5 December 2016
When I was young – a year younger than my daughter is now, I spent a year in America as part of my sandwich degree, working for a supermarket chain, where I learnt something unexpected.
Working a rotation of departments, I particularly enjoyed working back of house, in the warehouse and on the back door. A slightly odd choice in many ways, with temperatures in Boston, Massachusetts dropping to a bone-chilling minus 30, and the 3am morning shift playing havoc with my sleep patterns.
What sticks with me from that time, is how well my boss, Guy, looked out for me. With the benefit of hindsight, I am amazed but very appreciative of the effort he made to help me succeed. He explained to suspicious suppliers making deliveries that, yes, Helen, the young English girl absolutely had the authority to sign off dockets; and to store staff, that yes, Helen had been trained and was completely competent to operate the heavy and sometimes dangerous machinery; and yes, it was a first in this particular store, to have a young woman doing this job; and yes, we all love her English accent.
Which is why I was really surprised when I was told one morning that I didn’t need to do the first job of the day, which was to bring in and put away the fruit and vegetables (produce), and that instead he would do it himself. I explained that I really didn’t mind, but I was told no, I wasn’t to do it.
Confused, I kept asking Guy, why not? He eventually explained that the Produce Manager had complained that I finished the job 30 minutes later than Guy did.
I was feisty enough to demand the task back, on the basis that I would work harder and faster, and get it done on time. But I think it took me considerably longer to process the fact that this seemingly unimportant conversation had in fact been a ‘near miss’. Without that feedback, the chance to more clearly understand what was expected of me, I would not have stepped up my game and got it right.
Various forms of that incident have played out more than once during my career, and I’m pretty sure there were many more I was not aware of.
In the Board room, as well as in the back room, I’ve seen people tainted and defined by a failing which they were often unaware of. I’ve seen flaky decisions, based on assumptions about an individual’s level of ambition, sometimes inferred from their personal status, such as a pregnancy or family commitments, or ‘not needing to work’.
These individuals are rarely asked whether they feel ready to take on additional responsibility, or whether they want to make a pitch for that promotion. The common excuses are that it might put ‘too much pressure’ on them, or that it might be seen as discriminatory to ask, say, a pregnant woman if she would like to be considered for an overseas assignment.
Consequently they lose out on what might have been a golden opportunity, for them to be stretched and developed, or at least to have received confirmation they were regarded as talent. Of course, they might have decided it was not right for them at that particular time, but surely their opinions should have mattered and their views have been sought out rather than assumptions made by others? I’ve also seen women passed over, getting increasingly bitter, as they look at those appointed gaining the experience that they have been denied. What a downer.
I’m certain that both men and women’s careers have at times been blighted in this way, but I do think women have an additional set of complexities to contend with. Having talked with both men and women over the years, I’ve spotted a common thread.
Otherwise well-intentioned, and often caring men, sometimes fail to tell the truth about how the game should be played. These are not bad men – more often than not, quite the opposite. But unless they are encouraged to be more honest about what is expected, and to speak up when those standards fail to be met, they are doing women a disservice.
I’m not naïve enough to suggest that my career would have ended if I had not been allowed to put the produce away on that cold and chilly morning. But I do know that if I had been a man, I would have been told that I wasn’t doing the job well enough.
Without clear expectations, and constructive, actionable feedback, women, particularly in the early phases of their careers, will continue to find it unnecessarily difficult to access the crucial roles that prepare them for the really big opportunities later on.
Helen Sachdev is one of the Founders of WOMBA as well as a senior executive and Trustee with both the CIMA UK Board and Leicester University Student’s Union, and an Executive Coach. She is a mother of two who is also committed to making the world a better place for working women.