Blog 7. John Morijn & Lina Biscaia: Beyond #metoo: a conversation between feminist spouses

One of us recently wrote an op-ed about modern feminism in a Dutch newspaper. It made the argument, based on many discussions between us over the last 15 years, that discussions about female emancipation and gender equity should better involve the perspective of and trigger what is relevant to the experience and perceptions of feminist men too. Moreover, feminist men should be actively seeking to learn about how women experience their working life. It argued, finally, that away from egregious and blatant forms of criminal sexual behaviour in a working environment by powerful people (typically male) towards subordinates (typically female) that are easily qualified as acts to be stamped out as a priority (including with the normal safeguards of presumption of innocence, etc), there are in fact many more subtle forms of conscious and less conscious male behaviours and practices that are unfavourable to women without men actually necessarily being aware of it. What is necessary to investigate and discuss that in a way not immediately polarised is so simple that we often forget it: an open dialogue between women and men who trust each other (and do not work together) in a way in which experiences are exchanged without immediately judging the other or thinking in terms of ‘solutions’.

We are glad this blog allows us to explore this issue a little further (it is the first time we are writing something together!) by acting upon one of the things we often heard in reaction to the op-ed: it got people talking to their partner at home, and men were often surprised by what their girlfriend, partner or wife told them. How strange that so little is exchanged about such an important topic, if you think about it! Here we will have such a conversation between the two of us, in public. It will take the form of asking each other questions over the course of some days (so the below is an actual exchange). We are spouses who have never worked together. But what is more relevant for this post is that we are both people who have worked in many different places for many different employers, including as coordinators and managers of gender-diverse teams so that we each have different contexts from which to draw (Lina, a lawyer, has worked for many different international organisations in France, East-Timor, Bosnia, The Netherlands, Afghanistan, Switzerland and Haiti; John has worked as a legal academic and a civil servant in Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium and the US).

John: I wrote in the op-ed that in my area of work women are typically over-represented in the classes I teach and at a junior level in the organisations I have worked for, but usually underrepresented at a higher level within universities and ministries. There seems to be little development in that, and slowly moving up myself I have ‘overtaken’ in seniority many women colleagues who seemed at the time and still seem at least as qualified. This strongly suggests – and it feels vaguely strange to write this up – that at least an element of my career so far is that I have been benefiting from some hidden bonus just for being male. Still in thinking back to each of these steps, and my female competitors (as far as I was aware of them) for the posts I landed, I find it hard to put my finger on where exactly my advantage may have been.
What have been your experiences and perhaps those that you have witnessed around you in terms of efforts to perform normally and move up, and what do you think are relevant elements in that? Do you feel you or female professionals more generally have (had) to act ‘unnaturally’/ against your nature(s) in working in teams with predominantly male management?

Lina: It’s important we start this discussion by identifying behaviours by men at work that discriminate against women. Again and again, men have asked me to print documents, take notes at meetings, and prepare spreadsheets (apparently women excel with Excel). With time, I have also become more aware of how frequently I am interrupted when I am speaking and how often issues I raise are brushed aside. Once I was offered a bouquet of flowers for performing a task that involved a lot of work but boiled down to basic project management skills. I gave away the flowers immediately. To me, they were patronising, especially considering the level of my position at the time, which should not involve such a task.

Annoying as those behaviours are, they are only the tip of the iceberg when addressing gender parity. I was incredibly naïve for the first decade of my career and it is only looking back that I am able to come to what I am about to say. As a lawyer in Portugal, I had many female colleagues and worked with female judges and prosecutors. I never thought about gender balance at work. When I moved to the international environment, without exception, in every office the vast majority of junior positions were held by women, sometimes up to 85 percent. I found that at mid-level, there would be 50/50 gender representation, but just as often there would be more men. In one job, I did my own research and found out that more women than men applied for the positions, roughly the same number of women and men were interviewed, and a vast majority of men were selected for the position. Oh, and in a lot of the cases there was an all-male panel. As I try to understand why exactly panels were gradually excluding women from the recruitment process, I think of discussions you and I have had over the years about gender quotas: you considering it a serious possibility of last-resort because it will put an end to this in a structural way. It would break the job market in two so that women will effectively only compete against women and men only against men. I always replied that I want to be selected for my capabilities. This means competing against women and men alike and not being selected in part because of my gender.

