Everyday sexism in the business world
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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Della Hudson was part of the class of 2009. She built up Hudson Business Accountants and Advisers from her kitchen table to a small team of flexible workers with independent premises in Nailsea, near Bristol. The firm ran regular Money Matters seminars and other training and webinars. Della sold the firm in 2017 in order to focus on the...