In this month’s everywoman Incognito, a trans man shares his unique perspective of having experienced sexism in the workplace from both sides.
I first realised I was male when I was five and I was lucky that my mum never forced me to be female. I knew I was male even though I had no male role models growing up and, controversially, I didn’t really like men, either. I didn’t like male entitlement — and, in fact, it took me until I was 25 to transition.
Having worked as both genders in the workplace, though, I have a unique viewpoint in terms of the challenges women face and the way men behave. When I look at situations where male privilege is present and prevalent, I come from a different perspective to many cisgender males (someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth), because of the way I have been brought up and the experiences I’ve had. And, as a man, these have made me hyper-aware of my impact in a space: how I conduct myself, how I use my voice and how to be mindful of my presence, because I know how scared and uncomfortable a man can make a woman feel.
As a woman, you have to have a lot of resilience. There is definitely a lot more criticism directed at you. My unpopular opinion, though, is also that some groups of women in offices are not as sisterly as they could be. Sometimes, however, I feel this is because women are not given the same career opportunities as men and can end up feeling as if they are fighting over crumbs.
I do feel women have to work twice as hard. Yes, you have to be dynamic and brilliant, but success as a woman is often down to how you navigate the barriers. If you are getting doors slammed in your face, you have to crowbar them open and continually challenge people.
As a man, I have witnessed some appalling sexism, to the point where I’ve told some of my female friends:
You know everything you think is really bad about men? Well, it’s actually worse.
In one office that I worked in, for example, there were three other men in sales, and a female office manager. Every time she went for lunch they would say obscene things about her — and one of them was a senior member of the organisation, so this behaviour was being encouraged from the top. Towards the end of my contract it escalated, and on my penultimate day they were discussing which sexual position they would take with this woman and asked me for my opinion. I replied that I didn’t want to talk about women like that and their response was, “Oh, you must be gay then.”
I had already urged my colleague to look for another job, without going into details of why — but that day I decided to drop them in it. She came back and they were smirking and I told her what had been happening — their faces fell a mile. I finished by saying:
Have any of you heard of the equality act, because this could go to a tribunal.
As a man, I’ve heard subtler forms of sexism against women, too. The language men will use talking to other men about women, for example, is interesting. When discussing other men, they’ll describe them as “dynamic” or “driven” — whereas a strong woman will be “a force of nature”. I’ve also heard men talk about women being “emotional” or “passionate”, that’s a word I hear a lot.
In one respect, when men talk about women in a derogatory or diminishing way, it’s about their own insecurity — but I’ve also realised that in certain situations men will follow what they perceive as the “line of power” and take the lead from whoever they think is the more powerful in the group. As a man, if I hear sexism or gross behaviour then I’m complicit in the situation if I don’t do or say something. And I refuse to be.
I do think we need to challenge the default attitude that ‘as long as the white straight men still feel fine, we’ll be okay’. And, as part of that, we need to face up to the two statistics that have a massive impact on business culture every year: female representation and BAME representation.
I mentor quite a few male senior leaders and I say to many of them:
Right now, you’re comfortable — but you have no insight into anyone because you’ve never had to be uncomfortable.
I tell them I am going to make them uncomfortable, because that is what they need to help them to be a better leader.
I believe in things like the 30% Club — the campaign launched in 2010 that aims to achieve a minimum of 30% of women on FTSE100 boards — but why can’t it be 50%? Rather than adding a few more chairs to the table, I think we need to redesign the table and stop operating in the interests of a certain majority of people who are reaping a lot of benefits from it. There is still a lot of work to do.