Women stay­ing mum on strug­gles

‘Un­writ­ten rule’ of brush­ing off sex­ism is norm, of­fice study finds

The Northern Advocate - - Nation - Alice Pea­cock

Young work­ing women of­ten feel pres­sured to hide men­tal health strug­gles and sugar-coat re­ac­tions to sex­ism, ac­cord­ing to a study into pres­sures faced by our fe­male work­force.

Nil­ima Chowdhury, a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land, has con­ducted the study ex­plor­ing dis­tress and de­pres­sion in pro­fes­sional women — es­pe­cially ca­reer new­bies.

The project also delved into how or­gan­i­sa­tions of­ten ex­pect cer­tain re­sponses from fe­male em­ploy­ees — and how these might dif­fer from their ex­pec­ta­tions of males.

Chowdhury con­ducted fo­cus groups to dis­cuss gen­eral work­place de­meanour, as well as sep­a­rate study groups talk­ing about de­pres­sion.

Chowdhury ac­knowl­edged health strug­gles were not gen­der spe­cific, but said the is­sues were of­ten “ex­ac­er­bated” for women.

Women of­ten al­ready have to bat­tle neg­a­tive stereo­types around women’s in­com­pe­tence or “be­ing too emo­tional”, she said. “The stigma sur­round­ing de­pres­sion then be­comes an added dis­ad­van­tage or weak­ness.”

Women of­ten felt they were start­ing off on the back foot, she said, so couldn’t af­ford to show any “ex­tra weak­ness”.

“They are work­ing in what are of­ten male-dom­i­nated en­vi­ron­ments,” Chowdhury said.“So [there is a sense] of con­stantly need­ing to prove your worth, to prove that you are com­pe­tent and be­long.”

Chowdhury said many re­search par­tic­i­pants spoke of a set of “un­writ­ten rules”.

These would not be ex­plic­itly laid out for fe­male em­ploy­ees, but in­stead picked up through their so­cial­i­sa­tion into the work­place.

“By ob­serv­ing other women, by telling sto­ries . . . you quickly get a gen­eral gist of how you’re sup­posed to do things and man­age your­self.”

“On the one hand we have this idea that we’ve sort of reached equal­ity and we’ve made a lot of progress. But at the same time there’s this idea that women should be soft-spo­ken and gen­tle and mod­est — things like that.”

As­sertive­ness and anger took on dif­fer­ent mean­ings when ex­pressed by men and women, Chowdhury found. While as­sertive men would of­ten be seen as con­fi­dent and am­bi­tious, the same traits in fe­male coun­ter­parts could lead to neg­a­tive la­bels like bitchy or bossy.

Tech­nol­ogy en­tre­pre­neur An­nette Pres­ley said at­ti­tudes to­wards women had im­proved since she started out in the work­force, but there was still room for im­prove­ment.

Af­ter the launch of her own IT re­cruit­ment com­pany, Stra­tum, in 1987, Pres­ley co-founded Cal­lPlus, made up of Cal­lPlus Busi­ness, Sling­shot, Or­con, Flip and 2talk, with her busi­ness part­ner and for­mer hus­band Mal­colm Dick.

Shortly af­ter she founded Stra­tum, Pres­ley said she had an en­counter with the male owner of a com­peti­tor com­pany she would never for­get.

The ac­quain­tance, whom she had looked up to for some time, had asked her out to lunch — which she was thrilled about.

“Af­ter . . . a meal he looked at me and said, ‘you have done re­ally well’.”

“He said, ‘ob­vi­ously, you have slept with all of the man­agers to be in this sit­u­a­tion’.”

Pres­ley re­mem­bered leav­ing the lunch and cry­ing, but said that was “just what hap­pened” in those days.

On re­flec­tion, she said the en­counter strength­ened her de­ter­mi­na­tion to show him what she was made of.

“What’s hap­pen­ing now is a long time com­ing and a long time needed,” she said. “Young women need to be pro­tected [at work] and to feel safe.”

The re­lease of re­search comes sev­eral months af­ter a spate of al­le­ga­tions in­volv­ing sex­ism and ha­rass­ment tar­get­ing fe­males within top New Zea­land law firms.

Ear­lier this year al­le­ga­tions came to light in­volv­ing top law firm Rus­sell McVeagh, in­clud­ing that five sum­mer clerks were sex­u­ally ha­rassed over the sum­mer of 2015/16.

A re­port by Dame Mar­garet Ba­z­ley into the cul­ture at the firm told of a work­place in which in­stances of crude, drunken and sex­u­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­haviour were com­mon­place.

She also noted more work was needed to ad­dress un­der­ly­ing sex­ism, as too many fe­male lawyers were leav­ing the firm rather than pro­gress­ing to part­ner­ship.

Chowdhury said those kinds of work­place ex­pe­ri­ences could be linked clearly to men­tal health bat­tles. An ex­pec­ta­tion that women should be able to cope with ev­ery­thing could re­sult in feel­ings of fail­ure, she said.


While as­sertive men would of­ten be con­sid­ered con­fi­dent and am­bi­tious, the same traits in their fe­male coun­ter­parts could lead to neg­a­tive la­bels, Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land PhD stu­dent Nil­ima Chowdhury says.

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