When you work in a male dominated environment and become a mum you will have to deal with a whole set of unhelpful perceptions. Working mums can be perceived as: no longer focussed on their career or no longer committed or able to stay late and be flexible.
My first brush with these perceptions happened when returning to work after having my first child. One Thursday at 6 pm, having finished my work for the day, I stood up to leave. My boss jokingly said “Thanks for popping in!” I reflected for a nano second and quickly responded “well apparently you get to leave at 6 if you do a five-day week”. And with that I said my goodbyes and left.
The next day I was the first to arrive and sat catching up on my emails when ten or so minutes later, my boss walked in. After exchanging pleasantries, he asked what I had meant the night before – my comment had clearly got him puzzled. Whilst I declined to spell it out, the answer was simple. Our five single male colleagues spent most Thursdays after work at the pub meaning most Fridays they came in late, with varying degrees of hangovers. Fridays were frequently spent with them regaling the tales of the night before which were highly entertaining, but not a lot of work got done and the same five would slope off at differing times after lunch.
Quite frankly I didn’t care that they did this. The team was hard-working and our results were always good. That they chose to work flat-out till Thursday and then have a more leisurely Friday was up to them. The format just was not one I followed and it wasn’t appropriate to be measured in the same way.
In fairness, my boss was a good-natured, affable guy. His comment could easily just have been a throw away remark that meant nothing. But ask yourself this – how would an alpha male react if that comment had been made publicly to him? Do you think he would have let the comment go? I sincerely doubt it. He would have defended his territory pointing out in some way or other that he had stayed late all week or that given his amazing results it was the quality of the time spent and not the amount that was important.
So yes, I could just have let the comment wash over me, but here is an important lesson for women looking to succeed in an alpha male environment: set your boundaries, just like alpha males do. You have to start building the foundations of your boundaries little by little, and then you can start erecting the wooden fence. Only when you have 6 ft of barbed wire at the top can you rest easy. This is a slow process and has to be done one step at a time. However, it will bring you respect and gain you the freedom you so badly need as a working mum.
Imagine if you left the front door and the windows of your house wide open with all your valuables on display for a whole day. When you came home would you be surprised to find a burglar in your house? You wouldn’t, would you? If you then started screaming at the burglar blaming him, do you think they may consider this a little irrational? Guarding your territory is critical in the alpha kingdom. Anyone who is not establishing these boundaries and building these fences is seen as either disinterested or an easy target. And like with a burglar, if you want back what you lost, you have a serious fight on your hands.
So that’s all very well I hear you all cry but if women tackle this conundrum the same way as men aren’t they simply exposing themselves to criticism? I am not advocating copying their methods – but you do have to find a way that gains you respect and that works for you.
Be creative, and remember to follow the ground rules for setting boundaries:
- Start instantly – it is easier in the long run. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the issue – it won’t go away and will build up till you explode, which will only serve to undermine you further.
- Keep it concise – make your point quickly and cleanly – too many words will either confuse the issue or will lead to you tripping yourself up and saying something you’ll regret
- Avoid using “I” or “me” – de-personalise it. (Re-read the dialogue above) If you make it about you, you will be viewed as either whiney or a victim – or both!
- Use humour – humour is a great way to make a point that will subtly hit the mark, and it will certainly make others wary of trying again!
- Accept you may not be able to sort it out in one go – focus on fighting the battle, not on winning the war.
- Don’t let a setback put you off: Rome wasn’t built in a day, just keep at it.
- Always learn from it, then move on, regardless of the outcome.
So did it work out for me? Well later that day, as one of my colleagues tried to sneak out at about 3pm my boss called out loudly to him “Thanks for popping in!” The foundations for my boundaries had been laid.
Author: Jacqueline Frost – Business and Career Coach, Professional Speaker - Having worked in derivatives for 15 years, with her last role being European head of the group, Jacqueline is well versed in what it takes to forge a successful career in the City. Through this experience, she learned the do’s and don’ts of working in a highly pressurised, male-dominated environment. Now, she delivers unique and refreshing content as she reveals the “unwritten rules” of business and provides her clients with a step-by-step guide on how to use this knowledge to their advantage. She is also co-founder of the Women in Business Superconference series. Download for free from her website: The Secret Weapon – every woman in business needs to know...