Musings From a Professional Woman About Being a Professional Woman

Judy O'Leary-Shepherd - 29/08/2019

This is part of a month-long series to support closing the gender gap as we lead up to our first Bring Your Daughter to Work Day #BYDTWD2019.

Those closest to you don’t always know what’s best for your career. 

My parents were born in the early 1930s in what were then country towns (now outer Melbourne suburbs). Mum rode to school on horseback and my Dad had a full set of false teeth by the time he was sixteen – thanks to the Bacchus Marsh barber (the closest thing Bacchus Marsh had to a dentist – he cut hair and he pulled teeth). Things were very different then, yet this distant past had a big influence on my future. 

Sitting at the dinner table one night my older sister was marvelling at the fact I’d achieved straight As in my Year 10 report. ‘You could do anything! You could be a lawyer or a doctor!’ Dad chipped in, ‘Well I think you’d make a very good secretary,’ delivered in his customary tone that said, ‘Well that’s settled then.’

So by the time I got to Year 12, I was seriously questioning all the effort I was putting in at school. I’d met a boy and thought it would be much more fun to hang out with him than do homework – what was the point of it anyway?

Judy.jpegThere’s still much to do before anyone can claim that our workplace is ‘fair and equal’

When I was in my late twenties, I remember reading a newspaper article stating that girls today were under the impression that ‘all the work was done’; that workplace equality had been achieved and active feminism was an obsolete cause. 

Twenty years later, my kids attend a primary school where there’s 8 females to every male teacher. I hope that’s enough evidence to stop the next generation thinking our society can make such a confident claim of equality. It will take many generations to undo the historical shackles that led to the division of labour, traditional roles, unequal pay and male dominated leadership. 

My school’s maths and science books were full of male-only pronouns and practical examples that referred only to boys and to boys’ activities. It takes many generations to undo the subtle messaging of ‘the woman’s place’ that our society is awash with. Uncover and remove one message, it gets replaced with another – like the latest app to make your Instagram selfies show you at your ‘best’ (that is, society’s definition of best).

Women can be your best supporters and your biggest under-miners

If you’ve been raised to think you can ‘do anything’ and that women can be just as successful as men (if not more) and the workplace is fair and equal now so, ‘You go girl!’ then you might be in for a surprise. Me, I was under no illusions. I’d never really understood what feminism was about until I got to uni. When I started reading about it in first year sociology, it felt like I’d come across a secret that my parents had been keeping from me. So by the time I entered the workforce, I was thankfully a little wiser than a few years before.

Looking back, I wonder if some of the women I worked with saw things differently to me. Their ambition seemed to be one of win at all costs. Sue took notes of every mistake I made and reported them to our boss – almost costing me a successful probation. She next applied this approach to a more senior colleague – and within a couple of months, Sue had successfully taken over her job. Not long after, I worked with Kate who took notes of every mistake our boss made and reported them to her boss – leading to a total restructure of our department. Why were these women so intent to succeed at the expense of other women? What stories were they fed during their formative years that led them to believe that sort of behaviour was okay?

Those ladies were the outliers though. I stayed in one job twelve years, mostly because of the fantastic women I worked with. We had a challenging boss and challenging clients, but we looked out for each other and knew that if anything went haywire, our colleagues would always step in and help. 

After spending the first fifteen years of my career working predominately with women, I then moved into IT to work predominately with men. And I became a mum. After the birth of my third child, I needed a bit more than 1 year’s maternity leave… and it turns out, a lot can happen in a bit over a year. When it was time to return, the IT division of my old organisation had been closed and my old job no longer existed. My old boss had moved to a software development firm and offered me some casual work that was tedious but something. As a mum with small children needing flexibility, you take what you can get. 

In that role I frequently received negative online anonymous feedback about my work. The tone was more often hostile. Yet others gave me glowing feedback. My boss reassured me, ‘Don’t worry; it’s Jess – I know her writing style.’ It’s my guess that Jess really needed her job and felt insecure about my appointment, since I was experienced in her area of work. During my last month, I had to work directly for Jess on a big project and despite the unparalleled level of tedium in the work, I continued to do my best. To her credit, Jess acknowledged my hard work. The last time we worked together, she said to me, ‘It’s a shame I’m only getting to know you now, because we get along really well.’ It’s a shame Jess couldn’t see past her assumptions to notice I wasn’t the monster she’d imagined. We were both mums of young kids working in an IT organisation with only four other women. Why would she shun the opportunity to connect with another person who had so much in common with her?

I think as women, we often attempt to rise up against imagined threats like Jess did – and take aim at the wrong targets. I suspect that Sue and Kate were similarly insecure – prompting their determination to get ahead of their junior roles – even if it meant trampling others along the way. Maybe their parents had paid for an expensive education that they didn’t want ‘wasted’ (in a throwback to the treatment of girls’ education in earlier times)? Perhaps they’d been mentored by someone who promoted an aggressive time-lined career approach? 

The advice that girls can ‘do anything’ might be motivating, but it isn’t realistic (in the same way it’s not realistic for boys). All careers require hard work, dedication and passion, mixed with a healthy sense of self-awareness and a commitment to continuous learning. Trampling and undermining might get you somewhere for some of the time, but for long-term career satisfaction – genuine positive professionalism trumps negative tactics. 

Diverse workplaces are much more fun

In my current role, I work with a mix of men and women. There’s more men overall in the business, but there’s a good mix sitting around our corner of the office to keep the conversation lively and to keep our perspectives in check.

I continue to believe that workplaces are not equal. But it’s more than a gender issue. It’s also about race, ability, sexuality, religion and culture – and it’s also about men’s place in the workforce. 

When we started our family, my husband was advised by colleagues not to apply for their company’s paternity leave policy. The policy was then a few years old, and in that time only one father had applied for it – his career there had subsequently suffered. Was the policy real – or just something produced to meet Equal Opportunity requirements? Things may have been straightforward for previous generations of men, but now we all find ourselves working on a moving carpet, trying to keep ourselves on two feet. Trying to have successful careers while continuing to upgrade our skills and knowledge to keep up with change, while trying to do our best as parents, partners, members of our community in a society where expectations are complex and changing and we’re no longer sure what being a good parent or partner or whatever really means.

At work, I figure if we just worry about the basics we can’t go too wrong. Let’s not worry too much about our particular ‘attributes’ (gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc.) and focus on seeing and supporting each other as engaged individuals who enjoy being productive. If we can take that approach, if we can keep our career expectations realistic and if we can be aware of and manage our insecurities – I think we can enjoy a fun workplace. 

Choose your own career adventure

I’m grateful to my Dad for not putting too much pressure on me and grateful that he didn’t force me to sign up for typing classes. If he’d encouraged me to take the doctor or lawyer route, would I have been better off? Who knows? I had no idea where my rudderless canoe would take me, but as I worked out how to sail my boat more skilfully, I think I’ve navigated an interesting and fulfilling adventure. 

I’m still enjoying myself.

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