Scared of my own voice

I publish under a pseudonym, that of the ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’. This suits me as it’s like donning a mask and going to a party. You get to attend, participate, enjoy yourself, express a different side of yourself, be a little bit risky but not compromise your real self, because after all, you were wearing a mask. You’re putting on or trying out another personality perhaps, one that is less accountable because all the threads can’t be drawn together as in real life. Real life is contextual, we add all the pieces of information that we know about a person together to form a picture, a view, and get a sense of a person. But that doesn’t happen when you wear a mask, unless you are exposed and we get to see who you ‘really are’. But wearing a mask too allows us to show who we really are as we participate in the truth telling of the bus stop syndrome. So it’s this paradox of both being able to shield oneself yet at the same time be more fully exposed in the display of oneself that I wish to explore in this essay blog.

Anonymity, like donning a mask, is protective because it allows you to express yourself through a voice that is uncensored, unafraid and keen to tell the truth. You get to explore truths in a way that is unfettered. You don’t worry about what people might make of what you say, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve suffered. You get to spare yourself the judgement. Even if you the reader judge, it is an anonymous judgement of an anonymously expressed piece of writing.

There is a history attached to anonymous writing but the common theme is that of wanting expression and not being able to, or not seeking to publish under one’s own name. People have had very real reasons for doing so, often political, related to gender or to the expression of truth that is hard to bear.

This form of communication also has its downside. By distancing myself from my own, my real voice, I’m also distancing myself from the experiences, feelings and situations that I relate here on the page. I don’t own them, they don’t come from me. That is both liberating, yet suffocating. I’m free to perform, to narrate and to share. But at the same time I’m more stifled, less, understood, less comprehended because I am not known and therefore not attached to those experiences.

And worse than that by writing in this way it is a tacit acknowledgement, indeed an agreement between myself and the reader – you – who are also party to this process through your acceptance of this writing regime, in your approval through your participation in the act of reading. Of what? Of conspiring with me in my attempt at stifling my real voice.

So this begs the question: what am I afraid of? Why have I been complicit in silencing myself all these years? In the old days I kept a private diary where I worked things out on the page. Even if I didn’t work it out, I certainly got it out. But blogging is different. Blogging includes an audience wider than one. Blogging means that there is an audience who will participate, who will imagine through my writing, who will visualise and ponder what I say, and how I’ve said it and most importantly ponder that which I’ve left out of my writing on the page.

So what am I afraid of? Am I frightened of the truth? By stating it in my own voice, with my own name attached to it, I give it an authenticity, a reality that my truth deserves. Through authoring this privately/publicly through an anonymous pen, I don’t really have to own this truth. It’s like little kids when they tell, that’s when they get upset, that’s when it hits them, that’s when they feel the emotion and that’s when they cry. Because that’s when it’s dawned on them and their truth has become REAL.

That is the issue: writing anonymously is like writing naked. You have a shawl wrapped tightly around you, and that shawl is made up of fabric, texture, materials, shades and colours that are reflective of you, that constitute your personality, your self, your personhood, known, accepted and acknowledged by others. You have it wrapped very tightly around your naked self, it holds you together, it holds you in, it keeps you bound and consistent in your interactions with the world. But for this bright, or sombre, thick or thin, expensive or cheap, mass produced or handmade garment that binds you, you would be NAKED, exposed and vulnerable.

And when we write anonymously we drop the shawl, drop the self that binds us and write freely in an unencumbered way. Our self is not limited to the materials and textures of our ordinary lives: you don’t need to know that I am the engineer, that I work in a factory or that I write science text books for a living. At this moment when the shawl has dropped I am just another human being with a story to tell. Tasteful or distasteful – that remains to be seen – but it is an experience with which you seek to participate because of the promise of the representation of an authentic, free and unencumbered voice.

But in our naked, exposed and vulnerable writing through donning a mask, a pseudonym, or just dropping the veneer of our selves, paradoxically there is greater freedom. It’s a risk to write, and it’s a greater risk to divulge truths about oneself. Once they’re said, well, they’re out there, whatever they may be.

There is such a cult of personality and even as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’ I too will be prone to this as I continue to write, continue to share my truths. Will you continue to read me if I become known? Will I want to write if my ‘real’ self wraps herself up in the shawl that details her name, her ego, her persona, at least the one that she shares with the wider world? So many industries require the success of a name, you have to be a flagrant self-promoter to get by, to move forward in so many creative industries. It is essential in academia. No mousing around not promoting yourself or attracting dollars and prestige to yourself and your department. I can’t do this, that’s why I’m not there. Wrong side of 40 anyway.

