RECENTLY, in a chat with a girlfriend of mine, we brought up the topic of her working in a male-dominated industry — construction — and the challenges it posed.
She said it was challenging, but after 20 years, she had learnt how to overcome and deal with the difficulties and still perform in her job.
Her story is just one of many that exist with regard to working women, especially those who are mothers as well.
In my friend’s case, she has an understanding boss who gives her the flexibility she needs to be there for her three children, as long as she performs on the job.
Women in power in the corporate world often have to contend with difficulties in terms of acceptance. Helen Clark, the Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, and previous Prime Minister of New Zealand, has spoken eloquently on this subject.
As the first female Prime Minister of New Zealand, and one of the few female heads of state globally, Clark is in a position to talk about the treatment of women in power.
She has found that many criticisms levelled at her were based on her gender and made a decision early on to ignore them.
In fact, she said, “They don’t like your hairstyle, they don’t like your clothes. In fact, they don’t really like anything about you and maybe this all adds up to (the notion) that they don’t really like a woman doing what you’re doing.”
Her advice was that as a woman, you have to find a way to ignore gender-based criticism.
According to her, if you found all that hurtful, then you are probably not going to be able to survive the job anyway, and therefore, there was a need to dismiss it.
Another topic she has spoken on is the double standards which exist with regard to women in power.
Many men find women in power threatening and as a result make disparaging remarks about them.
The characteristics that marks a man in power are labelled as “strength”, while the same ones in women are described as “toughness”.
Consequently, it makes the workplace a much more difficult minefield for women to traverse.
One of the greatest factors that affect a woman’s choice in terms of work is childbirth and motherhood.
Clarke is one of the many women who have remained childless by choice, choosing instead to focus on her career.
It turned out to be the right decision for her, but she points out that women who want to combine motherhood with powerful positions should be able to do so.
As she put it, “It really points to the need for a lot more discussion of families and of the role of boys and girls, women and men, so that the boys grow up with an expectation to be an equal in the household.”
March 8 was International Women’s Day and, as the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, Clarke made a statement on it.
In her statement, she referred to the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which she said “remains the world’s best blueprint for achieving gender equality and empowering women”.
Referring to the 2015 theme for International Women’s Day — Empower Women, Empower Humanity – Picture It! — she celebrated the world’s progress toward ensuring the rights and opportunities of women and girls, and also to renew and reinvigorate commitments to achieve gender equality.
We have certainly come a long way in the past couple of centuries — in most countries around the world, women now have the right to vote and the right to work.
Now, the challenges women face lie in their work environment, and the challenges of balancing work and motherhood.
Women like my friend have found a way to deal with it, but many more still struggle.
It will take time for more people to open their minds and realise that attitudes about women in power should change, as well as attitudes towards women who want to balance work and motherhood.