12 Aug 2021

I worked at a male-dominated workplace for one year. This is what I learnt.

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By Daniella Hendler of Perspective The Blog

This was it.

I had pushed through the arduous psychometric testing, answered every question in my one-on-one interview with flying colours and conducted a presentation during the group interview that made me sweat so much I left the room afterwards with my shirt stuck to my skin.

And now I was here. I was about to walk into my first day at a male-dominated workplace, in a male-dominated industry.

I felt cool. It’s cool to tell people you work in a male-dominated industry when you’re a 21-year-old woman. Isn’t that what we’re conditioned to believe? The ‘cool girls’ are the ones who have the same interests the boys do. They enjoy the same sports, they drive manual cars, they eat super impressive plates of food. It’s cool to be ‘one of the boys’. I was cool for scoring a job at this company.

I walked inside the intimidating grey building for the first time since the final interview stage and joined the group of interns waiting at the reception desk. Everyone was excited, nervous, jittery, unsure of themselves. I felt good. I felt ready.

The employee managing the interns introduced himself – let’s call him Joseph* – and told us he’d be showing us around the place while dropping each of us off in the departments we had been allocated to. So off we went. I watched the other full-time interns meet and greet their new teams who seemed fun and friendly, and then finally, when we’d reached the back of the building, Joseph announced, “And this is Daniella’s team!”.

I looked into the department. Ten men. They all smirked, looked at each other as though they had some inside joke I wasn’t part of, and then introduced themselves to me.

It was fine. I was fine. To be honest, being the only girl in an all-male department wasn’t even something I was thinking about. I had worked in all-male teams before. I’d had male bosses at previous jobs. They’d all been lovely to me and great to work with. Little did I know that my experience in this department was going to be nothing like my previous jobs or internships.

My new manager, Steven, introduced himself to me and explained everyone’s role in the department, finishing off with Philip, the head of the department who had been working at the company for 40 years (yes, 40), and David, the intern who was going to train me up before he was due to leave the company at the end of the month.

Although his job was to teach me everything I needed to know, from my very first day, David made it clear that he didn’t want to teach me anything. He laughed at my questions, sighed when I asked something he deemed ‘stupid’, and looked briskly around the department if I asked too many questions in a row as if to beg the rest of the team to PLEASE SAVE HIM. I remember him being extremely rude, saying nasty things out loud and in front of the whole team, yet nobody ever called him out for it. They’d just snigger at him… or me. I never knew.

Truthfully, I think I’ve blocked out most of the comments David made to me at the time, but one remark I do remember was when he told me the other men in the department were going to struggle with having a girl work with them. Great. (There was one good thing about David, though. He taught me how to reverse park a truck, despite giving me heart palpitations while doing so. Nice flex, I think.)

When David left, things didn’t get better.

Philip refused to greet me and tried to avoid speaking to me unless absolutely necessary. On my first day without David, he told me that a girl didn’t belong in his department and he wasn’t sure why I was there. Oh, lovely, I thought. David had, unfortunately, been right. They really didn’t want me there.

I was taught to manage the department’s phone line, negotiating deals for big clients across the country. Every person in the department had a phone that rang, but a few weeks in, they all decided to disconnect the phones on their desks so mine was the only one that worked, making it almost impossible for me to ever take lunch breaks.

I was excluded from team meetings and not briefed afterwards (despite me asking), giving me many opportunities to make financial mistakes I could’ve avoided had someone had the decency to update me on the happenings in each meeting. I made many mistakes.

I worked public holidays for no extra pay. This was never mentioned in my contract.

They all took turns buying everyone coffee (David was also part of the coffee roster when he was at the company), but nobody ever let me buy their coffees. I liked it because my coffee was free, hated it because it embodied toxic masculinity.

My manager, Steven, spent most of his work day organising his footy tips and admiring his ginormous signed Richmond guernsey hanging above his desk. Occasionally, he would stand up, glance around the office, tighten his hideous floral tie, and sit back down so he could enjoy some more leisure time, perusing the AFL website. All while his desk phone was disconnected and I was struggling to keep up with calls or find a moment to heat up my leftover bolognese.

They took credit for every good thing I did, reduced me to ‘the phone girl’ when I made mistakes.

I was sworn at over the phone, at least once a week.

I was forced to regularly step outside ‘to chat’ with one of the men in my team who took regular smoke breaks. This man was actually generally quite kind to me, but those moments spent outside with him puffing smoke in my face were moments I’d dread.

I watched them hover around a computer when they found a photo of a ‘nice looking woman’ on Facebook.

When a woman became the head of the sales department, they decided it was appropriate to joke about the way she dressed, making snide remarks about her husband and reminding each other that women, quite frankly, ‘didn’t belong in sales’.

All while I was sitting there, being their cute little phone girl. In sales.

I cried in the bathroom at least once a week. But on the plus side, nobody else used the women’s bathroom on that side of the building because I was the only woman who worked in close proximity to it. At least I could cry in private.

One day, while the rest of my team was in another one of their meetings I was of course excluded from, I was sitting at my desk answering phone calls and securing deals, when Philip walked over to me and asked, “Would you mind stepping into the meeting for a moment?”.

