HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!
When I was a child, I used to hate my mum working full-time. I used to get so jealous that everyone else’s mum could pick them up from school and were always there to watch the school performances. However, as I grew older, I came to realise what really mattered. I came to understand my mum’s career, and to admire how much she went through to establish herself and reach success.
My mum comes from a rural village in Northern Ireland, the daughter of two Irish Catholic teachers, who were descendents from generations of farmers. While it was becoming more common for people of my mum’s background to go to university, it was definitely rare for them to go to an English university, as she did. Incidentally, she was the first person from her school ever to get an offer from Oxbridge. At the interview, she was faced with the rigorously prepared, publically educated with their posh accents, while she spoke too quickly in an Irish accent that people had difficulty understanding. In the end, she went to study Physics at Bristol, where in the science departments, women were a rare breed.
After graduating from university, she entered another male dominated world, the world of banking. When she was appointed as a branch manager in Leicester, she was the only woman among the 400 other managers in the region. In this position, she was a disrespected novelty by many. She later found out that the branch director had only agreed to take her as a favour to the regional officer, and throughout her time there, he treated her in a patronising manner. This lack of respect was replicated by some of the clientele too.
Within her first week of working there, three of her customers asked to have their accounts managed by a different branch manager; they assumed that, as a woman, my mum wouldn’t be competent. Her branch director didn’t defend her ability, placidly agreeing to move the accounts. She daily faced overt sexist remarks from another manager who relished humiliating her, often necessitating a trip to the toilets to cry. However, she didn’t let any of this push her to quit. She proved that her gender in no way affected her working ability, managing to gain the respect of some managers due to her talent. In this way, my mum was one of the women who helped to carve a path for future women in senior roles.
My mum later moved to a central department which was more forward thinking. However, there were still issues including a struggle to secure a part-time job after returning from maternity leave, even though this was supposedly guaranteed. It was also difficult to be promoted while working part-time, putting working mothers at a disadvantage.
The discrimination worsened when she later moved to a different department to work on IT projects. My mum again found herself the only woman in the room – bear in mind this was only 15 years ago. She says it felt like every day she had to don a business personality alongside her physical business suit in order to hide her true self. The culture was such that you would never talk about your personal life. The subject matter might enter into football, but not your children, creating a detached, impersonal environment.
This inability to be her true self was a contributing factor to her leaving the bank, alongside changes in company ethics, like prioritising profit over customers’ welfare as the economic crash lurked closer. However, one event in particular was a catalyst. Mum complained about a director making sexist remarks at a public gathering and shortly afterwards she found herself edged out of the organisation. While this director was consequently fired, she always wondered if her role as a whistle blower had resulted in her ejection. Her bravery in standing up for what she believed in, despite recognising that it could have adverse consequences on her career, is certainly admirable.
My mum then took a job in the civil service where she still works now. She found the culture there more liberal and didn’t encounter the same overt sexism she’d had to deal with before, likely due to a general shift in social attitudes. However, it was still difficult for women to obtain senior positions. At the top level in the agency she worked for, they joked that there were more men called David on the board than there were women on the board.
To this day, within the Department for Education, the senior levels are still male dominated despite there generally being more women than men in the department. My mum believes that change is slow because people are inclined to appoint people in their own image; assertive, confident men are more likely to make their voices heard. However, as a woman working in senior positions, my mum daily contributes to changing the expected image of a manager. She is helping to ensure that attitudes are changed and that future women don’t face the discrimination that she dealt with.
So, even if my mum couldn’t be there for every sports day or to ferry me around after school, she gave me something invaluable; an inspirational role model. She showed me that you can succeed even when it seems like no one else wants you to or expects you to have the ability to. She showed me that you should pursue what you want to do regardless of what anyone else thinks. I intend to follow her example by never letting anyone else place limitations on my potential achievements and to always to aim for the best, even if that’s not necessarily the easiest path to take.
– Katrina Bennett
Featured image source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/107875353551738102/.