Personalities have a voice, have a history, are very present and imagine the future with themselves squarely in it. If you’ve suffered any kind of trauma these can be the very things that are compromised, stolen, even attacked in your life. This is especially true of the last part, that of imagining a secure and successful future with yourself squarely in the picture. But if you don’t like the one that’s written, an anonymous voice helps you give voice to this so that you don’t have to keep hiding from yourself. Your story, your history, your life is validated through telling. Hence the importance of processes such as bearing witness. Bearing witness allows the truth to be told, to be honoured, and to take it’s place in people’s personal histories lived against the larger histories in which all our biographies take place.

I mentioned the bus stop syndrome. It’s not a real syndrome, but it serves the same purpose as donning a mask or anonymising yourself. You get to share something of yourself in a context in which you are not really known, have no common history with people and are not likely to have them in your life again. So you’re less encumbered, more spontaneous and able to relate more freely. You’ve dropped your shawl and are expressing your reality in a way that is unaffected by the person you normally present to the world.

I met a woman on the bus the other night as I travelled into the city for a night out with a group of women from work. The woman sat next to me and we commented at the number of Greek women getting on the bus at each stop who seemed to know each other, greeted each other and sat together. As I marvelled at this synchronicity, the woman next to me explained that they had arranged to meet on this bus and that they were travelling to church together for the pre-Easter services. We talked about the women’s’ black garb and the woman sitting next to me commented that it must be freeing to wear black. I explained that it was a marker for the community, that it represented an announcement that this woman had been married, was now a widow and had left society and all the roles that had been formerly ascribed to her in her married life. The woman next to me liked this idea and thought that at the very least it would simplify one’s wardrobe. She confided that she’d lost her husband two years ago and that since then she only ever hung out with women in all the activities she undertook these days. I told her that I too had lost someone two years ago, my mother who had suffered recently from cancer but for fifty years had had schizophrenia. I felt like I’d really lost my mum years ago, or even that I’d never really had a mother in the sense that everyone else understood a mother. Therein lies part of the truth of my own and of course her suffering.

Will I find my voice? I’m on the way, but how will I ever own it?
Reprinted from The Word Clown

For anthropologists, is interdisciplinarity ever truly a meeting of equals?


I recently read a Twitter post which asserted that interdisciplinarity was never a meeting of equals. As an anthropologist working outside of an academic department I met this statement with some unease. Currently, my working relationships are built on a premise of difference, of working with others from bounded, clearly demarcated professions and of thinking critically about if not directly challenging the taken for granted world views in the industry in which I work. I have written elsewhere about the role, function and value of anthropologists in workplaces, but in doing so I wrote from the basis of anthropologists as different but equal.

However, thinking more critically about this has led me to problematize this idea. I don’t believe I’ve adequately taken into account the importance of boundaries, of professions and their knowledges, and the challenges that anthropological thinking may represent for work practices. This is especially true for working in business contexts when we bring anthropological understandings of persons in the world and our armoury of social and culturally based research skills that recognise, situate and give voice to difference into business contexts. Can work environments which may value and seek unifying concepts and ideas tolerate diversity in conceptualisation, in approaches, in performance, in views and at the end of the day, in business practices themselves?

In working across traditional disciplines, we hope to inform and build something greater than the sum of parts. While this is a hackneyed expression, it’s true in my work where my current project challenges and reinvents our products and services, situating what we would be seen to do traditionally in a postmodern context.

I can’t tell my workmates that we are intimately informed by post colonialism in formulating our practices, or that we’re in the process of radically deconstructing our beliefs in reconfiguring power relationships, or that our project is partially informed by cultural theory, whiteness studies or the centrality of thinking about the authority of the first world within globalisation in determining how our business will proceed and upon which specific decisions will be made. But this is in fact, what we are currently doing. And I do try to tell them.

How have we created a space where these practices are okay, more than okay in business? Is this the armoury that partly informs the anthropologist at work outside of the academy? Or am I on my own here??? And how does this and other knowledge affect the decisions made in my workplace? I still ask myself: what does it mean to work with professionals in bounded disciplines?

