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Women at Work #1

Women, Men and Status at Work, Part 1

Discover the Secrets Most Business Women Don’t Know About!

How to Increase Credibility, Status and Success, Working With Men!

When I first moved to New Zealand many years ago with my NZ-partner, we both looked in the paper for jobs to pay the rent, while we got ourselves settled. I got a job as receptionist for the Methodist Central Mission childcare division. My work included answering the phone, being secretary to the boss, typing up social workers’ notes and looking after distressed children (while their parents had difficult interviews about abuse, drugs, fostering and adoption). It is interesting how job-descriptions and the actual job-tasks can diverge. This was an enlightening role for me after lecturing and teaching – enlightening in ways I had not expected.

I will share three telling incidents from that role. They came to mind when I was planning to write about how men and women relate to each other at work. These incidents say something about status as well as gender I feel, but since those two bundles of issues are inextricably tangled, I will keep going and I have tweaked the title to suit!

1. My boss was very kind but disorganized (as was apparent from the state of his desk). I had not been in post very long when he walked into my little office demanding to know where I had put a particular document. I explained that it was not something he had put into my keeping and found a tactful way to help him sort out the top of his desk. The document was retrieved there. I remember a gruff ‘thank you’, but no acknowledgement of his false assumption that I was to blame.

Unpicking that assumption, it could summize:

  • It is legitimate to assume a receptionist (almost synonymous with low status and female) is to blame, without checking first.
  • It is legitimate to use a negatively judgemental tone with a woman colleague.
  • Women do not do their jobs very well.

Of course, those are only my assumptions and cannot be verified.

2. Our department shared a tea-room with a crisis telephone line and a service for young people. Social workers of course talk about their cases over tea and coffee. My work, which had included work with disadvantaged people (including teenagers and adult inmates in a London prison) had given me much experience to share, but when I tried to bring something to the conversation, I had the odd feeling that I was not being listened to, or even heard. As word got out that I was university-educated and that I had established a teaching/lecturing career, things changed. Some even came to me, the lowly receptionist, to run tricky situations past me.

Was I not initially heard because of assumptions that people were making about me as a woman in a low status role?

3. I got on well with the staff in the different departments and had good conversations. I exchanged thoughtful repartee ‘sparks’ with one man without, any hint of sexual innuendo. We simply liked each other. One day he dropped into my office, in passing or so I thought, and perched on the corner of my desk. After a few minutes of friendly banter I was ready to get on with typing up the usual pile of social workers’ reports, but he suddenly asked me to do some typing for him because he needed it done in a hurry! OK, this could just be someone asking for a favour, but what were the assumptions?

  • That certain people, ie women/receptionists/secretaries do the typing and men do not? By the way, my typing was, and still is, the untaught, several-finger version I had figured out at university and it was probably no better than his.
  • That taking a position quite close to a woman and on a higher perch than her would help him to get his needs met?
  • That being friendly would work as a persuasive technique?
  • That his work was more important than mine?

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Each of us has unique life experiences, but I wonder if any of this is ringing any bells for you? If so, how would it be to listen to them? How would it be to untangle experiences of your own that come to mind and to think about what assumptions might have been at play in those situations, the assumptions that others might have been making? And your own assumptions?

Some assumptions come from people not really being awake to what they are doing and going along with cultural norms. Noticing the web of assumptions that people at work inhabit, is a good step towards being more awake – a life-long process by the way!

Once you notice more about what people are assuming, you can find new ways to relate to them in situations in which the wrong assumptions were being made previously. My suggestion is to:


Freed of false assumptions, how much more wonderful and productive might any workplace be?

Judy Barber.

Best Selling Author of ‘Good Question!’