Madmen & Madwomen – the sub-plot of Patriarchy in White-Collar Offices. FRANK Mag’ Aug 19′

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Madmen & Madwomen – the sub-plot of Patriarchy in White-Collar Offices.


The overwhelming experience of women in a society dominated by men is that of being silenced.’ – Magda Lewis.


I think we can agree that much of our western understanding of ‘patriarchy’ is transmitted by popular culture. It makes sense that an order of power passed down through centuries and across continents has an identity formed through mass-media, with a familiar (almost compulsory) presence in period TV shows and films. When I mentioned this article to a couple of friends, their response was: ‘Oh, like Madmen.’ Chat then inevitably meandered to that Margaret Atwood phenomenon on Netflix.


The past, or dystopian past, is a safe place to explore the imbalance of power isn’t it? Because we’ve almost won that battle, right? (Ahem, wrong.) After all, in the West, we’ve witnessed several waves of action to redress the balance…from ‘Votes for Women’ to equal pay and reproductive rights rallies to models and musicians owning the power of their sexuality while adhering to the media’s fetishes. And then there’s the most recent renaissance of Feminism. Just as early Millennials were beginning to echo their Dads in associating feminism with bra-burning and the ridiculous (I was in that student common room), humanitarian organisations reopened our eyes to global issues such as FGM and child-marriage. This, conflating with whistle-blowing in the entertainment industry and more widely broadcast approaches to gender as a spectrum, has inspired policy-making in UK organisations. Our schools touch on representation and stereotyping in PSE and celebrities make statements on current injustices that are watched almost as much as the films and TV shows in which they star. 


The narrative in both these worlds (fictitious and reported) unfolds like this – Men, being the aggressors, inherited power and have, throughout centuries and decades, upheld practices to maintain that power at the systematic cost of women’s potential, happiness and basic human rights. We know this narrative to be true while acknowledging that many men have bucked this trend. It is a broad statement and by taking in huge swathes of history should be. I also admit that the phrase ‘being the aggressors’ is my understanding of how patriarchy has endured and not everyone’s. There is the power of institutional habits, passed down from generation to generation like an irreligious religion. Maybe sticking to the narrative above, and it’s familiar sub-plots – *Woman works and fights hard to break glass-ceiling, *Woman is forced to marry old, rich, disgusting man against her wishes, *Woman is exiled from her community following pregnancy and abandonment by man…are cultural habits/conventions too. But some stories of ‘now’ are so self-reflective, insidious and economically sensitive (‘audiences won’t pay money for it’) that we still shy away. I want to talk of something ‘small’ and close to home – the nuances of female relationships and specifically, how women facilitate or enforce patriarchal values at work. 


At some point in recent history, (before working for my current employers), I experienced a parallel trajectory to a friend working in the finance sector. We will call her Amy. Amy and I were aligned – both experienced, intelligent graduates in our mid-thirties who had branched out into new professional disciplines with new roles to match. To paint a social-economic picture of us, we were mid-career millennials working for privately owned companies in that little publicised area of the UK, the East Midlands. We were, and are, also conscious feminists, who actively support women and girls in our communities to explore their talents and be ambitious. 


Over the course of a year, myself and Amy exchanged stories about our workplaces, stories which began as humorous anecdotes and progressed into ones that induced worry for the other’s dignity and sense of identity. Many realisations about the state of white-collar offices in the UK arose from these chats, not least that – in a time when wellbeing at work is on the national agendal, there is often a total absence of human resources, time and evaluation invested in it…outside of the wealthiest corporations. A more personal theme of this ongoing conversation was the shorthand language we used to describe our experiences – one that proved useful for the format of instant messaging during lunch-breaks and phone-calls in loud commuter buses and cars. This language, these terms, developed organically like most language that proves efficient. Sentences revolved around ‘making small,’ ‘shutting-down,’ ‘progress-blocking,’ and inevitably…‘the fossils.’ 


‘Making Small’ 

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but we’ve all been a child and, if born in the UK, a student. The roles of child and student in relation to guardian/teacher (according to the historical mores of institutions) involve behaviours such as: passivity, protracted quiet listening, humility (when being scolded/’told-off’), copying/mimicking the processes demonstrated to us by our guardian/teachers and the assumption of low-status. The emotions that these situations trigger in us are therefore familiar and the behaviours are (for some), easy to fall into during adult life. Equally, guardian/teachers have traditionally been expected to demonstrate: authority, instruction, control, verbosity and the assumption of high status. It barely goes without saying that Childhood and Studenthood are a strong part of our behavioural conditioning. But there is danger when adults fall into these binary, black and white behavioural patterns at work. 


Although diversity is a constant imperative, you could say that the white-collar workplace AT LARGE (in the UK) embraces adults of all genders and orientations, from a range of socio-economic, educational, geographical and racial backgrounds and as such, is an arena that requires a behavioural code of sensitivity, equality and respect across the hierarchical framework. This is necessary to survival and success. But what happens when those entrenched in the binary pattern encounter those culturally conditioned to see all working adults as equals? A common thread of mine and Amy’s experience with our Baby-Boomer colleagues was what I referred to as infantilizing and Amy, more emotively, referred to as ‘making small.’