While we hope that it isn’t so, in fact what I have termed ‘hierarchies of relevance’ do exist when working across disciplines. And this is part of the reflection on power that demarcates one professional group from another. By this I mean that each professional group maintains the boundaries of its knowledge base, its practices, its rules for conduct and less overtly protects the prestige and culture surrounding its existence within the community. Professionals also maintain control over entry, exit and rule breaking within the profession as well as maintaining controls over the education and transmission of the education that helps to create professionals. In this, professional groups control the knowledge base, language, practice and boundaries that form the basis of their professional identity. As anthropologists, we do this too.

So what happens when professional groups collide? I’m not master (or mistress) of the theories behind interdisciplinary thinking, but I do work within an interdisciplinary context and so am familiar with its practices, if not the theories that underpin it.

So in discussions, working on projects, working both internally and externally the issue of relevance often raises its head. If as the anthropologist I am identified as not having the ‘relevant’ expert knowledge, then my contributions are marginalised, often identified as contributing knowledge in some other, exotic way that runs counter to the usual core practices of knowledge acquisition within the business itself. My contributions are ‘interesting’, ‘quirky’, ‘outside the box’ and, paradoxically sometimes also ‘right on target’. In this way I am relevant, but not as relevant as those practitioners who are seen to belong to the core groups, our consultants, experts and the ultimate targets: the consumers of our products and services. Sometimes, I just feel so not-relevant, it’s just not funny.

As an outsider I will never automatically gain entry into the professional groups with which I work. However, if I hang around long enough maybe they’ll give me an honourary membership after toiling away looking at, investigating, updating, improving, teaching on and training people within their disciplines for so long. As an anthropologist I maintain that little bit of professional paranoia that harks back to Anthropology 101 and studies of ritual, sacrifice, demonization and scapegoating, which not so surprisingly still exist and speak to modern day work practices and contexts quite succinctly, especially for those anthropologists working outside of research in business settings where it’s all too easy to take on the identity of the Other.

It would be so much easier to talk frankly about exactly what I do and where I work, but unfortunately that’s not a luxury that I’m allowed right now, due to an array of policies that police my behaviour both publicly and in private, so suffice to say this is the best that I can do. This form of writing however forces me to think ‘bigger’ about what I do, and so while not completely honest is not dishonest and offers food for thought for many anthropologists (I hope) who work outside the academy as I do.

So are we different but equal? Or just different? As the project I’m currently working on gains pace, I find myself central to the think tanks at work, consulted over and beyond my current job title specifications and have access and input into arenas of work that I wouldn’t ordinarily warrant based on my position alone. I went from fear about this project and its implications, to neutrality, to feeling positive, to being involved by responding to requests for inputs, to embracing and now championing this project.

Now, whenever I’m asked I always come to the party and by that I mean that I complete tasks and contribute over and above whatever’s asked. If I’m asked for an opinion, I give it. If a project needs appraisal, I take time to read, review, comment and advise on it. If a vox pop is required to test the feeling and views of staff on an issue pertaining to the change, I’m already all over it (by nature a chatterbox and also keen to find out how my co-workers are going with things generally). Through my silences and non-attendance, I also make clear my views on some work practices, which in less industrialised and unionised times it is difficult for workers to address directly.

Informally I’ve identified myself not so much as a manager in the workplace – my anthropological training and background would definitely preclude this I think – but definitely as a leader. As there are about a thousand theories on leadership, there’s one that fits the kind of work that I undertake in the workplace, that I inspire and the work that I envision as well. And none of this is on my job description per se, but is alluded to as a potentiality, much the same as the potential or capability of any number of workers with contemporary CVs.

So mostly I find that I’m different but equal and have given my peers, co-workers and management a taste of what the social sciences and anthropology specifically can offer to contemporary work settings, both private and public sector organisations. I still believe that the greatest benefit of having an anthropological background lies not so much in trying to attain a position within the academy, positions which are few and far between and not so easily available to women over forty, but in taking up the challenge of flexibly applying our body of knowledge in diverse contexts, of making the theories, theorists, knowledge and practices real.

Do we lose our specialness, our anthropological know-how, our unique identity as globe trotters seeking to document the life of the Other when we’re not surrounded by like-minded, similarly trained professionals like ourselves? Is our knowledge base and are our practices corrupted and diluted because of our work in interdisciplinary settings? I don’t think so. In contrast I believe that we are strengthened by our ability to work across boundaries as anthropologists continue to fight for relevance in contemporary work place settings. We can only make ourselves relevant by, well being relevant. And this is the challenge that I rise to meet when I go to work every day, carrying the identity of the ‘anthropologist’ through all that I do.

