Women can be beastly too

Written by Katie Mathison, FPRINZ, PRINZ President

I’m going to reflect on #metoo and personal brand, for both genders, not just men. Everyone needs to be careful, male or female, when dealing with co-workers of either gender. Your personal brand should be trustworthy, respectful, cross no lines, and embarrass no-one. Personal reputation can be eroded by sexual innuendo, crude remarks, making a pass at someone, and jokes. But here’s the thing: it’s not just men who do this: women do it too.

I have been fortunate not to have had many #metoo moments, or at least not ones that I would bother describing as they were so minor and I felt in control rather than pressured. It was, however, a woman who inflicted on me the one incident that most upset and embarrassed me.

There was a group of us sitting in a hotel bar, having a quiet drink after a long working day out of town. A male Board member was present. My female staff member, who was somewhat drunk, announced loudly that I fancied the Board member and should take him upstairs. He was right there, and clearly could hear everything. It was excruciating for both of us, and not in the least bit funny, (nor true, I hasten to add), and it was the end of the evening for me: I fled. It affected future interactions with the Board member, which were somewhat distant on both parts. Was it a #metoo moment? It certainly felt like it to me, and I wouldn’t be asking that question if a male had said it.

On another occasion, I can recall feeling utter embarrassment when a female chief executive, speaking at a pregnant staffer’s leaving do, said, “I wish you’d crossed your legs or put a cork in it”. She was trying to be humorous, but it was clumsy and inappropriate: we all got mental images we’d rather not have had, and the victim (yes) squirmed and went red. I particularly noticed younger staff flinching. And now I reflect: if a man had said it we would have all jumped up and down. Why didn’t we when it was said by a woman?

Twice, in senior management meetings where there has been a lone male among females, I have heard the dreaded harem comment. The first time, it was from a female, who giggled to the male chair “Oh, it’s like we’re your harem!”. If you take that literally, it means the man has sex with each one of us at his whim. I know that’s not how it was meant, but it has an ugh factor in a work context. Is it worse if a man says it (which it was, the second time)?

I have several real examples of where women can be predatory at work. A colleague of mine once had to brief a Minister (female), in her hotel room, while her male adviser massaged her feet on his lap. That’s all kinds of wrong, and would not pass today’s #metoo test if the genders were reversed. As a Minister she had all the power, and he had none. I don’t know what he felt about the situation; allegedly they went on to have a relationship, but there must have been some point where he sensed the power imbalance.

One male friend told me that his female boss put her hand on his knee. Another male co-worker told me that his female boss kissed him at a work function: he was definite about who kissed who, and he didn’t sound upset, although it must have been awkward afterwards: at pay review time, what did that feel like for him sitting across from her? What did the rest of her team feel, if they knew (which they probably did, given he’d told me).

All this gives me pause for thought about how power is gender neutral, and so therefore can abuse of power be. As women increasingly get to be bosses, we must make sure our own back yards are clean.

Cultural considerations and generation gaps can also come into play. The recent palava over the PM’s pregnancy reminds me that years ago, in a team meeting where we announced someone’s resignation, I said, “Has anyone else got any important news?” and a newly-arrived young Chinese woman blurted out: “I’m six weeks pregnant”. Of course I didn’t mean she had to tell us, but that’s what she heard. What if she had complained? And how much worse would it have been if I had been a man, in 2018?