I bet you say that to all the girls
“I have some advice for you, from our boss’ boss,” said my boss one bright day, many years ago.
Grand boss had been told I was part of a bank delegation to a major industry event. The only person from her team to be going.
She didn’t bother calling me herself.
She sent my boss, who worked for someone who worked for her.
Did the message she originally intended for me get lost in translation, Chinese whispers and distorted good intentions? No idea.
But what I got was advice in her name.
And the advice was: observe, don’t draw attention to yourself, speak as little as possible.
That’s going to be difficult, I said to him.
I have been invited to speak at the conference.
You are not taking me. I am invited. To speak. Not to be silent.
So thanks for nothing.
I was seething. I was upset. I was disappointed.
A few months later, I met her.
And I asked.
It won’t surprise you to hear she didn’t remember. And fair enough. It had been a long time. I was not that important. It had not been that important, in the grand scheme of things.
But she stood by the message as advice goes.
As a woman in this industry, she said, it helps your career to not put yourself out there too much, not to draw too much attention to yourself. Listen, observe, limit exposure until you know how the winds of corporate power alignments are blowing.
I bet you say that to all the girls: helpful advice to survive and thrive in a man’s world.
And she did.
She absolutely did.
And the advice didn’t come from a place of malice.
It just didn’t come from a place of rebellion.
She was trying to be helpful to me, sharing what had worked for her. She was not trying to change the system; she was trying to help me work through it.
She meant to be helpful.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t come from a good place. It does mean, however, that it took me to a very dark place as I stood there, early on in my career, dreading what was coming, feeling unequal to the blandness that was required of me.
Ah but look at you, you are thinking. You are loud. You are present. You did not fade into the background. You did not observe and hedge. You did all the things she advised you to avoid and it didn’t turn out too badly for you. So why the outrage now?
And you would be right.
And you would be wrong.
Would you say that to a man?
“Good luck,” said the recruiter who had set me up for a role I was ambivalent about. And I was ambivalent because I had been there before. A bank that doesn’t know what it wants, but it knows it should buy a ticket to the fair and not be left out. And you were to be the fair, the ticket, the clown and the clean-up crew. The thing they needed but didn’t want. I knew how to do that job, but I was not sure I wanted it.
I had been a corporate punching bag before. It’s no fun.
“Good luck,” he said.
“Impress them but don’t intimidate them, you know what I mean.”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“It’s a roomful of white, middle-aged men,” he said. “You know exactly what I mean.”
And he was right.
I did and I do.
And when I joked, “I bet you say that to all the girls,” he responded, dead serious, “There aren’t many.”
“There aren’t many girls. So yes. The few that I have, I try to help navigate through the pitfalls and realities of gender dynamics in the workplace,” he said. In the ‘world place’, as my auto-correct interjected. Even predictive spelling is a cynic these days.
Have you ever said that to a man? Of course not. Nobody has ever advised a man to tone it down so as to not be intimidating.
I have asked this before.
Do you ask the same question to men?
And I will continue asking it every time I am asked a question or given advice I don’t think my interlocutor would throw at a guy.
I have been asked whether I am OK managing women. Also whether I am OK managing men. My answer to this is always, “Do you ask the men that?” And the answer is always no. In 20 years in this industry, only one person had the good grace to look ashamed.
So when does it stop?
During the course of one day not so many weeks ago, I got asked to speak at a conference that made a point of only inviting women this time. A bit of a novelty factor and a nod at the industry prevailing winds when it comes to all-male panels.
What do you want me to speak about?
Being a woman.
That’s not how representation works.
The same day, I was asked by a journalist whether I would contribute to a piece she was writing on how much better things were for women. How actually being a woman these days was an advantage, pity the middle-class white man, she said with a laugh.
Things are not better. Being a woman is not an advantage. Neither should it be. We don’t want privilege. We just want parity. And we are a long, long way from it.
And no. I do not pity the middle-class white man nor do I want his pity.
None of this is new.
None of this is news.
But enough is enough already.
I will not be silent.
I will not be counted towards your palliative quotas.
And if you are intimidated rather than impressed by what I can do, then that’s on you and your fragility.
So if you do say things like this to all the girls, stop.
Even if you are trying to help.
Or maybe start.
Start saying to all the boys all the things you say to all the girls in the workplace.
I give it a day before they are all clamouring for change.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!