Everyday sexism in the business world

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Della Hudson
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Della Hudson, founder of Hudson Accountants, discusses sexist behaviour towards women who start their own businesses and in the accountancy world.

Whilst I’m fortunate that sexism hasn’t been a major factor in my career, it has always been there lurking to some extent.

The worst incident was when I discovered that I was earning just 75% of my male predecessor’s salary. The good news is that since then I’ve never felt intimidated negotiating a pay rise based on facts about my role/performance/market rate. The same goes for quoting fees. I’m confident of what we are worth to clients who match our ideal profile.

Like most small practitioners, I’ve worked hard to build my own business from the kitchen table to a team of seven based in town centre offices. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. But because I took my husband’s name when we married, it seems a common assumption that it is his business and not mine. (For the record, he is an engineer who takes equal offence at being mistaken for an accountant). Those of a more generous nature at least ask whether it is a partnership or a family business.

Is it sexist ignorance or because they can’t believe that I’ve built this successful practice whilst raising two clever and active children? I make no attempt to conceal that I set up the business in order to have the flexible working hours which none of the other local accountancy practices were able to provide.

I am even more proud of my kids than I am of my business. Although, after a recent trip around the Xero offices they both want to work there, so I know I’m not creating a legacy for them.

I am also exceedingly proud that all our employees enjoy part-time and flexible working whether for family (most primary carers are women), study or just because they like holidays. All those accountancy firms who were unable to accommodate my family commitments were wrong; we have an excellent calibre of staff thanks to our flexibility for all (and not just for mothers).

If you’re prepared to be flexible then there are some excellent accounts professionals at the school gates just longing for a half-decent job with hours which will fit around their kids.

One of the consequences of prioritising my family life is that it is difficult for me to attend early evening meetings. I accept this, except for the odd one which is about how to encourage more female participation in X (Where X = entrepreneurship, partners in accountancy firms etc).

If you want to get female opinions then arranging meetings in what is the worst slot for working mothers is not the best way to go about it. If you have ever invited me to join a diversity discussion at that time, you’ve probably received a rather scathing reply explaining why you really aren’t thinking about the issue from a woman’s perspective.

Whilst some female practitioners attract a majority of female clients, at Hudson Accountants we’ve always had a fairly even split and, at the time of writing, our client companies are 65% male led, 31% female (with some really dynamic business leaders amongst them) and 4% jointly run. This mix may be due to our business advice service and our focus on growing businesses, rather than start-ups or lifestyle businesses. It also indicates that our clients don’t have any qualms about dealing with a predominantly female team.

I sometimes come across a more overt kind of sexism whilst out networking. There’s always the well-meaning avuncular kind of business man, usually of a certain age. Depending how well I know them I may tease them gently about their attitude and encourage them to change but, if anything, this type of sexism usually works to my advantage by breaking down barriers.

The more offensive kind is being invited for coffee in such a way that I suspect it is not going to be to discuss business. I still wear a wedding ring in order to minimise this but, in spite of this, I’ve even been told that I have “enchanting eyes”. For those who’ve had the misfortune to see me across a breakfast table before I’ve had my first pint of tea you’ll know that this is not just fiction, but it is also completely unnecessary comment at a business event.

I enjoy watching both football and rugby, and Hudson Accountants sponsors local male and female teams as well as charity matches. I’m pleased to say that I haven’t experienced any negative sexism in doing this other than an initial surprise when I volunteer cash in exchange for a logo and a photo in the local press. My enjoyment of a predominantly male sport enables me to stand out in the associated PR and networking, although I know a few other rugby-loving businesswomen who have been accused of being WAGs.

Everyday sexism is frustrating but not worth throwing a full blown tantrum. There are gentler, kinder ways, to re-educate the poor men who don’t realise what women have to offer outside of the bedroom or the kitchen. I often wonder if those local accountancy firms realise that, if they’d just given me that flexible job, they wouldn’t have me as competition?

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By DJKL
14th Sep 2017 10:49

"Is it sexist ignorance or because they can’t believe that I’ve built this successful practice whilst raising two clever and active children?"

It is an interesting article, but the above shows how easy it is to inadvertently be sexist in this day and age.

The use of the "I've" followed by the "raising two clever...." somewhat suggests this latter as a solo effort which I suspect, from the tenor of the piece, was not your intent.

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to DJKL
14th Sep 2017 10:58

Thanks for your comment DJKL, always nice to hear from you.

