By Jahni Cowley
I’m a trade unionist and a single mother. As part of my job, I am confronted by people with problems in their workplace, on a daily basis. It continues to strike me how easily women accept the way they are treated at work: It seems we believe we deserve to be second class citizens.
I don’t mean to perpetuate the stereotype of nurturing woman versus hunter man. I accept that this isn’t always the case, but the difference between masculinity and femininity reaches a climax in the workplace. It’s almost like we retreat to our primal brain. Maybe it’s the desk, I don’t know.
Why is it that we are so apologetic about ourselves? I do believe in differences between people related to gender, we can probably argue whether this is nature or nurture, innate or learned behaviour, but the fact is we have certain qualities that make us women. Different from men. I do not have a problem with the fact that I am softer than my male colleagues, because different does not mean weak.
I have deep empathy with other people, and it’s a trait more naturally associated with women than men. It’s also a trait that will garner you ridicule, if you allow it. It’s seen as an undesirable, negative thing to develop an emotional bond with your colleagues or clients or people you are helping, because it makes you less productive, a little slower, a little more human, and we don’t do human anymore. We are here to do a job and to get out, that’s it.
Our reaction is often immediately apologetic.We change our ways, we surpress our caring. We will become artificially business-like.
Why do we believe that we are wrong? Why do we subscribe to the belief that there is only one right way, which is the way we perceive a male colleague would handle a situation?
We tolerate cultural differences in the workplace, but we do not tolerate gender differences. We do not accept the fact that a mother with a sick child cannot possibly concentrate fully on her work, no matter how good her childcare options are. We see her as weak. We would regard a father in the same situation as weak too, because caring and showing emotion are regarded as weak, feminine traits.
None of this is news, we know it. It’s ingrained. What bothers me is how women react to it: We accept the status quo, we don’t rock the boat. We try to change ourselves, creating so much inner conflict that we end up unable to do our work anyway, end up in trouble. In that case, I would argue that we deserve the treatment we get, we deserve to be less than, because we don’t stand up!
Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if we said no? Wouldn’t it be so wonderful if we used our voices instead of meekly accepting? We have come so far, we choose to have careers AND children AND love, but we are still so far behind in terms of acceptance of ourselves as equal.
I have stood up and rebelled. I am no longer apologising for the softer parts of me, I do have empathy, I do get involved, so be it. I challenge every working woman to do the same. Life is not about competition, it’s about balance: To balance the male and female, the hard and the soft, the masculine and the feminine, in order to reach a goal.
We are different, but we are not less than.
Jahni Cowley is an LLB graduate from NMMU, who fell in love with labour law and labour relations. She’s a trade unionist, single mom, social media addict and blogs in the little bit of spare time she has left (www.jahnicowley.co.za)