Some 25 years ago I went to buy my first car. I went with my husband, not because he knew any more about cars that I did but because we were newly wed and joined at the hip. I’d had my eye on a cherry red Triumph Dolomite and on getting my driving license we went to the garage to make the purchase. On seeing us looking at the car the salesman sauntered over and asked Steve, “What kind of car does she want?”
It was like I wasn’t there. I’m pretty outspoken now but in my younger days I was like a very fizzy bottle of pop; one little nudge and the top would blow off. Truth be told I had no idea what kind of car I wanted, as long as it was red, but the fact was that it was my money, my car, my decision. I think I managed to make that pretty clear to the salesman and I bought the wonderful red Dolomite (which I spent the next two years sticking bits back on as they fell off) at a discount.
Fast forward 25 years. I was sharing a drink with a friend only yesterday and she related a similar incident. She’s a very experienced woman and currently General Manager at a leisure complex. A guest came to reception to ask for a particular issue with their room to be resolved. In outlining the problem the guest didn’t talk directly to my friend but addressed their comments to the part-time maintenance man who was standing just to one side. My friend had to point out that she was the manager and, therefore, the one that the guest would have to talk to if the issue was to be resolved. The guest wasn’t being rude but simply assumed that, despite the fact that my friend was dressed like a manager and the maintenance guy dressed only in a pair of dirty old jeans and steel capped boots, the man was in charge. My friend was invisible.
Over the years I’ve had plenty of times where people have asked to speak with my manager when I have been the manager. I used to put this down to the fact that I did very well in my career very quickly and that people were surprised to see one so young in positions of authority. I now believe that it was more likely to be an expression of sexism, not expecting to see a woman in a position of power. In my friends case it was alarming to find out that the guest in question was also a woman.
So things haven’t changed. Or haven’t changed much. And certainly haven’t changed enough.
I’m a founder member of a group, based in Scotland, whose aim is to increase board effectiveness by increasing board diversity. Clearly one of the ways that this can be achieved is by encouraging more women onto the boards of public, private and third sector organisations. Since this is the case, the majority of members of the group are women. Women who have already achieved senior positions within organisations and who are seeking to develop an non-executive portfolio. But it is not just an organisation to boost individual attainment, it is one seeking to change the landscape around equality and diversity. At the moment here in Scotland we are in the final couple of months campaigning leading up to the referendum on Scottish Independence. Whether the outcome is yes or no there is widespread agreement that things will change significantly after 18th September. Issues such as equality and welfare, for example, are likely to be further devolved even without full independence. It has been suggested that the group hosts a meeting to discuss these issues in the context of diversity and board effectiveness. I have been alarmed at the number of women who are not interested in the debate.
Here is a chance, a once in a lifetime chance perhaps, to really effect the agenda. A chance to make sure that women are seen and heard. No wonder that we are still invisible in the workplace when so many women are not interested in getting involved in creating change. More than ever we need to all get involved to make sure that women and men are seen as equal. In fact to make sure that women are seen at all.