While I'm positive that it wasn't Della's intention to suggest solo parenting (in retrospect the sentence should have been picked up on in the editorial process), I'd argue that one sentence out of place is different to the ingrained, institutionalised prejudice she highlights in the piece.

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By DJKL
to TomHerbert
14th Sep 2017 17:40

It was mere light ribbing.

As an advisory, if you do not take most of what I type seriously you will, in the main, be on the right track.

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By Mr_awol
to TomHerbert
15th Sep 2017 12:26

I'm not so sure there is a difference to be fair Tom.

We are often told that making a throwaway comment, without intention of offence, is very much a sign of our deep rooted, unintentional, subconscious and institutionalised prejudices. It probably is exactly that, in fairness.

As such, someone assuming that Della's husband formed the practice is no different from someone assuming that he put up the shelves, or that she raised the kids. I agree that clearly no offence was intended by the writer (or DJKL). However, surely it is better to acknowledge this irony as evidence that prejudices can indeed work both ways and that even those determined to break them down can fall victim to the very failings they seek to counter in others?

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14th Sep 2017 11:53

"Whilst I’m fortunate that sexism hasn’t been a major factor in my career, it has always been there lurking to some extent.

The worst incident was when I discovered that I was earning just 75% of my male predecessor’s salary."

This is not necessarily sexist. I'm a bloke and I've worked at places where my male predecessor or my male replacement were paid more than me. This was just because the practice was trying to get away with paying me less!

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to Rammstein1
15th Sep 2017 18:57

I've tried to give a balanced view of my experience. I've learned to stand up for what I'm worth so it's not all negative. To put the salary situation into context only 2 of us in the company's top 100 managers were female.

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14th Sep 2017 12:49

My article to follow about subtle racism and shortism (male height) in 2017. I will cover how to address these issues. I am still a success.

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to FirstTab
14th Sep 2017 12:56

Was with you until shortism

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to TomHerbert
14th Sep 2017 16:55

Hi Tom

I did skim read the article earlier. I read it again. Overall, it is a balanced article. Unless you experience discrimination whether it be sexism or racism, I do not think, it can be fully appreciated. Knowing this, I still made the flippant comment earlier. Not good.

Thankfully, most of the human race is becoming less discriminatory. It is articles like these and TV, that have had a positive impact.

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to FirstTab
15th Sep 2017 18:52

Your earlier comment did make me laugh

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14th Sep 2017 16:28

I was listening to a 5 live discussion regarding equal pay. The female broadcaster being interviewed had put forward the facts that she had been paid significantly lower than her male co presenter....this was discussed in combination with arguments over comparative experience etc.

At that point it was put to her if she would be happy if a younger less experienced male co presenter was then paid the same as her. Her reply was along the lines of 'well if I wasn't I couldn't really argue for equal pay'....whatever her exact words it was not a ringing endorsement for her argument.

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14th Sep 2017 17:13

Let me start by saying that I appreciate that sexism exists. I have no doubt that there are those that genuinely do assume the business is her husband's or that see a meeting as an opportunity for something else. However, I don't understand the comment about early evening meetings.

Like DJKL's comment noted earlier, parenting is a dual role. If she has to attend an early evening meeting, then surely her husband can look after the children that day. As it is, it is like she wants to adopt the "traditional" role if it suits her to do so. Indeed, in offering a "scathing reply" to such meeting requests, she is castigating people for not viewing her in that "traditional" role.

In all honesty, this sort of thing irritates me about parents in general. When someone makes the decision to have children, then they should take responsibility for that decision. Yet only yesterday I spent a half hour bus journey with kids running back and forth shouting because someone who had made that decision wasn't taking responsiblity.

It is one thing to request accommodations for you having children, and I am generally happy to do so wherever possible. It is quite another to act as if the world should revolve around your choice to have offspring.

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By DJKL
14th Sep 2017 17:50

My main problem is foot in mouth, with no malice usually intended.

If an opportunity arises to make some light hearted quip I tend to take it, I admit that on occassion I possibly misjudge, and of course online is more difficult as it is tricky placing inflexion into the typed word.

It can be so easy these days to cross to the dark side by mere inference rather than intent.

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15th Sep 2017 12:30

My wife runs her own business. She runs her own training academy and often teaches evenings and weekends to accommodate her students. In fact she is teaching tonight at 6.00 p.m.

We have 4 children youngest 4, oldest 13 (going on 45!) and we have never had any problems with her meeting her commitments. Marriage is a partnership.

By the way - have you never heard of "Apartheight"? (Shortism - see Two Ronnies)

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15th Sep 2017 15:34

I'm a man.

