Diversity policies coming out of our ying yangs…..

That’s a rather excellent quote from a gender diversity debate I attended just over a year ago. It was made by the wonderful Kerryn Phelps as she expressed our shared frustration at how slow progress has been.

I’ve worked in a male-dominant environment throughout my career, most clients were male, as were most colleagues. I quickly got used to being the only female in the room, while resolving to redress the balance any way that I could (for example, mentoring less experienced female colleagues).

For many years, I described myself as “gender blind”, I didn’t focus on gender at work and didn’t expect that it would be an issue. With hindsight, I believe that I was incredibly lucky to have had such positive experiences in my early career….they fostered a confidence that I would lean on later in life. That said, things did happen, but not very often. One very old school, male client (aka the dinosaur) suggested, in a room full of executives whom I was training, that I sit on his knee as there weren’t enough chairs after he joined our session. I ignored him and kept talking. Later, another client told me that I had pretty much “buried the guy” ⚰️ with my “death look” 👹, which is why the dinosaur shut up straight away. I didn’t even know I had a “death look” until then….but I’m glad that I do! 💪👊

Years later, having moved to Australia, my expat friends and I realised pretty quickly that Australia was running waaay behind the rest of the world when it came to gender equality. The stories we heard from Australian working women were nothing short of shocking. Most organisations’ talent pipelines bore this out….women progress to a certain point in their careers, and then…..nothing…..I was fortunate enough to work for a corporate that took this issue seriously, especially in their technology team, where the gender diversity stats were dire. Knowing that I was passionate about advancing talented women, my then boss encouraged my proposal to target our female talent, before their careers stalled, and to make some speculative investments in addressing possible causes.

My proposal was not about “fixing” these women, but making sure that they were getting the right opportunities for face time with senior execs and possible sponsors. It did also include skills development to assist them with career planning and telling their story. It was a huge success….female engagement increased significantly, male perceptions shifted, our talent pipeline looked better than ever, and we learned that we had a much richer and more diverse pool of talent to promote from. A win all round 😀 This was achieved by working on these activities in my free time (I still had my day job as a CIO), supported by a passionate, cross-functional team of volunteers. Then, I got a new boss….who suggested that I step away from “all that gender stuff” as “it’s not a good look and is perceived as that’s all I’m about”. This was while I was running the largest and most successful technology transformation the company had ever undertaken…..what a load of undermining bollocks!

More recently, I’ve been unlucky to work for an organisation that spends LOTS of money on diversity initiatives, but has a toxic, low trust culture where these investments have little hope of really succeeding while the entrenched bad behaviours are accepted and allowed to continue. Not acting quickly and decisively enough to address issues is a failure of leadership and governance. As they say, the tone comes from the top…

The Fragility of Trust

So, what was it that finally made me question a corporate life? Many things, I guess, but there are a few that stand out as mind-changing….

The first was a growing unease that what I was doing day to day was not having a positive impact in our world. In previous roles, I could always clearly link the output of my work to supporting others (customers) when they most needed it. This was very important to me, and the teams I led, and a source of some pride. It wasn’t just about the technology, it was about doing the right thing by customers.

The second was when I started to feel misled, and flat out deceived, by my 2 bosses in my shiny new role at B3 (Big Balls Bank). The resources and budget that had been confirmed during the interview process just did not exist. Not only that, the process and means to address this were out of reach. However, I pride myself on being able to solve problems (have always enjoyed “fixing” situations), so determinedly carried on fire-fighting, strategising and making tough calls, with no team and no budget, but managing to deliver some really good wins anyway. My technology boss was happy because she didn’t have to worry about my customers (no “noise” is good), and my business boss (and his team) took delight in continuously pointing out & rehashing every issue that ever existed in how the larger technology team supported them….most of which I could do nothing about as it was before my time. However, that didn’t stop me from taking it onboard and feeling responsible…..being a “good girl” has been part of my make-up for a very long time. I started to dread our executive team meetings and the inevitable tech bashing that would occur (it felt increasingly personal). As I learned, being constructive and transparent only works when there’s a degree of reason being used by all parties.

The third was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As my Mum got sicker and sicker, I was sleeping less and less, always on edge, unable to relax if I hadn’t spoken to her that day (nighttime in my case). At work, I was asked to take on a second customer team, which I was very happy to do, seeing it as acknowledgement that I was doing a good job. However, after 4 weeks of throwing myself into it, I was brought up short when my new client executive was surprised to learn that I was still looking after my old client team. She had been working under the assumption that I was assigned to her full-time (what the…..??!). Turns out that my technology boss hadn’t advised her of this, even though she knew that the client wanted a dedicated technology executive…..unbelievable……a few days later, I left for Ireland as Mum went into the hospice. My technology boss called me at home a week after Mum died to advise that I was being taken off my new client account, and that she was going to circulate a message saying that I was having a hard time in my personal life, so she was lightening my work load…..unfuckingbelievable……even though I was in bed running a temp of 40, I had enough wits about me to disagree and request that she “position it” using the facts…..which were that the client wanted a dedicated technology exec. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, there was no communication, leaving an awkward vacuum and me to explain it to anyone who asked (most people assumed that I’d stuffed it up somehow). I felt very embarrassed and used, and pretty disgusted that anyone would use the death of my Mum as an excuse to cover up their mistake. It wasn’t until a few months later that she apologised, and only then after I raised it with her.

Roll forward a few months from this, the frustration of being a small cog in a giant wheel, coupled with the near impossibility of getting things done without being a paid up member of the back-slapping political boys’ club that was technology at B3, and I had had enough. I was dreading going into the office, the job was literally making me sick. This is NOT who I am. I DON’T do victim-hood. Having decided to leave, it was fortuitous that I got laid off (though I’d have preferred to be the one in charge of the timing 😬). Being a mug to the end, I’d worked most of a public holiday and until 10pm the night before I was laid off 🤓 The “good girl” lives……