And as I’m always blathering on about anthropology I like to think that I’m also educating people who may still think that my satchel secretly holds a pith helmet, notebook and safari suit. But please see my last post for an update on what to wear to work as an anthropologist.


The jacket

I’m trying a new strategy at work to raise my oomph and improve my legit appeal. I’m no slouch when it comes to sparring about ideas, concepts and ways of working – in fact I count myself among the innovators and strategists at work. However, my latest theory is that if you’re partnered up at work with a manager who is always – and I mean always wearing suits, including a tie and jacket that never comes off – then as a woman you’re at a disadvantage when you’re not similarly attired. This is probably true for more casually attired men as well, although because of the gendered inflection at work I don’t think so. Not wearing a suit – and I speak here more of the jacket which holds the greatest symbolic value – creates an inequality, a space that is instantly calculated in black and white terms through our cultural understanding of what it means to be influential, respected and in command at work. And if you’re not wearing a jacket, if you’re not suited up you run the risk of being calculated out.

I’ve taken to jacketing up, especially at meetings and workshops where I’m on show and so too are my opinions, perspectives, assertions, theories, explanations, innovations, insights and recommendations. I’m packaging these all up and wrapping them to be presented by what I imagine my audience seeks, or at least seeks to be reassured of: a confident, authoritative, thought leader who will inspire and transform the meeting or workshop in a way that won’t happen (can’t happen) in my very conservative industry if I was in a T shirt and jeans.

I’m finding that jacketing up lends me the kind of authority – and yes, I’ll say it: power – that paradoxically I have challenged in men, as they embodied a workplace subjectivity of which I was not a part, but am finding that I need to borrow and appropriate through this code of dress in order to exert that same legitimacy and authority. After all, I’m not the one judging and evaluating my performance: others are. We all exist within cultural worlds, and I too have to respond to the cues, norms and expectations of workplace cultures as well. And, as I’ve said before, don’t let anyone fool you by saying, “Oh this is informal, don’t worry too much about your speech/PowerPoint/presentation/evaluation” because you’re always being evaluated in the workplace and this is true of how you present yourself in your manner, attitudes and presentation as well as through the products and efforts of your work. It’s not left to the time of year alone when you drag out the PDR form at your workstation to complete for your manager …

We like to imagine that we live and work in enlightened times, but this is simply not true. Articles and blogs appear on social media and in the press with monotonous regularity with the central theme of how the hell are women supposed to manage in the workplace: the glass ceiling, problems for women within business cultures, managing work/life balance, the impossibility of a career structure and managing fertility, then advice aimed at mums on school lunches, childcare and parenting. This is not part of our overt work cultures, their policies, corporate logos or identities but certainly exist in the everyday practices that are inscribed within our everyday work worlds. Just check out who wipes down sinks at work, cleans fridges and organises catering…

Not all these problems will be resolved by simply donning a jacket and I’m certainly not arguing for that. I’m just painting a picture here….

I’m starting to pay attention to the advice on covering your shoulders, suiting up, opting for plain and not patterned office wear and basically wearing the business uniform. Shirts, (mostly) sensible shoes and even pantihose. I can’t come at flesh coloured hose because that’s just too much of a lie: at least black or smoke coloured hose make a statement. But I’m not sure what I’m trying to do here, and will admit that the motivations that may still be inspiring me may not emanate from ‘How To’ women in business handbooks, or the latest thinking on creative leadership, but may exist in the realms of my unconscious, in which case I don’t really know what’s motivating me and may be using this blog piece to explore these themes. Am I trying to make myself invisible? Am I defeminising myself? Have I failed to remake the workplace in a way that I could own by stamping it with my own style? Am I trying to turn into my male counterparts?

This got me thinking: what are uniforms all about? Clearly they are about conformity. But they’re also about letting the work shine through irrespective of the package that produced it. So the thinking goes. This is the line we push at schools here in Australia when we’re arguing with children about hemlines and not subverting the principle of uniformity when they’re trying to wear Doc Martens instead of approved footwear. “It balances out differences!” we argue. “Everyone’s equal!” we rail. “No one’s at a disadvantage!” we spruik.

