When I first started my career, I was accepted onto a graduate programme with Tesco. This started with preliminary training with the rest of my cohort, working in retail and distribution, and when we returned to head office we were split up into our functional areas. Whilst I was placed in HR, a male friend of mine who I had got on with at the beginning of the programme was placed into the meat procurement department. This was a totally male dominated function and I recall at the time noticing that within a few weeks I had found it increasingly difficult to converse with him – his language and tone had completely changed. He had started to speak the language of exclusion. It showed me how a strong culture can really shape and change people!
Later in my career when I first entered the boardroom, I was mindful that I didn’t want to be seen as the person who made the coffee. It’s not that I am against making coffee, but it was about establishing my position in a team and not being seen in the gender expected role. This was one way I attempted to reduce the effects of a male dominated culture that can sometimes be very personally competitive and exclusive.
In the charity sector, the culture tends to be much more collaborative and inclusive in general. I’m not sure that this is totally due to the high number of women in the sector though, as I think both men and women can use collaboration as an effective method of achieving success. I can also think of a range of people who I have worked with over time who bring non gender stereotype behaviours to the work place. Maybe men choose collaboration as a means to winning in a competitive sense, whereas women may naturally prefer to work this way. I’m no psychologist but I do see people pick and choose behaviours to achieve a position.
But admittedly when you come across people that aren’t collaborative in this sector, it does feels really strange – whatever gender they are! Sometimes it surprises me how well we do collaborate as a sector and how much we share our intellectual property. I will often sit with other directors of charities and we’ll resolve issues together, or if I discover something that is worth sharing, I will share it amongst our peers. This collaboration is often motivated by a desire to see better outcomes for our beneficiaries and this outweighs any competition.
Should women find it easier to progress in the sector because it embodies these so-called feminine characteristics like collaboration and cooperation? It makes sense doesn’t it, but it begs the question why doesn’t this always happen? In my experience there is often a prevailing male-orientated culture in the governance of charities. This can be perpetuated as older white men on Trustee bodies continue to recruit in their own image. In terms of my own experience I used to work for a female HR director at Scope. Although she worked in a very male dominated environment she was very true to her values and she retained all her female, collaborative characteristics. Yes she was tough, but the way she used language was really impressive and powerful.
For anyone, male or female, looking to progress in any culture my advice would be go and talk to those that inspire you. Be really self-aware, find someone you feel you can learn from and find out how they got where they are now. Ask them what they found challenging, what they felt they had to change and what they had protect about themselves and their approach. This way you will be able to shape your future and be the leader you want to be.