of the team… so I said nothing. However, I’m famed for having the opposite of a poker face (it’s a curse) and my boss spotted my reaction. My facial expression then became the next butt of the ‘banter’.
I’m not painting a very good picture of myself in terms of my failure to stand up for myself, I know. With a few more years under my belt, I’d react differently. But there’s a reason for my sharing the story: if I could hop into a time-machine and tell my twenty-something year old self one thing, it would be this: ‘Banter’ is a word often used to rationalize unacceptable comments. Offensiveness is NOT ‘banter’. Banter is funny. Banter often consists of teasing between people who have a mutual respect. Do not put up with banter that is aggressive. Do not feel you have to sit and force a smile. Maybe this advice isn’t needed for today’s twenty-somethings, but as someone who’s mentored other young women since that time, I don’t think it can be emphasized strongly enough.
Sometimes, being a woman has nothing to do with it.
“Don’t you ever send me that f**king woman again!”
So said one customer to my boss following my first account management visit to him, repeated to me amid much laughter by said (male) boss. Of course, the word I focused in on was ‘woman’. Blatant sexism! Or was it?
I reflected on my meeting with the customer. He was a very small business owner, operating from a portacabin at the back of an industrial estate. I’d pitched up suited and booted, with a Powerpoint presentation and a mission to put his rates up. It hadn’t gone down very well. Was that because I was a woman, or because I hadn’t learnt to adapt myself to different environments? Well, on reflection and with the boiling rage having subsided to a gentle simmer, I had to admit that it was the latter. And this is a skill that we all have to learn – women and men alike. A male version of me, in the same situation, would probably have yielded the same furious response. As much as I would like to cry ‘sexism’, I have to admit that in certain scenarios, being a woman has little to do with it.
Homework, homework, homework.
Now for my admission: In the main, I’ve enjoyed working in worlds where I’m in the minority as a woman – and that’s absolutely not to say that I’m not delighted to see the balance changing. But I thrive on a challenge.
I talked earlier about the implied sexism I’ve come across. Nowhere did I see this more often than in the world of Maintenance, Repair and Operations, where most of the influencers I met whilst leading my large team were male engineers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in meetings where I’ve asked a question and my opposite number has answered the male colleague sitting next to me. Amazing – I’m the Invisible Woman!
But here is the bit I love: when I start to talk confidently and knowledgeably, there’s a very slow but very satisfying shift. There’s something very rewarding about earning a grudging respect. I can only do that by being prepared. Charlotte Whitton, first female mayor of a Canadian city, once said: “For a woman to get half as much credit as a man, she has to work twice as hard, and be twice as smart. Fortunately, that isn't difficult.” Whilst I don’t think this is true in all circumstances in our era, I do know that to overcome the deep-rooted perception issues like the one above, I absolutely have to know my stuff.
Some may think I’ve focused too much here on what women need to do, and not enough on what men need to do. Of course, the real breakthrough comes when men stop these behaviours – but in the meantime I can only be responsible for my own actions, and if those actions make me happy and successful in the environment I fell into all those years ago, then that’s good enough for me.
And has the environment for women in our industry improved? Of course it has. Apart from a general increase in awareness and respect, we have some great organisations available to us today, such as Women in Logistics, which has grown exponentially over the last 10 years, and Co-op CEO Jo Whitfield’s new initiative for the grocery industry: Grocery Girls. Finally, I’m immensely proud to be part of the LPR business now – a company that doesn’t just pay lip service to equality but lives and breathes it every day. And long may that continue!