Telling Women What To Do


I had a weird experience in a previous job. As it is long in the past, I thought now was a good time to blog about it.

I worked in a hip office. Everyone was trendy and right-on. It was a heavily female dominated industry and the office politics were biased towards intersectional feminism. Which I regarded as a good thing. I'd rather have a natter about reproductive justice than who won the football last night.

The office also had a swear jar. Say a word on the banned list, put a quid in the tub, with all proceeds going to charity. Nice. One of the "swear" words was... "guys". Not everyone sees guys as a gender neutral term.

"Hey guys, could you all..." BZZT Brian puts a quid in the jar!

"We've got a great team of guys working on this..." BZZT Get your purse out Davina!

All pretty good natured. Everyone slips ups occasionally, and it was fun hearing people change gear mid-sentence. "OK gu-gu-gu-gang! How are we?"

And then the Australians arrived.

Kylie (not that one) was from the Australia office and was starting a 6 month secondment with us. At her first all-staff, she was asked to say a few words.

"HEY GUYS!" She gushed, in the way only Australians can, "What a bonza office you guys have!! I can't wait to tells the guys back home about the work you're doing!!!"

Half-way through an exclamation mark, someone raised their hand. Barry, or maybe Mike, possibly Rav. "Ummm... Just so you know, we don't use the term 'guys' here..."

"What are you guys talking about?"

"Only... it's just... not all of us are guys. So..."

"Are you guys joking?"

"No. We've got a swear jar and everything."

At which point, the Australian let forth a torrent of swearwords - including a few I'd never heard before - about how men had no right to police a woman's tone. Which seemed fair.

Whereupon Gillian (or Niki, or Kanda) interjected to say that Kylie's debt to the swear jar was closing in on bankruptcy levels and, for the sake of international relations, this should probably be discussed over a pint.

A few months ago, I had a similar experience. Someone invited me to speak at their conference. I turned them down because I don't speak on all male panels, and politely informed them of that. The organiser - perhaps not unreasonably - took me to task on this. While she valued my input, it wasn't my place to tell her how to run her business. She was - as it happened - a young woman of colour, trying to make an impact in a PSM environment. And, maybe, I should stop telling women what to do?

It's a tough one. Cultures butt up against these fault-lines all the time. What seems polite to me, seems rude to you. What's commonplace in your culture, is a bit of a shock to mine. Some times it is good to stick up for your principles and defend those who might be marginalised. Some times it is best to keep your big nose out of things.

In both cases, we mutually de-ruffled each other's feathers. Turns out, by talking to other people and understanding their perspective, you can learn a lot about the world beyond your own experiences.


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3 thoughts on “Telling Women What To Do”

  1. FJ!! says:

    Telling a conference organizer what their panels should look like is indeed telling them how to run their business.

    But telling a conference organizer that you are not contributing to manels is setting a personal boundary, like insisting on a working microphone, or being able to rehearse, or no green m&m's. The organizer is welcome to stay within the boundary or say the boundary cannot be accommodated. Having a boundary is absolutely not telling them how to run their business, it is communicating how you run yours.

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