We hear of the larger corporations in Perth participating in International Women’s Day holding events and driving change, appointing more women to boards and the executive leadership teams but what is small business doing? Yes, we have the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, but are they creating the impact where it really counts?
I can tell you first hand from experience that gender discrimination and inequality is alive and kicking in small business. In a different life, before my daughter was born I worked at a company as the Managing Director that had a boy’s club between the Chairman (a fancy title he gave himself) and the Sales Manager, who also happened to be a Director of the company. It was the two of them against the rest of us.
Said sales manager worked less than I did, contributed less but was paid more. They frequented cigar lounges (cliché lounge) together, met before our formal meetings to discuss business and made decisions without involving me, the person who was actually running the company.
If I disagreed with a decision and stated my opinion I was labelled a bitch or yelled at me that it was his business and he could do what the f*&^% he wanted. When I travelled overseas for work, the opportunity was taken to undermine me, shout at the staff and in general create a toxic environment that I would have to pick up the pieces to when I returned.
When an employee and I were pregnant at the same time, we were standing in office talking and a derogatory comment was made by the Chairman to the employee about how she was carrying the baby and the weight she had gained compared to me. This left the employee in tears and when I confronted the Chairman he laughed it off and said she needed to grow a thicker skin.
I dreaded the thought of leaving the employees in the hands of the chairman when I went on maternity leave. They were such amazing and loyal staff to me and wonderful people. I wasn’t happy in that business and dreaded going into work if I knew the chairman and sales manager would be there. My husband had been telling me for years to leave that workplace.
Before I went on leave I wrote my own maternity/return to work plan. I’m a big believer that when a woman falls pregnant, they have the right to choose what they want to do with maternity leave. They want to take 12 months off great, they want to come back after 3 months, wonderful, that’s their choice. I wanted weekly reports sent to me so I could be kept in the loop and then when I felt like it I would return to work at a pace that suited me. None of it went to plan though as my waters broke at 32 weeks and I spent 3 weeks in hospital before my daughter was born.
The first few weeks after giving birth, I received weekly reports and updates. Then all of a sudden the reports stopped being sent. I contacted the bookkeeper, she didn’t return my calls nor did she return my emails. I tried the General Manager who was brought in to fill in for me in my absence, but he didn’t know anything about it. I then got a call from one of the employees who was quite loyal to me. She said that the entire staff had been told by the Chairman that they weren’t allowed to contact me and if anyone did they would be fired. And that the sales director who had finally resigned before I went on leave, and who got a very large payout of annual leave and long service leave, was back working for the company and under no circumstances was I to be told. You can imagine what I was thinking, pretty much WTF is going on. Why haven’t I been consulted about this, maternity leave or not, and why are all the employees being blocked from contacting me.
This led to my defining moment. When my daughter was 4 weeks old, my Pop died suddenly. The day before my Pop’s funeral, I went into work to meet with the chairman for what I thought would be a discussion over the issues that had been brought to my attention. This was the first time I had seen the chairman since having my daughter and when he saw me his very first words to me were “You’re still fat.”. In that moment I thought, what in the hell am I doing here and why did I stay so long! Suddenly everything became clear. Why would I want to work with such an egotistical tyrant, who possessed no leadership skills and created a toxic work environment. Sprayed some choice words, spun around, went to my office, cleared it out.
The weeks after I resigned I was constantly harassed via email, my final pay withheld and then maternity leave that had already been paid deducted. I have still kept all of the emails they sent me to remind me of my personal struggle for equality, how resilient I am and the need for women to speak up more to help drive change.
Women face a lot of challenges that extend well beyond the pay gap and my personal experience has made me extremely passionate about the empowerment of women. How do we collectively change the mindset and actions of men like the chairman and why aren’t more people standing up and calling out inappropriate behaviour and challenging bias of small business?
My Story is one of the reasons I started Behind the Brands and am a proud member and sit on the Advisory Board for 100 Women.