Don't people (men or women) organise early evening meetings, eg CPD / networking etc, so that it doesn't eat into the 'day-job'.

I never would have thought that I'd be classed as sexist if I organised such a meeting. I have not previously thought about the writer viewpoint about the time of meetings.

I get up late and work late into the evening. I have my own firm and work from home. If I organise a meeting, it is always after 10:30. Does that make me 'timist' with clients wanting early meetings?

Others may organise a meeting before the working day. I'd hate that as I'm better in the evening.

I do not consider myself sexist (I'd never underpay a lady or be nasty), though being in my late 40s, I'm sure lots of younger people would consider that I am. I grew up with certain values and they have stuck with me. I think that it is a generational thing and values do not change with the latest fad.

I'd rather have a female secretary on reception. She looks better and I think a lady has better client relations and softer skills. That makes me sexist.

I do not care about the [***] of employees doing accountancy. I'm neutral.

As I work on my own from home and on my own, I'd probably prefer to hire a part-time female co-worker. As the writer talks about she would be more flexible, and probably part-time work, which is what I'd be after if I expand a little more. I would also think that I'd probably keep a part-time flexible worker for longer; at least until the children are older. That would be positive sexism.

I think that most of us are in some way sexist but are not always aware of it.

If I open the door for a female colleague is that being chivalrous or sexist?

I'm sure that if I said that I went to see my surgeon last week that most people would picture a man (not a woman) with a scalpel.

I do get fed up about excessive PC. We are all real people and our real lives are shaped by our surroundings and upbringing. My motto is treat people with fairness, you cannot be perfect even if you try.

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By Mr_awol
to paulinleeds
15th Sep 2017 17:21

paulinleeds wrote:

positive sexism.

Positive sexism doesn't exist. It's one of my pet hates.

The writer also alluded to such a thing when she suggested that a 'diversity' seminar could include aimed at 'increasing female participation in x'. This isn't diversity nor equality. It is the narrow minded promotion of a person (or group of persons) to the detriment of others, based upon gender. It is the very definition of sexism.

In the same way, people or groups that claim to promote equal rights (but whom in fact only champion a specific group which they have identified as a minority) should be banned - or at least be made to own up to their own 'ism'.

Don't get me started on the idiot males who claim to be 'feminists' because they want women to be treated equally. That, to me, is just being normal, and should be the default for all. As such, there's no need to label oneself as a feminist to try and prove anything. If any label needs to be applied to these muppets it is probably 'submissive'.

My dislike of 'positive' discrimination doesn't arise because I begrudge those looking to help people overcome prejudices that genuinely do exist, nor because I resent them reassuring people not to fear the prejudices that are perceived to exist.

In many ways, I lead a very simple life. I don't see any reason for promotion aspects to be affected by gender or any reason other than a person's ability to do their job. As such, I'm probably a little ignorant to the genuine struggles that some can face based upon their 5ex/age/race/religion/disability/sexuality or any of a host of other things they have no control over and which have no bearing on their ability to do a job.

However, discrimination is still discrimination no matter how people try to justify it, and it can never be positive. By all means break down barriers and report successes* to reassure people that they CAN make it, even they are in a perceived minority. But don't promote people purely on gender or any other irrelevant category just to try and equalise a statistical anomaly.

* actually I think this was probably the aim of the article, but it was lost a little because if a mildly sexist undertone. I too hate excessive PC nonsence but it I were to really search for examples:
- The male predecessor, who cant possibly have merited the additional wage (or as mentioned above it cant be due to cutbacks). Must be sexism.
- "I" raised two clever and active children
- Assumption that pro-women's seminars cant possibly be held early evening or who will look after the kids?
- Need to highlight that the female clients include some really dynamic business leaders. Why wouldn't they?
- Comments about re-educating the 'poor men who don't understand' their sexist ways (equivalent of me suggesting a someone not worry their 'pretty little head' about something?

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By mrme89
18th Sep 2017 09:15

I used to work for a transport company as a transactional supervisor. My subordinate, a female, was paid more than me. I put it down to the company being tight and trying to get away with what they could – I brought it up, and my employers pretty much said the same but reluctantly increased my pay. If the roles were reversed, it would almost certainly have been sexism at play wouldn’t it? *rolls eyes*

The fact is that companies will try get away with what they can, regardless of [***], race etc.

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18th Sep 2017 13:14

With regards to 'positive' sexism, that is prioritising women (or certain ethnic groups or whatever) in order to achieve a balance more in line with society in general, I am against it in principle as I believe that all decisions, be it salary levels or getting a job in the first place, should be based on ability and suitability for any given role.

