In my early 20s I dreaded being seen as a difficult woman at work. I’d do anything to dodge that reputation. I smiled politely when a colleague twice my age came onto me, ignored someone doing a poor Indian accent and feigned laughter at jokes with punchlines I’d rather not repeat. I wanted to make sure everyone knew I wouldn’t rock the boat. I’m one of the good ones, so just promote me already!
Then, when I was 26, I was working at in a large government agency. It was International Women’s Day and the women in the office had put on an event – organising food, music and a fantastic “women who inspire you” gallery. The first thing one senior leader did when she arrived was go up to every man and thank him for ‘showing his support’. I was so shocked as she did this in front me (I wasn’t thanked for showing my support), the words rocketed out of my mouth “we’re thanking men for walking 20 steps to eat free food now?”
That was when I realised that I cared more about making workplaces inclusive than I did about getting a reputation as a difficult woman. I’ve come to realise when a hard push will work and when to tread softly. It can be frustrating, but often I’m only hurting myself if I go too hard. Going too hard is like running at a brick wall at full speed thinking it will crumble around you, when all that happens is you injure yourself. You’re better off taking time to lay dynamite in the right places, and then hitting the detonator.
I’m never going to let another person feel as alone as I felt sitting in those meetings, wondering if this was the price I had to pay for a career.
I once worked in a team of all white, middle-aged men. Men who were good people, amazing fathers and wonderful friends, but had only ever worked with people like them. I wanted to run at that wall but instead, I laid the dynamite. When senior managers came back from conferences and events, I’d ask with curiosity how many women or non-white people were there. The first few times they could barely answer – they hadn’t noticed, they said.
Eventually though, my colleagues could give me numbers and soon they were proactively reporting back. I could see them getting more and more shocked about the lack of inclusion, which started conversations about who has access to these opportunities and why. We began talking about privilege and how we can use ours to make a difference. All of a sudden, these men were observing through a different lens and they were right beside me, wanting to tear down that wall.
Sometimes you don’t even have to speak. About five months ago, I hung the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia in my office. Since then, dozens of people have asked about it, and I’ve explained that it attempts to represent all the language, tribal or nation groups of the Indigenous peoples of Australia, most of which were destroyed by colonisation. I’m not Indigenous, but I use my platform and privilege to educate others and to let Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues know that I stand with them.
I wanted to run at that wall but instead, I laid the dynamite.
These days, a difficult woman is one of the nicer ways people describe me. If I were a movie, ‘you can’t say that in front of Sarah’ would be my tag line. Honestly? I do get a little joy from pretending not to understand a joke and watching someone realise they have to say something sexist, racist or homophobic to explain it, but I don’t do it for fun. I don’t even do it to change the mind of the person I’m talking to; I do it so that everyone around us knows that I don’t think it’s ok.
For years as a young, brown woman I sat in meetings where people made sexual comments and inappropriate jokes, and no one said a word. Now that I have influence in my workplace, this is one brick wall I run at every time. I’m never going to let another person feel as alone as I felt sitting in those meetings, biting my tongue until it bled, wondering if this was the price I had to pay for a career.
I’m a bold and dramatic person, so my pushes for change are often pretty bold and dramatic too, but they don’t have to be. It can be as simple as asking a question that makes someone think. Why do we gender our single toilet bathrooms? Is that meeting venue accessible for everyone? Is there a reason why our work can’t be done more flexibly?
Starting the conversations is where all this begins. It’s not always successful, sometimes there are backslides and upsets and days full of tears. But if we can, why shouldn’t we throw ourselves at those walls and try to loosen a few bricks? Who knows, maybe those who come after us will knock them down.
Sarah Mohammed is a freelance writer and founder of SLM Career Counselling. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sezmohammed.