Unfortunately, I have come to conclude that no matter what the capabilities of a woman are, they are much less likely to be recognised in a setting dominated by men. There’s three reasons for this. The first is that men, even unconsciously, prefer to work with other men. There’s a camaraderie that is very gender specific and that isn’t present in cross-gender relationships. The second is that, because of that camaraderie, men actively push each other up the career ladder. That women do it less is because they are still thinking in terms of one’s merit and less concerned with being liked by their colleagues, male or female. This brings me to the third reason: because women want to be recognised for their abilities, they tend to work incredibly long hours to (re)prove themselves constantly. If you do this, you are certainly not going to be in the boys’ club because you are not buying into that system (perhaps what you call behaving unnaturally) but… they will get the work of their office done. What is the incentive to promote a woman to become a manager when she has shown over and over again that she’s excellent at doing the groundwork? None, right?
My question to you is whether you believe we can change mentalities. Can we get men to recognise good work and promote women and can we get women out of the cycle of thinking that the way to prove themselves is by working extra hours daily? Or do you still consider gender quotas a serious last-resort possibility?

John: I feel that I have been working in more diverse organisations, where there was more or less an even mix of the sexes at the lower to middle professional level and then a big overrepresentation of males at the top. I have to admit that I never quite made the link between the gender composition of the selection panel and the likely gender of the person selected as a consequence. That is a good one to remember. I also found it interesting that you argue that in your experience women help each other less in moving up than men do. I wonder whether, apart from (or perhaps instead of) nature that is (also) a matter of numbers, i.e. the consequence of being a minority: if there are fewer women in the middle and the top, there will also be fewer to help each other, right? What do you think? More generally: some practices you describe that end up favouring men in the current state of affairs I think would justify first and foremost transparency and accountability. If the aim, as it should be, is to be attractive as an employer to ambitious employees, women and men alike, it seems essential to have the data you gathered on your own gathered more generally in organisations. This would facilitate placing the onus of explanation of large discrepancies between the gender of applicants and those selected (and those selecting) with the employer. Simply having gendered numbers across professional levels made transparent would also be a powerful sign.

Then your question: change mentalities of both women and men to (continue to) focus on incrementalism towards the unstated goal of 50/50 across society, or starting with that goal immediately in law or mission, having a transition period where the gap in female representation is corrected, and then manage 50/50 as a compulsory equilibrium? I see them as complementary. First, there is still a lot to win with incrementalism. I see #metoo as a sign that women become more vocal, more willing to fight. That is great! But that momentum should be kept by zooming out of only sexual violence (and celebrity), and also making concrete what is tolerable and what is not tolerable or even just pleasant behaviour between sexes. There seems to often be a presumption that these things are clear on their own if you have a basic education of decency. But that may not be the case. By not discussing concrete instances and examples in a safe environment, it remains an elephant in the room that may lead to overcautious sterility in a context where there is still no real mutual understanding. Second, instead of immediately envisioning it as a concrete measure, thinking about strict gender quota (and for me the only one that makes sense is biology itself: 50/50) at this stage is above all an interesting thought experiment. What would reaching 50/50 feel like from both sides, what new issues would it likely raise? I have experienced both extremes. My daily normal where men generally call the shots. But I have also been in an opposite situation when I studied human rights law with 90 other students, of which 70 were female. The dynamic is simply totally different, but in subtle ways. One wonders, for example, whether 50/50 would put more pressure on the male parent to work part-time as well? Practically, I would be quite interested in finding out whether there has been any institution or company where there has been a sustained effort, let’s say for at least 10/15 years, of having 50/50 across the board.
My second and last question to you: is what is most important for you in your career that you yourself are able to fulfil your ambitions (even in a case that remains one where males are over-represented, as long as they make room for ambitious women), or that that can be done within a context where 50/50 is the goal or a reality? Or can these things not be disconnected for you?

