For the first few years of her working life Dotty Winters believed she’d never encountered office sexism. Then she got a job in Hong Kong and her opinion was turned on its pretty little head.
I left university knowing less than I’ve known at any other stage in my life and was rewarded with a high-flying, well-paid role as an international management consultant of mystery. At the tender age of 21 I had achieved my sole career-based life ambition: I had a job that involved drinking coffee and wearing trouser suits. This was the year that I learned two important life lessons: 1) trouser suits are a terrible look for me, and 2) I am a feminist.
Having been raised in an unquestioningly feminist household and fallen into a particularly right-on bubble at university I had no idea that I was, in fact, a feminist, until I finally met people who definitely weren’t (working with management consultants is also how I learnt that I’ll never be a Tory or play golf).
Unfortunately, it took me a while to catch on. First, there was The Pay Incident. In 1999 I was working in London and had been placed in a company flat with a male colleague. He’d joined the firm just a couple of weeks after me, and he was good at his job. In fact, I knew exactly how good he was at his job as in that particular company we were all given performance ratings and he was rated almost as well as me, and I was freaking awesome. So when I found out one day that he was being paid several thousand pounds a year more than me you can imagine how I responded. There were lawyers and a massive PR campaign, swiftly followed by public apologies and major changes in legislation.
No, there weren’t. I was so sheltered, so lacking in vigilance for systemic sexism, that I assumed there had merely been a typo. So I calmly phoned HR and informed them that there seemed to be a mistake in a spreadsheet and they elatedly agreed that this was definitely what had happened and said they would fix it immediately.
I can only imagine the scale of their celebrations as they realised that I had not suspected any institutional sexism and thus would not be discussing it with my colleagues, much less the press or courts. They quickly and quietly refunded the pay gap, backdated to the day I started with the firm, and I bumbled along, cheerfully oblivious to the fact I was complicit in a system which set undisclosed financial penalties for boob-possession.
“For the weeks that followed I existed as a lone and unwelcome woman in an extraordinarily hostile work environment.”
Vigilance is a funny thing. When I wasn’t looking for inequality I didn’t see any, but all of that changed when, two years later, I was sent to work on a project in Hong Kong. I flew overnight on a Sunday for 12 hours, arriving at the office just moments after the start of an important meeting.
I bundled in and a roomful of stale, male colonials stared at me in silence. After a moment the Chair picked up a phone and called my boss. “Nige, it’s Keith. Did you know you’d sent us a woman?” To his eternal credit my boss responded, “We don’t check things like that. We just take people’s word for it.”
In the weeks that followed I existed as a lone and unwelcome woman in an extraordinarily hostile work environment. Meetings for the project I was managing would finish just as I arrived (even though I had scheduled them), emails would go unanswered for days and direct questions would be met with uncomfortable silences. I could have saved the company a lot of money in travel if they’d just sent me to actual Coventry.
I worked hard, kept my head down and tried not to care. It didn’t work. I started to realise I was surrounded by mindless inequality. I faced endless questions about who was looking after my husband while I was away, and some incredibly patronising mansplaining about the technology we were working with.
Beyond my own experience I started to notice how my colleagues talked about the women they saw in the street, and the way they treated female receptionists and waiting staff (including patting them on the arse in lieu of tips). But what bothered me most was how my British colleagues talked about their wives. If these privileged men couldn’t bring themselves to talk about the women they claimed to love with any sort of respect, what hope was there that they would ever treat other women with anything other than contempt? Once I tuned in I spotted every eye-roll and every inappropriate touch. I heard the body-shaming, the slut-shaming and the prude-shaming.
When I came back to London a few months later and was given my work review I was told that my performance had been near-perfect, but that I hadn’t scored the fullest marks because I hadn’t done enough socialising with my colleagues. Despite the near impossibility of fitting ‘socialising’ in at the end of my 17-hour working days, the karaoke and strip bars that were the venues of choice just weren’t my scene. I started applying for other jobs that day.
Since then I’ve been doing my career in reverse, gradually moving to lower-paid and lower-powered jobs. The money is much worse but I do much more of the work in pyjamas, and I don’t need to worry about being marked down due to my lack of commitment to hanging out in strip clubs.
It has become fashionable to decry feminism. I hear too many women say that they’ve never witnessed any sexism and that it hasn’t been a feature of their working life. I’d have said that too at one point. But the uncomfortable truth I’ve had to face is that I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking. It was only when I was faced with a comparatively minor degree of sexism – and was isolated from my daily patterns of feeling capable – that I was forced to acknowledge what was happening. This in turn forced me to realise that what I was going through was mild, safe and manageable in comparison to the challenges millions of others faced every day.
I feel guilty that I had to go all the way to Hong Kong and work with misogynists before I was willing to look for the inequality that affects women worldwide.
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.