We were both working with small groups of women who can be described as ‘Baby-Boomers’ in their mid-fifties to mid-sixties, some of whom were semi-retired. There was a demonstrative quality to the incidents of ‘making small.’ In my case a woman who I worked with, who was not my manager, would make reference in front of our volunteer cohort (also of retirement age) that she was ‘training me’ or would choose to ‘teach’ a process for a peripheral operational task during the times the volunteers were present and do so with the voice and manner of a teacher speaking to a child or senior addressing a junior in an old-fashioned office. Perhaps most surprisingly, members of the retired volunteer cohort would, without inhibition, ‘instruct’ me on aspects of my job (a specialism in which they had no collective knowledge or experience), while physically ignoring my requests to them for collaboration and assistance. Absurdly, following an enthused conversation with a colleague about an area of development, one of the women asserted ‘it’s like having Bambi in the office isn’t it; she’ll learn!’ It was not said with fondness. On calmly questioning the woman who had said this, I was promptly ‘shut down’ by my colleague who loudly scolded me with the words ‘we do not talk to our volunteers like that Tamsin!’ as an ‘adult’ might to a toddler. Meanwhile, in the world of Finance, Amy, who is a trained accountant, was being coerced into watching who she described as ‘the fossils’ teach her processes markedly lower than her skillset with the kind of verbal instruction that would convince a listener that she was still in Key-Stage Two. We were both employed on the basis of interviews and CVs that illustrate a breadth of experience above entry-level and the varied life-experience synonymous with our ages and backgrounds. 


‘Shutting Down’

What is ‘shutting down?’ Interestingly, the verb-phrase to ‘shut someone down’ is not used as an idiom example in many dictionaries. But it does have a presence in online dictionaries and guides to current slang. It is something instantly recognisable as a feeling and action. One user of an online forum defines ‘shutting-down’ as ‘the colloquial way to say making a person stop doing something.’ But in all contexts it describes one person abruptly ending the verbal communication of another. In a community of speakers, to lose one’s voice is to lose a large part of one’s agency. 


A little further into mine and Amy’s dialogue, I relayed the experience of being silenced in the office. Following my formal complaint of derogatory personal comments from my older colleagues, I was instructed not to participate in work-based conversations between team-members unless I was invited to speak specifically about my area of functionality…which I was not, ever. Fortunately or unfortunately, I had previous experience of aspects of my colleagues’ work and occasionally offered some thoughts and factual answers when they appeared stuck. These were ignored as it became clear that the role my ‘fossils’ envisaged for me was to keep quiet, do the minimum requirement of my job and not contribute. This was not true of the other under-50 in the office – a man with less industry specific experience and confidence. Perhaps the most obvious instance of shutting down was at a meeting in which I was speaking. A hand was waved in my face with the dismissal ‘yeah, whatever’ to which my boss smiled with amusement. 


Amy’s most obvious encounter with ‘shutting down’ was what became known as ‘the arrogance conversation.’ As Assistant Finance Manager, it was essential that she managed and delegated workload within her team, while answering to her manager in a separate office. Characteristically, she did this with great confidence before being called into a meeting room and warned ‘not to let confidence border on arrogance.’ Anyone who knows Amy will know arrogance is antithetical to her personality, spiritual practice and upbringing. 


‘Progress Blocking’

On a diversity training programme, I was offered a ‘generational differences chart.’ It was US-centric but thought-provoking. If one impersonal thing could be identified as a major root-cause behind my Baby-Boomer colleagues motivation to ‘shut me down,’ it would be technology. We deride and fear things that we don’t understand, unless we subscribe to an mind-set of learning and expansion. Not only were my proposals to solve a digital issue ignored by virtue of my being younger and female, but it became clear that accepting them would mean the Baby-Boomers’ adaptation to a new system, acquiring new skills and eventually creating something that could have been used, modified and engaged with by all, thus engendering a depletion of control. Amy’s story of technology and consternation included two hours of being ordered to complete accounts with a Nineteen Seventies ‘Adding Machine’ when an Excel formula would have completed the job in a matter of minutes without a margin of human error. There are many other hair-raising stories and subplots that I could mention here. But finally and tellingly, I was disciplined by my employer for ‘putting (myself) forward’ in brokering relationships with stakeholders in a bid to optimize a modest budget. This was her request at interview and the purpose of my being there. The more relationships, social collateral and invitations I gathered, the fewer networking and industry events I was sent to until I was kept inside the office. 


Stories (fictitious and reported) help us understand cause and effect – incidents, processes and ramifications. This one doesn’t look like Madmen. There are no men in suits treating wives like children or ‘shutting down’ secretaries who have good ideas. In this sub-plot the secretaries repeat a cycle of oppressive behaviour, thus trying to render a new generation in their image, whether consciously or not. I will never forget the distaste with which my Baby Boomer colleague spoke/reacted to my preferences and life-style choices and I suppose this is what it boils down to – politics of difference. I have worked with some beautiful minds of the Baby Boomer and X generations and with women of all ages who are committed to supporting each other’s growth through a mindset of expansion. But it’s time we shed light on these insidious, negative behaviours by telling new stories…before women such as myself and Amy reach for more language and new words to describe them. 


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