However...this assumes a level playing field at the beginning. Unfortunately centuries of sexism/racism/other isms mean that the playing field isn't level and is overwhelmingly white male dominated.

This is what makes it tricky. I don't believe in giving an advantage to any particular demographic, but then again I don't see how true equality can be achieved without giving things a boost somehow.

I also agree with Stepurhan about people who choose to have children. I'm willing to make certain allowances, and employers should certainly aim to be family-friendly, but it's also important to realise that it was their own choice to reproduce and I shouldn't have to base my life and work around someone else's life choices.

So there's my opinion, which is of no help to anyone!

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to sosleepy
18th Sep 2017 17:12

sosleepy wrote:

However...this assumes a level playing field at the beginning. Unfortunately centuries of sexism/racism/other isms mean that the playing field isn't level and is overwhelmingly white male dominated.

Exactly. Too many of us fail to grasp this key point.

Unless we are prepared to recognise our unearned privilege and redesign our systems and processes, the playing field will remain anything but level for large groups of people.

Treating people equally doesn't mean treating them all the same.

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By Mr_awol
to coops456
19th Sep 2017 12:33

coops456 wrote:

Exactly. Too many of us fail to grasp this key point.

Unless we are prepared to recognise our unearned privilege and redesign our systems and processes, the playing field will remain anything but level for large groups of people.

Treating people equally doesn't mean treating them all the same.

Nonsense, and insulting to boot. Just because someone doesn't agree, doesn't make them thick, any more than it makes them x/y/z-ist.

Treating a group of people more favourably to try and achieve some statistical equilibrium is a short sighted approach to a genuine problem. Equal opportunities should mean exactly that.

Firstly, how should the split be maintained? 50/50? This, of course, ignores completely the male:female ratio of the market, whether that be based upon the population of the local area, or of people even interested in any one particular role.

98% of nursery school teachers are, apparently, female. Should nurseries be forced to employ only males until a 50/50 split is achieved? Once it is, do they have to maintain it or can they treat everyone equally after this 'catch up' exercise is complete, and allow the mix to settle into a natural balance unaffected by sexism? How about building site labourers? Midwives? Firefighters? Accountancy staff? What is a fair ratio for each industry, and who sets it? Or are we going to make it all 50/50 just so everyone gets a go? Will there be an exemption if a post is unfilled for a certain amount of time that it can be given to someone who may not have "earned the privilege" (other, perhaps, than by virtue of actually being the best candidate for the job).

Secondly, what about the business owner who just doesn't give a hoot what their employees look or sound like, which bathroom they use, which idol they worship or who they choose to sleep with? Why cant they just crack on and employ the best candidate? Why does their business have to suffer?

Finally, purely on the sexism front, what about babies? It's a fact of life that (unless adoption or a surrogate is involved) it will ALWAYS be a woman who has to have time off to actually have the baby. They then have the choice, within their own family unit, as to who stays at home, who goes to work, or whether they utilise childcare and both return to work (or indeed abuse the benefits system and both stay home but we wont go there today).

So I have two hypothetical female managers, both pregnant. One takes a year off and comes back part time, the other is away for three months. Their two hypothetical male colleagues each have a two week paternity leave period at the same time as the maternity begins (must have been an interesting Christmas party).

They all started the same day, are equal in every way, in terms of ability, qualification and experience up to the point at which the babies started popping out left right and centre. They were all earning £20 per hour.

Five years on, which one(s) made partner, how much are they all paid, and why isn't that fair?

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By Mr_awol
to sosleepy
19th Sep 2017 12:55

sosleepy wrote:

However...this assumes a level playing field at the beginning. Unfortunately centuries of sexism/racism/other isms mean that the playing field isn't level and is overwhelmingly white male dominated.

This is what makes it tricky. I don't believe in giving an advantage to any particular demographic, but then again I don't see how true equality can be achieved without giving things a boost somehow.

Yes it is tricky - and yes, it's quite possible that it will take time to achieve true equality on a representative level.

But sometimes we just have to hold our hands up and say that life wasn't always fair, but we are doing our best now and going forward things will be better.

Statistics may have a place, perhaps in identifying the dinosaurs (oops, is that me being ageist?) or anyone found to be discriminating against a particular sector. But that is probably something to be looked at internally within larger businesses, not something that should drive decisions (unless it is to get rid of someone found to be acting inappropriately).

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19th Sep 2017 12:58

It's all evolutions fault.

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