Monday, 30 January 2017

Excluded from the Gang

While I was working for a living, I was never 'one of the gang' - meaning the top office casework and management layer of ambitious and aggressive careerists, usually male, who had their own culture. It was a culture completely determined by male tastes and standards. At its most blatant, during the 1970s and 1980s, it included explicit male banter, jokes and swearing, as if the local management team were - despite their smart suits - a bunch of coarse roofers on the lookout for passing talent.

Things definitely got more controlled and 'professional' in the 1990s and 2000s - certainly much less sexual - but animated early-morning arguments about football or fishing remained the thing, and anybody who didn't join in was regarded as an Outsider, and likely to be scorned. I was lucky to have my own indifference to Arsenal's, or Manchester United's, or Cardiff City's previous-evening's performances turned into a tolerant legend, which the even the mandarins at London Regional Office heard about. Hence these words in the official 'Thank You And Farewell' letter from the Board of Inland Revenue that reached me after I retired in 2005:


What a thing to say!

It was always awkward for women managers. Even if high in the local management team - as I became from 1978 - it was a serious handicap if you weren't 'one of the lads'.

Some women tried their utmost to impress with their knowledge of male ways and their understanding of male jokes. But this was all in vain, simply because they weren't men and therefore forever on the outside. They could roll their own, display knowledge of the Chelsea squad, or fly-fishing, or what the specific gravity of Fuller's Best was, to their heart's content. It wouldn't cut any ice. It would be like the average man trying to talk knowingly to a group of women about periods. A valiant attempt, certainly, and possibly an admirable bridge-building effort; but not credible, and doomed to fall flat.

Other women chose instead to break into the male clique by being a sort of Superwoman, hitting the men with an unremitting broadside of female virtues - nice hair, nice clothes, exemplary intelligence and vivacious manner all included. They tended to be highly popular, but not so much for the quality of their minds, but because the men could fantasise about having them on their laps and seducing them. And indeed it happened.

Still other women tried to be loud and assertive. But I thought this was self-destructive, as it was hardly the kind of behaviour calculated to win people over, and it could so easily degenerate into mere petulance and futile posturing. The truth was that men ruled the roost, whether that was official or not. Women were seen as lightweight and out of their proper element.

And furthermore a senior woman not in that close-knit male clique couldn't by default be part of the ordinary office sisterhood. She was 'management'. She was different. She was seen as flying with eagles, even if the eagles ignored her. She certainly wasn't shop-floor. So she was barred from relaxing with the sparrows. The ordinary ladies in the office wouldn't risk fraternising with the enemy.

But the boss's secretary wasn't shop-floor. The boss's secretary had a universally-understood and indispensable liaison role close to the seat of power, a person privy to all office secrets, the discreet one behind the throne. She might well be the only non-male person in the office that a senior woman officer could trust, and get along with woman-to-woman. So when the boss went to the pub, the senior females all sat close to the boss's secretary. And when the boss was away, the senior females temporarily enjoyed some ascendancy, the male clique headless for once. Around 1999 and 2000, whenever I was left in charge of the office (it was at Sutton in South London), it was Christine the secretary who actually kept it going. We worked well together, but it was a level partnership, not deputy boss and minion. I hardly did more than sign things off and present the office's public face.

That was nearly twenty years ago. Has anything changed?

I can't help feeling that nothing much has. While I agree that Mrs May is her own woman - and seems to have tackled her Top Job with the mantle of Mrs Thatcher around her shoulders - look what she is up against. Men on the make. Everywhere she might turn. Ambitious men who drink together in House of Commons bars and make their plans and deals and secret alliances. I personally think she will stand the pace, but if she puts a foot wrong - well - remember the Ides of March! In general, the authority of female front-benchers in the House of Commons looks brittle and entirely within the fickle gift of the Party Leader, whichever side of the House you look at. And in outside business, I suspect that no celebrated female CEO feels secure from hidden plots to oust her. The Gang is always beavering away behind the scenes to place a man where he should rightly be. Huh.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, we now see a man who has not only got elected on a divisive programme, but who is actually carrying out his dire and draconian election pledges. In theory that should be a Good Thing - wow, a politician doing what was promised! Except that he is not a professional politician. He is not carrying out a Republican Party programme. He is carrying out The Donald Trump Personal Programme. It's mostly a business programme, a grand game of profit-protection. And he is doing a lot of crowd-pleasing. Think 'bread and circuses', as in ancient Rome. Well, at any rate, abolition of Obamacare, saving of industrial jobs, and lower taxes all round.

Only a man minded to be an Emperor in the Roman mould could carry this off. If she had got elected, Hillary Clinton could never have been so bold. It wasn't in her. And Mrs May can't take the political risk of openly endorsing any of it. She'll spend her entire premiership trying not to say anything. But Mr Trump isn't afraid to speak his mind very plainly. I would say that Mr Trump is a prime example of how to be high-handed in the traditional male manner. What a nod to the red-necks. What an example to proud, prejudiced and dismissive men everywhere.

Girls, I'm afraid we are going to be excluded from the Gang for another generation at least.

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Lucy Melford