“If Everybody Looked The Same, We’d Get Tired of Looking at Each Other”
The words of Groove Armada are often the soundtrack in my head when I walk into companies, conferences and meetings. I am usually faced with a sea of people who look similar, like some type of cloning system. Despite the words and cool soundtrack of Groove Armada, throughout my career, the people I meet usually do look the same, or very similar anyway.
It’s a fact that has worked in my favour in many ways. I look different to most people in the environments I work in, I sound different, I behave differently and I say different things in different ways. I learnt to trade on that very fact, as it’s such a good thing in a sales career to be someone people remember. When I realised this was something I could trade on instead of worry about, I decided to own it. I ditched wearing grey suits myself, and discovered wearing colourful printed dresses to meetings instead. Might as well make the most of not having to wear the ‘uniform’ of a grey suit, shirt and tie.
Design for Life
It’s not just about how people look. Everything about the world of businesses has been designed by and for men for generations. This is a fact, and saying that is not intended as any type of insult; it’s a fact that the way that companies have been designed to work is by men and for men, and they have mostly been led by men. They, in turn, are much more likely to recruit and promote people similar to them. Again, not meant as a criticism; it’s a fact that people are more naturally drawn to people who remind them of themselves.
So where does that leave us? Well, in recent years there has been a lot of focus on this, with gender pay gap reporting and flexible working being highlighted. There are reports of more women than ever starting their own businesses or going freelance, instead of continuing to fight for a place in a structure that doesn’t work for them. The stats still aren’t great though: only 1 in 5 businesses in the UK is run by a woman, according to official figures, even though women outnumber men in Britain by around 900,000. 1 in 3 UK entrepreneurs are female, representing a gap of 1.1 million businesses. Women account for 17% of business owners worldwide.
What’s interesting is the reaction to the focus on reporting these statistics and trying to have conversations about it. I have seen companies who reacted to the gender pay gap reporting, for example, in such defensive ways, that it makes it difficult to have a proper conversation about it and address the things that need to change.
From my own experiences, I face a lot of aggressive or negative comments from male friends about why I mentor young women, why I join women’s business groups. ‘What about men?’ they ask. ‘Why aren’t you interested in helping men?’ A very strange response to an issue that needs to be addressed openly and honestly, not defensively. I still struggle to find the right response to this, without losing my cool.
I would say I had to learn the hard way that to succeed in certain environments means behaving in a certain way. By being authentic, I ran into problems of being called ‘bossy,’ ‘loud,’ ‘emotional,’ ‘annoying,’ or the more polite ‘forthright’. I learnt how to behave differently, I even had coaching, learning to lower my tone, pause before speaking, and I kept many aspects of myself out of the workplace. Even though I was often still thought of as that ‘weird lady from Brighton’. Another persona I learnt to own. These adjustments all seemed fine at the time, and I progressed my career to corporate senior management level … until I came to a point where I realised I wanted something different.
Right Here, Right Now
Fast forward to 2020, and I learnt that what’s right for me is to not feel like I have to adapt and adjust myself to fit a structure that doesn’t feel right. It’s hard work to live like that, and does not feel in any way authentic. I have realised I am not the only woman who feels that way, and that there is solidarity, community and support to be gained by finding those networks and those people with shared interests and values.
What we need now more than ever is the network. Women working together and with each other, helping and supporting each other along the way to drive the changes we need. This is the way to ensure that the next generation don’t face the same issues and that there is real change, equality and a place for everyone.
Which, by the way, is exactly what we do at Brighton Digital Women.
Come to one of our relaxed, friendly meetups, we would love to see you there.
Co-Creator at Watch This Sp_ce
Mo Kanjilal is an award-winning Sales Director and Co-Creator at Watch This Sp_ce, a consultancy business to help people reimagine how they work to include everyone. She is also a freelance writer in the process of writing a novel. She mentors for a charity, and campaigns around many issues.
You can find Mo on Twitter: @Mo_Kanjilal