Jane is dropping dollops of mango chutney on the table after a few too many vodkas, Sheila’s grabbed a fake flower from a vase and is stuffing it down her top. Everyone is having a good laugh. Fairly typical scene of a girls night out. Except there’s one guy. Me. “You are the luckiest man in town” I’m later told by a waiter bringing over my vindaloo. It’s been less than a year since I walked through the door of a Social Services department. I’m at a colleagues leaving do. Conspicuously the only male of the group on the night; one of only two in the whole team in the day. Brought up by my mum, along with two sisters and having spent three years on a sociology degree meant I’m not unfamiliar with being the only male face. In fact I’m comfortable with it. After five years in a boys school in some ways it’s a relief.
A few years later I’m in a car with Steve a locum Occupational Therapist. I’m shadowing him on client visits as he’s waiting for his CRB to come through. This is stupid. He’s probably had several CRBs since my last one which was when I received a permanent contract in 2005, but as he hasn’t yet had one since taking up employment with this authourity he cannot do visits alone. Steve, an ex RAF dog handler, was a welcome sight. I’d just had a period of being the only male in the team. As we head to the visit we’re talking about my experiences as the odd one out. Steve observes that from his experience working in all female environments is “all bitchy” and all male environments are “all Sunday Sport.” While I don’t completely agree with his sentiments I did agree that working in an almost exclusively female environment is a negative thing. Where earlier I had felt comfortable I now felt bitter, alienated and discriminated against.
The Stephen Lawrence enquiry gave birth to the everyday use of the term institutional racism. When we talk about institutional discrimination we talk about discrimination which is hidden in structures, everyday practices and deep down in attitudes we may not be fully aware we have. Quite often when a high profile ‘race-row’ erupts in the media the alleged perpetrators first line of defence is ‘I’m not racist ask any of my friends’. This statement may often be completely true. The difficulty with tackling institutional discrimination like institutional racism is that a person or organisation doesn’t need to be racist to be racist. My experiences, though I hasten to add these are not on the level of some of the racism people have experienced, as the only male in a department has provided me with personal experience of how institutional discrimination exists, even within a Social Services department which prides itself on diversity, in an authority with an ‘equality framework’ backed up by numerous HR policies.
There is the everyday conversation in the office. The discussions about which men my colleagues liked the look of. This could sometimes be fairly innocent of ‘isn’t X or Y nice looking’ or at other times slightly more graphic. I have even had the occasional comment made directly to me. Then there are the conversations involving negative generalisations about men. The out of favour husbands, boyfriends and men-folk in general who were, well, just men after all. ‘No… not you’ would be hastily added if I happened to be nearby. I’ve even heard comments like “typical man” added to discussions in the office when there is a case involving domestic violence.
There is the impact I feel gender has had on my career. I have received feedback from interviews where I have been told while I have knowledge I am ‘too academic’, that I lack communication skills, and the experience of dealing with people. In other words whilst I possess qualities traditionally thought of as masculine I lack the feminine qualities demanded by the field. I would describe myself as academic but I have also spent several years in the field where I have demonstrated an ability to communicate effectively. This may of course just be a case of me reacting to not getting the job, but what makes me feel this is not necessarily the case is that several female colleagues have made the observation that my difficulty progressing in the organisation is ‘because you’re a bloke.’ It’s not however, just men that are on the receiving end of gender stereotypes in the organisation for an overwhelmingly female organisation a very high number of team managers appear to be male.
There is also what I find to be one of the hardest things being the only male in an environment of mainly middle-aged females. No one ever gets your pop-culture or film references.. yeah that’s just like that film.. have you seen it..oh..um you seem to be giving me a strange look. Better get back to typing out this assessment. This can make it hard to form friendships, build good working relationships with colleagues and has at times made me feel excluded and alienated from the team.
Some of these observations may appear trivial, even insignificant. You might feel that I’m ‘touchy’ or take offence too easily. Yet I have never made a complaint. Why? To do so would, I feel have no point. I don’t feel that any of the people I work with are sexist, or even doing anything particularly wrong. I believe however, that many of them operate using a deeply embedded set of assumptions about gender drawn from wider society. These individual assumptions, when joined together, creates an everyday corporate culture which is in opposition to the official projection of an organisation which values diversity. I do not complain about individual colleagues as their actions, in themselves are insignificant. Complaining however, would trigger the organisation into dealing with the issue as an individual one. It will point to its policies that ensure diversity and deflect the blame onto one individual. The complainant is then likely to face consequences such as being regarded with suspicion by colleagues.
This is I believe how discrimination of all kinds and at all levels persists. An organisation needs to be pro-active in placing the minutest of day-to-day practices under the microscope to find where these are infected by prejudice. The problem is that so many organisations are unwilling to do this unless they are faced by external pressure. Otherwise why would an organisation ask such tough questions, questions which may make both managers and the organisation as a whole look bad?