Friday, April 7, 2017

Dipping a toe into hot water

I don't usually go near controversial topics.  I keep it light and fluffy and talk about how badly designed toilets are or sometimes about nothing at all.  But today, I'm going to turn a little bit serious and talk about women.  

The thing is, I can feel that even reading that there's been a sharp intake of breath amongst some people reading this.

So, on LinkedIn yesterday I recounted something which happened to me a few years ago.  It's a true story, and I gave only the highlights in a quick status update.  Here it is...

A few years ago, I met a recruiter for coffee.  During the conversation over coffee, he made one or two remarks about a woman who walked into the coffee shop which I thought were inappropriate remarks. 
I didn't say anything at the time, but never worked with the recruiter to either represent me, or to hire for me in any of the roles I've been in since. 
My only regret is that I didn't tell him why.  It feels a little bit too late to say something now, but I wish I'd said at the time that I wouldn't be using him, and why.   
He still calls every six months or so to see how I'm doing and whether he can help with hiring in my team.
It's a dangerous assumption that just because you're speaking with another man, you'll get away with making "laddish" comments about a woman's appearance.   
Those couple of comments have cost that recruiter quite a lot of roles over the years...

It's a brief account of coffee I had with a recruiter a few years ago, back in a previous job.  Meeting recruiters for coffee comes as part of the territory when you're a manager with a team.   You get to know some recruiters across the years, and will tend to stick with them as they move between companies, but there are always new ones who call out of the blue, buy you coffee and explain why you should start using them to fill your roles.  Quite often it comes to nothing, but sometimes you make a new relationship.

And so I was having coffee with a recruiter somewhere, and we were making the normal small-talk at the beginning of the meeting.  "What did you do at the weekend?" "Whereabouts do you live?" - all that kind of fluff that British people tend to start business meetings with.  In the midst of this initial flurry, a woman walked into the coffee shop and the recruiter stared at her, and then made a couple of comments to me about how she looked, with particular reference to her breasts.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with his remarks at the time, but for various reasons I never spoke up to say anything.  I just carried on with the conversation, said goodbye and then never followed up to introduce that recruiter into the process of where I was working at the time.  He still calls me every six months or so to see how I'm getting on.  I've never signed up to use him for hiring - either to represent me when I was looking for a new role, or when I'm managing a team and looking to hire some people into the team.  The truth is, I never will use him.  But I've never plucked up the courage to tell him that.

For the moment, though, let's wind back to the initial incident, and then we'll come back to today and the reactions I received to my post.

Whenever I am speaking to someone in a professional capacity, I am representing my company and they are representing theirs.   So if someone I'm speaking to professionally says something which I find objectionable, for me to call them out on it is to do so on behalf of the company, not just me.  That's something I'd be wary of doing, even if it's something as obviously unacceptable as uninvited sexual comments about a woman.  At the time I was a few years earlier on in my career in management, and I don't think I was quite as sure of myself as I am now.  And so I smiled politely and moved on with the conversation.   I think it's worth making clear that I have absolutely no doubt that the management of the company I worked for at the time would've backed me had I said something; my lack of confidence was in myself rather than in them.

The second reason I didn't say anything was more personal.  I identify unashamedly as a feminist these days, but that's not always been the case.  That's not to say that I've ever actively engaged in nor supported the subjugation of women, but it was something I hadn't really thought about.   Growing up as a white man, the fact that racism and sexism still run through daily life is something which can quite easily pass you by.  And it's to my own shame that I thought that as long as I wasn't being sexist or racist myself, that was enough.

My view changed when I asked a few questions of people I know well enough to speak openly with.  I read a few things which told me just how prevalent sexism still is, and I realised just how naive I'd been.  And so I asked a few women in my life for their own experiences.  I can point to those couple of days as precisely the time when I went from ignorance to anger to determination to help change things.    As a man you have to look to find sexism; as a woman it finds you every day.  It changes the way you walk to the shops to avoid the men on the building site who may whistle at you.  It affects how you feel about taking your car in for service because you're sick of being patronised by the mechanics.  It affects how confident you may feel in applying for a job because the company website feels "a bit blokey".    I can imagine that a woman reading this now will be surprised that this isn't bloody obvious to everyone.  But if you're a man reading this and think I'm overstating things, then talk to some women you know and trust, and ask them to tell you honestly what daily life is like for them.

And so back to the recruiter.  Of course, he didn't say the things loudly enough for the woman to hear.  He had presumed that because he was talking to another man, he could find common ground in ogling women. (Although it's not the point here, I find that quite ironic for another obvious reason, but moving on...)
But I'm sure she noticed him staring at her chest as she walked towards the counter.  I'm sure she noticed she was being watched and judged.

After my post on LinkedIn, quite a few people have told me that I should say something to him next time I speak with him.   But it's going to take effort, as I know it's not going to be easy.  It would've been much easier to say something at or close to the time.  But we are where we are, and I can't go back in time.  My issue is that to me this was something I recall clearly.  To him, it was probably just another meeting which didn't go anywhere and his comments are probably so common-place to him that he won't even recall making them.

The interesting thing isn't what people said in public, though; it's the private reaction I got to my post.  It was three-fold.

Firstly, I got a few messages of support.  People sharing similar stories and saying I did the right thing.  Although a few people also posted those messages in public, and much as they are welcome, they aren't the most interesting response.

Secondly, I got the expected messages telling me that I had over-reacted.  I had at least ten messages - some from people I know and some I don't - telling me that I'm being unfair, and that I shouldn't judge someone on the basis of a few comments made as an aside in the middle of a conversation.  All of these messages were from men, of course.

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, are the number of people who've got in touch to say "were you talking about me? If so, let me explain... you misunderstood me...".  You'd be surprised how many people have got in touch to say this.

I've no intention of naming and shaming.  I'm going to park this and move on now.  I shall leave you with the door policy of a bar in Iceland.  It pretty much applies to who I invite into my life...




Added 10th April 2017:

A little postscript, which I guess I could've seen coming...

After having to spend far-too-much-of-my-time today deleting the more abusive and, shall we say, "unhelpful" comments from the post on LinkedIn, and reading and deleting the similar private messages I've received telling me that, amongst other things "I am only jealous because he saw her first" and "I am only angry because the recruiter fancied her and didn't fancy me" I've deleted the original comment on LinkedIn.