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How To Handle Everyday Sexism Without HR Or a Boss To Back You Up

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Monday, May 9th, 2016
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The recent Isabel Hardman totty debate completely tore the plaster off the issue of sexism in the workplace.

Everyone from EverydaySexism’s Laura Bateman through to Edwina Currie joined in, dissecting whether Isabel’s decision to report the Tory MP was appropriate or whether she should have just accepted it as a compliment. Apparently sharing on Twitter was a definite no…

I run my own business. It’s just me and I have built a base of incredibly loyal, inspiring clients I love working with. But following the totty-gate furore I connected a sequence of events in my own professional life to a particular behaviour pattern.

A prospective client I recently met commented that my Twitter profile picture was a 7/10 but in person, I “deserved” an eight. Wow – thanks.

Another was surprised to learn I am a super-proud mum to a gorgeous 9- and 7-year-old – because of my figure. Then there was the “good thigh gap” remark at a client Xmas party.

I cut my teeth in a global London PR agency, under two incredibly talented, motivating, driven male bosses. I can’t think of a single instance of sexism in 10 years within our team or the business. I grew up between two brothers too, so am more than capable of handling myself.

I should also say that comments like this are the absolute exception to the rule; most of my male clients and many wonderful associates and colleagues would be mortified on my behalf.

But, in the brave new world of running my own business, where do I go when I come up against this kind of comment? I have no line manager, or HR team to go, no boss or team buffering me.

Can I create those safeguards? More importantly, should I have to? There’s an argument that says these are throw-away comments, intended to flatter or compliment. Can I truly extricate that from the other side of the piece, which says it utterly objectifies women and discounts everything else that you hope to stand for through your work?

Equally, what are my options in terms of responding to these? Do I challenge comments based on my appearance and run the risk of losing the client? The balance of power as a freelancer can be very fragile. Or do I tolerate it, shrug it off and try to ignore it.

Like many other women – and men – working for myself, my job involves building relationships, networking, presenting, and yes, making friends with associates and clients alike. I have to put myself out there, confidently, warmly.

But equally I need those boundaries in place. In no way is it acceptable for people to score your social media profiles. That really doesn’t count as work research in my books.

I haven’t cracked this yet. But if I look at my constantly growing network of female colleagues and friends opting to do their own thing, and coming up against this, here’s some thoughts:

Get a second opinion

Ask other professional women – employed and self-employedabout your experience. You can be quite isolated when you work for yourself, and find yourself questioning your own judgement at times. I spoke to a close friend who works in a massively male dominated global firm who was clear that the behaviour was utterly out of bounds. That helped guide my response.

Know when to walk away

I know that if someone is judging me purely on looks it doesn’t bode well for a long-term professional relationship. I’ll always be trying too hard to prove myself professionally so the uphill struggle will ultimately work against this. Equally I had no trust in his professional integrity based on his behaviour. As a prospect I made the decision to walk away from the business.

Know your own strength

I’m ashamed to say that on none of these occasions did I have the presence of mind to say it wasn’t ok for them to make comments. So am I therefore culpable of enabling it? Was it fear that held me back, or that in-built desire to both please and be perceived as in control? I wouldn’t take it from a mate so therefore I shouldn’t take it from a client. Will I respond more definitively if there’s a next time? I like to think so.

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