I was ecstatic. Elated. Finally, after months of asking to be included, I was being invited to join the team meeting. What did I do to deserve such an honour?! Philip told me I needed a notepad and pen. No worries! I grabbed my nicest pen and flipped over to a clean page, moving quickly in case he decided to change his mind about this very generous invite.

I entered the meeting room with a big smile on my face. I was ready. I took hold of the one empty chair in front of me and was about to pull it out and take a seat when…

“I’ll take a strong cappuccino, no chocolate”.

“I’ll grab a soy latte please. Extra shot”.

“A long black for me, thanks”.

It took me a second to realise what was happening. I wasn’t being invited to the meeting, but rather to place coffee orders and deliver the coffees back to the meeting room. This was actually strictly against company policy. They were not allowed to ask me to bring them coffees.

I jotted down the orders, ordered the coffees and brought them back to the room. I walked back to my desk defeated and deflated. This place sucked.

I decided to go to HR. I wanted to speak to Joseph, the guy in charge of managing the interns. We chatted for ten minutes. I cried. He told me that I needed to speak to my manager about everything and if my manager did nothing about it, he’d step in. Joseph chose to ignore that the problem was my manager.

So I did nothing, because there was approximately zero chance I was going to speak to Steven or Philip about my issues with them and their department.

Joseph never checked back in with me.

At the time, I was speaking to my family about everything that was happening. They asked me why I hadn’t considered leaving; why I was willing to endure my weekly bathroom crying sessions. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t want to leave, but what I did know was that my contract was for one year. There was an endpoint in sight, and so I wanted to just see the year through and complete an experience that looked ‘impressive’ on my resume. I didn’t want my struggles to eventuate in nothing. I wanted what I deserved – an experience on my very small and then unimpressive CV.

Although my year wasn’t shaping up to be as cool and exciting as I had initially expected it to be, I really did want to see it through. So I decided to drastically change the way I behaved and carried myself. I knew that to be happier, to regain my confidence and make an impact on the place, I had to change my attitude. Allowing myself to remain the doormat of the team wasn’t going to improve my situation. I was done with letting them walk all over me.

I decided to experiment by greeting Philip every morning when I walked into the department, coming to the conclusion that one day he’d simply have to respond to me. “Morning Philip!” I’d announce cheerfully. A few months later, he responded, albeit irritatedly, “Morning Dani”. Winner.

I purchased myself a pair of heeled Jo Mercer boots. I had never been a ‘heeled boot’ kinda gal, but every time one of the men decided to blame me for a mistake that was their doing, I’d stand up from my desk, tower over them (I’m 5”9, and my boots were pretty high) and tell them that if they’d maybe updated me on the happenings in the team meetings I was excluded from, that ‘mistake’ would never have happened. And they never fought back. I was owning myself and my space.

I announced when I was leaving for my lunch breaks.

I met with members of another department in an attempt to shuffle myself out of my department, into one that interested me and which I knew was filled with nice people. And then, on the day I was told I was successful, I was also told that 60 people at the company were going to be made redundant in the next 24 hours. 8 of those 60 people were members of my department. The men who had made my life hell for the past six months.

A friend of mine from another department told me the company knew what my department was like. They knew how I had been treated and it had been an issue in my particular department for quite a few years. It was time for them all to leave.

I remember sitting in my car that day, torn. I was thrilled because they were leaving, devastated because they all had children and families who relied on them and their salaries. I cried. Celebrated. Then I cried again.

I, an intern who had been at the company for six months, ended up training employees from other areas of the business to take over the department. It was evident I had been doing much more work than was expected of me, as a university-aged intern on a $40k salary.

Not long after, I moved to my new department. I loved it. I was welcomed in with open arms and grew to adore Jack, the guy I was to work closely with. Although I loved my time in that department, my experience at the company had already been tainted by the happenings during my first six months.

When my final day came around, I was relieved. I had made it. I had survived.

The year had been a hard one, but I came out stronger because of it.

Years later, in 2020, to be exact, I decided to create the platform I now manage part-time, Perspective The Blog. Perspective is a collaborative publication, allowing anyone and everyone to write articles on topics of interest to them. No topic is off limits, and you do not have to be an author, copywriter or journalist to have a piece published on the website. Perspective is open to everyone – giving you the space to speak and be heard; something I craved when I was working at that company.

While that year, for me, was a tough one, I have become a much more resilient woman and have developed a platform that is bold, empowering and unapologetic; lifting up predominantly female voices when they otherwise might never be heard. Sticking that job out for a full year was both the worst and best thing I’ve ever done. I hate that I had to endure it, but love how it has shaped me as a Millennial woman, friend, partner, sibling, employee and founder.

I hope that while I will never be able to ensure that other women do not experience what I did at that company, I can somehow make a difference in giving individuals a platform to call out issues in the world around them and be heard by an open-minded community.

In my eyes, everyone deserves to feel as though they belong. Everyone is ‘cool’, regardless of their gender, their likes, their dislikes and the companies they work for. Everyone is important and worthy of the jobs they land.

And everyone deserves to head up the sales department. Especially if they are a woman.

*Names are fictional. For obvious reasons.


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