Women in the workplace

Despite legislation and 'codes of best practice' being put in place to protect women in the workplace from outmoded management tactics, we still get letters from female members of the IET complaining that they're not being dealt with fairly.

And, despite the fact that we are now in the 21st century, there are still issues arising. Managers who think that women are by default their assistants, or that those on part-time contracts are less valuable to the organisation, are in for a rude awakening. This isn't simply because they're being old fashioned, but because there is a whole stack of legislation that they obviously need to be aware of. For most of us, it will be something of a shock to reaslise that the two cases in this feature are real, but they are, and they reflect an alarmingly common set of experiences of women in the workplace. We have taken out some of the details that might identify the actual circumstances of the dilemmas and, as usual, while we aim to provide the best possible advice, we would like to remind you that all experiences are different and that the advice given here is no substitute for appropriate legal and HR advice in the face of real employment issues.

Made to feel like his assistant

Q: A colleague of mine who is not in a position of authority over me but who is more senior in experience and reputation, seems to be pressurising me to act as his assistant. I'm afraid my contribution will not be noticed if this happens and he will take all the credit. How do I gain from his experience, while not becoming a 'flossy' (a woman who spends all her time facilitating other people at their own expense)?

A: You say your colleague seems to be pressurising you to be his assistant. I'm wondering whether you are just being polite or are not sure whether you've interpreted his actions correctly.

Whether you are clear or not about your colleague's behaviour, what is clear is that it's not appropriate for you. Anyone would be justified in feeling a little confused if a colleague began treating them like an assistant. Sometimes confusion, if left unchecked, can lower self-esteem and I'd like to ensure this doesn't happen in your case.

Firstly, I'd like to point out that your colleague cannot actually make you feel like an assistant, only you can do that. So make sure you know exactly what he's doing that causes you to feel this way. List everything and be as specific as possible. As you review your list, you may notice that there are not as many items on it as you first imagined. Or you may think that what you've written is rather trivial when put it down on paper like this. That's good, because this means a solution is within your reach.

Now consider each item or behaviour on the list in isolation, do they all exert the same pressure? You'll probably find that a particular behaviour carries more weight than the others. This is where to focus your attention.

Next, when did your colleague first start behaving this way? Think back and identify when you first became aware that he was treating you like an assistant. Again, be as specific about the timing as you can be.

You have now identified specifically what your colleague is doing and when he started to do it. While this is useful, there is one important piece of information still missing: why he is doing it? Only he will know this. You can only guess, and guessing isn't an exact science - you could be wrong.

You'll have to confront your colleague if you want to resolve this issue. However, there are a few more things you might consider first. Perhaps when you think back he's always treated you this way. Does he actually know that your job doesn't involve acting as his assistant?

Are you the only person that your colleague treats in this manner? Perhaps all his 'junior' colleagues feel the same as you. That would be interesting to find out...

You say your colleague is more senior in experience and reputation. I don't think you're saying that gives him the right to treat you like an assistant. So why mention it in the first place? Think about how you behave around your colleague. Be true to yourself. Are you behaving in any way that might have misled him into thinking it's OK to treat you as a subordinate? If you think you might have, then you can admit this to your colleague, apologise and stop doing it. If don't think you have then you could approach your colleague in innocence and ask him what you have done to mislead him, apologise, and stop doing it! The result of either of the above scenarios will result in you being able to develop a new working relationship.

Has anything happened to your colleague, his department or your company for that matter, which might explain (not excuse) his behaviour? Has his workload increased or is he under pressure to meet a deadline? He may be totally unaware of what he's doing. Make sure he is aware of what he's doing and how it makes you feel. Be sensitive and ensure he knows you're highlighting an inappropriate behaviour not criticising him personally.

Of course, your colleague may genuinely require assistance but is finding it difficult to ask for help. If you do help and say nothing then he will have no reason to change his behaviour. Why would he feel inclined to acknowledge your contribution?

Perhaps you're the only person that can help and you colleague knows this. Do you have specialist knowledge that he needs? If so, you are in a strong bargaining position. Look for a win/win solution; he gets access to your specialist knowledge and you get recognised for your contribution. As you say, he has a reputation to maintain.

Feeling guilty for being part-time

Q: I work part-time so that I can look after my two small children, but my colleagues keep forgetting this. I can usually stop relevant meetings happening when I'm not there but their expectations of what I should be able to achieve are in line with someone employed full-time. When it comes to how much I have achieved, I feel that the fact I am doing my job part-time is forgotten. What can I do to address this? (Working more hours is not an option.)

A: I'm wondering if your skill at getting relevant meetings moved so that you can attend them is a part of your problem. If I put myself in your colleagues' shoes, and always see you at key meetings, I might be forgiven for not remembering that you work part-time. You must give clear messages to your colleagues on a regular basis that you are a part-time worker with two small children and, reading between the lines, you are proud of that fact; it's your choice and your company clearly supports this or they would not have permitted you to go part-time. 

Why not turn your non-working days to your advantage? If you were not at every meeting your absence would help to remind your colleagues that you're not always there. What's wrong with the chairperson saying, "I'm sorry but x apologises for not being with us today but she only works part-time" and having this minuted? I'm sure you must have missed a meeting in the past. What happened then? Did you brief someone to represent you or perhaps they read a written report from you in your absence. These actions help you interact with your colleagues and remind them that, although you are not there full-time, you are still very much a part of the team.

You could also use the minutes of a meeting you missed as an excuse to approach a colleague to seek clarification on certain points, even if none is required. This way you can build relationships and remind them indirectly, if not directly, of your working days.

I think it important to remember you are not Superwoman and nobody expects you to be. However, if you act as if you are, people will quite happily go along with that illusion as this enables them to get on with their own busy lives and focus on their own issues. They will help, but only if you ask for it.


If you have a management related problem that you would like to see analysed then write to janet@thewrightcoach.co.uk.

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