Uniformity has its advantages: it’s cheaper than buying a huge wardrobe. It’s easier to mix and match. You tend to buy some things that are better quality and hence less affordable, but probably last longer that your usual top and bottom ensembles. Unless you work in the fashion industry or somewhere in the arts (I wish), or outdoors, if you want to be taken seriously you have to dress the part. I should qualify that by asserting that you have to dress the part whatever that means in your industry. Uniformity promotes a teamwork approach and a sense of belonging (I’m told). We’re all wearing the ‘company logo’ or the ‘badge’ by suiting up. At least you signify that you belong in the business world with a suit anyway.

Uniforms mean that you belong in a place because you don’t stand out like a peacock. You also fade into obscurity a bit, which can have its advantages in providing a bit of a level playing field in the gendered sphere of the workplace. You’re heading towards being asexual. Let’s face it, you’re less likely to be taken seriously in that cute floral number with the red and green pattern teemed with a matching cardigan and high heeled black Bo peep shoes… Having said that, I have worked with CEO’s on projects who were indeed dressed like that. As the CEO, there is the opportunity to be the peacock and let’s see anyone tell her otherwise…

Conversely, uniforms do not necessarily mean uniformity. There are issues of gender, class and ethnicity that inflect business wear, its meanings, intentions and embodiment. Not all suits are the same and if you’ve got money you can wear them well. Probably lots of them. I don’t own many suits, but do have a variety of well-fitting jackets and trouser-style pants to match. As I’m not at the high-spending end I have less to invest but the most to lose if I get it wrong. And considering everything I wear to work (almost everything) is second-hand, from Op Shops, Charity Stores, Bargain Basement Sales and NGOs, I certainly face some challenges in getting it together for work. This is a choice that I have made BTW.

Uniformity also dulls individuality, but like many things, if you have enough money to throw at it, I’m sure your individuality will shine through. Me? I make do with a scarf in Winter, but Summer is challenging as the desire to turn up in less, for example thongs (the flip flop kind, not the G String), a short skirt and a singlet top is really strong most mornings. I have come to accept that much like the mask and the role studied extensively in undergraduate anthropology, the insights about the loss of the subject while putting on masks or fulfilling roles still pertain as we as adults morph into the workforce and attempt to fit in, making use of and attempting to fit into whatever the jacket signifies within your particular industry.

Uniforms are also like wearing armour. I can invoke a whole range of metaphors that invoke the compliance required and symbolised by uniforms and uniformity in military settings, and can admit that this too forms part of the reluctance – and paradoxically the desire – to wear the jacket and join my one force with the many to produce something greater, and be part of the victorious, not losing team at work. Amour is made of precious materials, much too like the fine fibres of a well-fitting, tailor-made suit, increasing the magnetism and appeal of that signified by joining the forces and symbolically shedding my individuality to comply with the command structures and personnel in my workgroup, my battalion.

Like all rules, uniformity in attire is merely an external mirroring of the uniformity required elsewhere both in our schools and in the workforce. It is this symbolic statement that I make by donning the jacket at work as I wordlessly tell my colleagues, my managers and directors and clients that I too am knowledgeable of, can understand and interpret and clearly follow the rules. Bodily adornment is a way in which social codes are embodied and enacted. Think pearl earrings and a matching necklace. Bodily adornment too is also a way of challenging authority, but inscriptions on the body must usually be hidden, because once seen, like the knowledge attained through the biting of the apple in the Garden of Eden, cannot be unseen or unknown ever again, marking the individual for symbolic banishment for, like Eve and Adam, their loss of purity in breaking the rules.

In suiting up, I am implicitly making a statement that while I may come from a different background, may have different methods and approaches, use different theoretical perspectives and offer ‘out of the box’ thinking, I can acknowledge my place in the hierarchy, in the workforce, in the culture of both my own workplace and the industry in which I work at large through my allegiance, through my donning of the jacket and all the associations that form a line through history that have informed and modulated modern business sensibilities in the culmination of my putting it on in the morning.  And I wear it well. Sometimes with accessories…

One day I will dump the jacket.  That day will come when I find myself in a workplace culture where the work is paramount, not so much the appearance of the person.  The kind of work culture that I inhabit now can force your compliance in many unspoken ways, of which subtly policing dress codes is one.  However this doesn’t account for everyone, for other people’s responses to me.  While appearances are still so important at work I will continue to show my proficiency in self-presentation through my allegiance to the code.

Until the day it doesn’t suit me anymore…


Speaking truth to patriarchal power in the workplace.

When is a staff meeting not a staff meeting? When it turns into a platform for management to simply present their news, their ideas, policies, ‘successes’ and works in progress to a passive audience.