Lina: There’s a lot questions in this! I’ll start with women in high-level positions. I find it follows very different dynamics from mid-level positions. There are incredibly talented, qualified, competent women who have been appointed to high-level positions on their merit, and to whom all women in my field of work look up to. But I have also seen women being appointed to these positions because employers have been criticised for having too few or even no women at senior level. One would think this would lead to a degree of self-reflection on why there’s no women at senior level but that’s not what happens. In fact, it’s the opposite: instead of using this opportunity to address gender balance as a matter of rights and equality, some employers take it only as something that damages their public image. They adopt a quick-fix approach by which I mean that they deliberately select a woman for the next senior vacancy that comes up and stop addressing the issue right there, feeling that they have done their duty. That’s what happened when I did that survey on the percentages of women applying, being interviewed, and being selected. The bottleneck at mid and upper mid-level continued but we got a woman appointed to a high-rank post so female staff were more or less told to stop complaining.

The second question pertains to what I said about men being more actively supportive of each other’s progression. Why are women doing it less? There’s a few reasons apart from the mindset of believing that hard work alone is sufficient. First, if that’s what you believe, you’re not explicitly asking for that support. But speaking for myself, I have made other mistakes. For example, I’ve sat in nine recruitment panels and in the first four I didn’t pay attention to the gender dimension. I judged candidates simply by how they performed during a recruitment process, even if I knew that an internal female candidate worked harder and was more competent than a specific internal male candidate. I regret that immensely. Moreover, and I have to be frank about this, not all women feel as strongly about this topic so they’re not all going to be engaging on it. I know women at my level and also a couple of senior female managers who don’t seem to understand why gender-balance is so important to me. They are surprised when I mention the statistics but they don’t engage in it. Perhaps they’re less focused on work than I am, perhaps they don’t feel the inequality in the same way that I do… I don’t know.

What is important, is that regardless of the reasons, I see an enormous change on how much more women are supporting each other over the last five years. During this time, I have worked with women in high level positions who ensure that the women in their teams get recognition for their work and actively seek out opportunities for them to be promoted. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the fact that they are trying speaks volumes. Women at junior level are increasingly becoming more comfortable with going to higher up female staff in their teams to ask for advice and support. I look at an initiative like Atlas, which was unthinkable when I started out, and confirms that the change in not only in my immediate circle. Atlas has created a network where women speak candidly of their challenges and give concrete advice to others on how to overcome them. In a way, it’s like we’re now building the camaraderie that men have had forever.

So, your last question… what is more important for me? Fulfilling my ambitions even if that means working with more men than women? Or to work in a context where there’s 50/50 representation? I have to start with the disclaimer that the goal is that one day women won’t have to choose. Until then, I go with the first option. I’m frustrated when I have a job that doesn’t fulfil me, regardless of how many men and women work in that office so I will continue to choose jobs based on their content and substance. Anything else would amount to giving up on the work I love and, in the process, allowing men to force me out of that work environment. I can’t do either.

John: Thank you very much for this. As I suspected there clearly is a lot more to #metoo, a safe and equitable workplace, than meets the male eye. It is encouraging that you describe a trend within your organisations of women becoming more comfortable discussing this with each other. Men will need to do so too. Because as bizarre as it may sound: discussions about this, as far as I am aware of them, don’t usually move beyond generalities. But at some point, rather than women-women and men-men conversations, there needs to be more cross-over too. So I hope this conversation gets other men and women who trust each other to talk about more openly too, simply to get a better sense of what they should each pay more attention to.