What do you do when the only person in the conversation speaking up for women is a woman?
Friday night and the Opera Bar is heaving: suits staring at skirts, skirts staring at suits, tourists staring at the opera house. Andrew arrives twenty minutes late under a dark cloud. This isn’t just a metaphor; the first drops of rain start falling as he says hello to me and Lauchlan and kisses Annia on the cheek.
“You alright?” I ask him as we shuffle closer together around the bird-table we’ve been guarding since we arrived. It’s one of the few which stand under the canvas canopies sheltering parts of this open-air bar.
“Fine” he says “Absolutely fine.”
“Fine as in good?” says Lauchie “Or F.I.N.E. as in Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotionally unstable?”
But Andrew is in no mood for an old joke. He tells us he’s going to the bar, asks each of us what we want, and turns into the crowd which is thickening around us in an attempt to escape the rain.
“You said Andrew had an announcement.” Annia looks at me accusingly, like I might have wasted her Friday night. “You told Lauchie he had some good news to share.”
Actually I told Lauchie in absolute confidence that perhaps Andrew might possibly (nothing definitely, just my speculation) have some good news on Friday night. Maybe.
“No I didn’t” I say to Annia.
We both look at Lauchlan.
“You did” he says with unusual eye-contact. “You said Andrew had important news, so we should all make sure to be here.”
My loyalties are torn. Lauchlan is lying – who knows what domestic has ensued for him to persuade Annia they need to be here? – and normally I would cover for him. But backing down in front of Annia the Nemesis is more than I can bear. I’m saved by Andrew’s return from the bar. All of us have a superpower and Andrew’s is being served first at any bar he approaches.
“Ged says you have news” Annia says to him, where perhaps I would have said “Thanks for my white wine”.
Andrew looks at me furiously, then remembers he’s got a beer for me and shoves it in my direction.
“I do have news, actually” he says. “My news is that the promotion I’ve been working on for the last two years is, as of today, not happening. Cheers.”
Lauchlan and I make sympathetic noises, while Annia asks Andrew what led to his misjudgement of the situation.
“My ‘misjudgement of the situation?’” Andrew says slowly, and I think Oh great, at last I’m not the only one who doesn’t like her. “That’s good, Annia. Perfect in fact. My misjudgement of the situation was that I thought the best man, sorry, best person for the job would actually get the job. I hadn’t realised that due to the firm’s policy of diversity in leadership, they would choose to place a woman, no matter what happened.”
“Ouch” says Lauchlan. “Not that one from the competition?”
“Yes, exactly that one from the competition. My new boss is the same person who stole two of my best clients last year.”
“Sounds like she’s better qualified for the job,” says Annia, “if she took two of your clients from you.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it.” Andrew swears and pushes back on two guys behind him who are trying to welcome a friend out of the rain and into their circle. “I’ve taken just as many clients off her. We’ve met loads of times over the years; we actually get along and joke about it. But she’s not better qualified than me. We’re ‘clearly matched in almost all areas’, the powers that be made that very clear. It’s just they want thirty per cent of leadership roles given to women.”
I ask him if the bank actually told him that’s why he didn’t get the job, trying to make it sound less unlikely than it really does.
“It’s in all our comms” he says. “Everywhere you look, this thirty per cent target, more women in senior roles. So when two of us are equally qualified, the woman gets the job.”
I have strong views about the importance of positive discrimination, but now doesn’t seem like the time to share them. Annia doesn’t have any such qualms.
“I think your first comment was right” she says. “Before you corrected yourself. You were going to say ‘I thought the best man for the job would get the job.’ You didn’t think it might be a woman. That’s the problem they’re trying to fix.”
“Annia” says Lauchie. “It’s just an expression.”
“It’s not just an expression, it’s a cultural norm. It’s a mindset. That’s exactly what they’re trying to change.”
It bothers me that the only person in this conversation speaking up for women is a woman. What should I do? Sympathise with my mate or speak my truth?
“Do you really think she only got the job because she’s a woman?” I ask Andrew.
“Well, it certainly didn’t hurt.”
“But it would have in the past?”
Andrew looks at me sourly and takes a swig from his beer. The crowd around us is thicker than ever – the guys behind Andrew pushing into him again – and now loud rain on the canvas overhead. Andrew shakes his head like it’s still sinking in.
“She’s not even the kind of woman they normally promote. She’s nice, you know. Friendly, always talking about her kids, bit of a laugh.”
“Jesus” says Lauchie, “sounds nothing like any of the female execs I’ve ever had to deal with.”
“I think that’s the whole point” I say, before Annia can. “The old system only ever promoted women who behaved like men, or more so to prove themselves. The whole point of positive discrimination is to break the mould. To ensure more types of women have a chance.”
“I’m not so sure” says Andrew. “I’ve always promoted on performance and potential, not on whether someone had a dick or not.”
Annia laughs. “Men talk about sexism like white people talk about racism. ‘I can’t see it so it doesn’t exist’. Maybe you men need to understand that your time in the sun is over.”
“Great!” says Andrew. “So I’m never going to get promoted again.”
“No” I say, a bit annoyed now. “That’s not how it works. It’s not that your, our, time in the sun is over. It’s just that now we don’t have the sun exclusively to ourselves. You say your company has a target of thirty per cent of senior jobs for women. So there’s still twice as many senior jobs going to men. Positive discrimination is about inclusion, not exclusion. It’s about opening up opportunities for people who didn’t have them before.”
“Easy for you to say” says Andrew. “How would you like it if next month, just before your book comes out, someone says ‘Oh no, sorry. Only books by women are coming out this month?’”
“But that’s not a good analogy. It’s more like ‘Sorry, until now almost a hundred per cent of books have been by men, and now we’re reducing it to seventy per cent, and I’m sorry but you didn’t make that seventy per cent.”
I’ve kind of raised my voice during this exchange and it’s followed by an awkward silence. Like I’ve just told Andrew it was right he didn’t get the job. “Look, you’re competitive. Would you rather get a promotion in a field where only men could compete, or would you rather get on where you the best of a much broader field?”
“I guess it’s like paying high taxes” says Lauchie. “It hurts, but it’s the price you pay for living in a country which tries to look after everyone. In theory at least.”
Lauchie’s trying to help me out here, move the conversation into a familiar economic argument. Andrew’s about to respond – he can never resist an argument about tax – but he’s interrupted by Annia.
“What did they say when they told you why she got the job rather than you?”
Andrew sighs and loosens his tie. “They said she was better at collegiality and had a more nurturing style of leadership. They said I could learn from her in those areas, and then be ready for a more senior position.”
“Ha! So maybe she did get the job because she’s a woman” says Annia.
Andrew and Lauchie don’t get it, so I explain.
“Companies don’t only want women in senior roles because of equal opportunity. It’s because they also bring to the table skills generally lacking in all-male environments. Collaboration, coaching, a more rounded approach.”
The guys behind Andrew push into him once again and suddenly he’s had enough. He turns quickly, clearly about to push back more violently than before. Before he can, Annia is around the table and between him and the other suits. She taps the nearest of them firmly on the shoulder and then explaining, in that sweetness she can produce from nowhere, how we all need to share the space, and could they be careful, and let’s all watch out for each other please.
She then pushes Andrew aside, into the space she was standing in before, and takes his place at the table.
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