I was at a corporate entertainment event last week, with a few hundred people boozing and schmoozing their way round the Royal Academy, and got chatting to a 30-something chap in a sharp suit, a City worker of some description. When he asked the inevitable question “So what do you do?” I replied that I’m an HR and employment law consultant and trainer. His response, albeit in a tone of admiration, was “Oh, clever girl!” Is it unreasonable that I then wanted to bop him on the nose for being a patronising fool?
I’m quite sure that if I’d been a bloke, his response would not have been “Oh, clever boy!” Now admittedly, I don’t look my 42 years, and when I tell people I’ve been working in HR for 18 of them, they often assume I started my career at age 12. So I’m guessing that this guy thought I was a bit younger than him, rather than older. He probably also thought he was being complimentary.
But even so, I’m a fully qualified, highly experienced grown-up with a professional career, not a toddler who has just been potty-trained or a dog that has learned to fetch on command. So I find it quite insulting when people manage to combine both sexism and ageism into a couple of seemingly-innocuous words.
Anyway, I said thankyou, but icily (I hoped) added that it had been quite a few years since I’d referred to myself as a ‘girl’. I don’t think he quite grasped my point though. I strongly suspect that his attitude was a reflection of his City experience – with his position and organisation, he is probably used to most women of a (perceived) certain age being secretaries or PAs. Not that there is anything wrong with administrative careers, I hasten to add, but I doubt his female co-workers take as much exception to being referred to as ‘clever girls’ (otherwise his nose would have been flattened long ago.)
Maybe it’s because I’m an HR ‘prof fem’, highly tuned in to discrimination issues, that I was so narked. Or maybe it’s because I’ve had to deal throughout my career with people making inaccurate judgements based on what they see. At age 27, I had my first managerial role in a company that had previously had no HR resource. The MD forgot to mention to anyone that he was recruiting a Personnel Manager, and it transpired a week or so later that people thought I was the new office junior. Not a great start to building my professional credibility – they thought I was a bit too full of myself for a trainee, and I got peeved with being constantly asked to put the kettle on.
I usually find that a few minutes of conversation does change any misconceptions these days, although it does concern me that people may take one look and think I’m a cocktail waitress on work experience or something. That does mean I have to work that bit harder to change those perceptions. I once attended a selection centre with several other candidates, all middle-aged men in pinstripes. To cut a long day short, I was ultimately the successful candidate, which was great. What was not so great was that one of my rivals, while being very admiring later about my performance, also made it clear how surprised he was and how he had not been expecting it at all. Double-edged sword there!
Why it is that anyone would assume that being a young(ish) looking female is mutually exclusive with being a smart, competent professional, is beyond me, but clearly it does still happen. I could understand people being surprised if I said I was a builder, but a consultant – really? Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but I do find that surprise a bit offensive!
So the point of my rant is, even if someone is being seemingly positive about one’s abilities, a) it can still be a form of hidden, even subconscious, discrimination if it shows that they have preconceived ideas of ability based on gender and age; and b) it can be a very patronising, condescending insult! So be careful how you react when someone tells you what they do for a living, or your nose may regret it…