When staff are too scared, or too intimidated by extremely poorly managed restructures and amalgamations and dare not open their mouths in public forums, that’s when you know it’s not a real staff meeting.

When staff are no longer able to question, to query, to contradict or to simply state that they’re overworked and that management should not impose impossible work demands, that’s when you know it’s not a staff meeting anymore.

When the staff who are left are those who desperately rely on a regular pay cheque because they have children, mortgages and rent to pay and may be the only breadwinner in the household and are frightened that they may be marginalised or reprimanded for speaking their views, that’s when you know it’s not a staff meeting.

Just because all the chairs are placed in a circle implying that we’re all on equal ground, this doesn’t make it a staff meeting.

Just because there’s no formal paperwork in the form of a written agenda, giving the impression of informality doesn’t mean that there isn’t an implicit agenda at work. And it’s still not a staff meeting.

Just because there’s a morning tea afterwards with rostered staff having to provide food and drink, in a poor imitation of breaking bread together, it’s still not a staff meeting.

When the only people presenting any items for discussion are the managers, and when asked, “Does anyone want to add anything?” or “Does anyone have anything they want to say?” and you can cut the air with a knife as absolutely no one responds, no one even makes eye contact, you know it’s not a staff meeting. Staff are then reprimanded for not participating in ‘voluntary’ surveys of workplace policies and practices. How can we understand the workplace lament the managers, if we don’t know what people think? This should be evident to managers from the non-response rate, but there’s just no telling people, now is there?

And when a brave solo voice in the wilderness, aka an unhappy female staff member seeks support in her work following two years of workplace struggle shared by everyone is told essentially to “suck it up”, you known that’s not a staff meeting. And my own voice, cut off as I sanitise this post for fear of reprisals is another casualty of poor workplace communications and management. And this is still not a staff meeting.

I’m not going next time, I’m just going to read the email.

These forums should be renamed, “Meet the workers” or “News from the CEO’s desk” or “How to break morale by undermining mid-level professional women at work” or “Policy: the CEOs mandate” It would have been far more instructive to watch reruns of the IT Crowd. At least their management style was amusing.

‘Culture at work’ is the new buzz phrase with human resources and management consultants wanting to own this terrain. They want to define it, to own it, to show you how to modify and change it. They think that they know about this stuff, but we’ve had consultants come and go and we still have a workplace culture, but perhaps not the intended culture imagined by the consultants and management. And it’s clear to see that the culture of this workplace is toxic, where management govern through fear. No one wants to contribute, no one wants to offer an opinion, and anyone who does offer up a view or contradicts the dominant discourse is made an example of.

There is a management culture here that sets itself up as transformational, as being part of progress, of positive change. They hope to usher in a revolution in business practice, in management and in the business of the company itself. But they have failed to ignite the workplace. Most of them have no idea about the business of the company. Few of them have worked at the coalface and are therefore seen as illegitimate in running the company. This is most clearly evident at the staff meetings, where staff are left to wonder if management really know anything at all except how to balance budgets and construct flow charts.

Whatever these meetings purport to be, they are NOT staff meetings. Yes, they are a group of staff who meet, but that’s where the similarity ends. Any implication of staff contributing, except as an afterthought, only in response, only to question, or ask and never as setting the agenda indicates that the process has been set up as one-way communication. Any real suffering can you please leave that at the door as you come in?

And when you sit back and observe what’s going on, you begin to see patterns. It’s the same men who have a go at the women who bravely put up their hands to comment, or to propose an alternate view. And it’s the same men that scurry into these women’s’ offices afterwards to apologise, of course privately apologise after publicly humiliating them. And they always hang their heads in shame and apologise for this behaviour. But then they do it again. They darken women’s doors after meetings just to check the emotional temperature and see if they’ve committed a professional offence again. And it’s the same management structures that support these men because these men provide legitimacy for the work of management, these men provide the police work in hunting out the outspoken women who dare to voice an opinion, who dare to challenge the prevailing views of management, arresting them through public confrontation.

Have I made a contribution through this post to feminist understandings and experiences of the workplace? Is this too a part of what’s known as the glass ceiling? Maybe the glass podium? The glass lectern? The glass microphone? Perhaps not, but it still harks to the construction of women as fragile, as illegitimate in voicing their views and that’s even outspoken women who sometimes draw out the worst in men who oppose and are threatened by them.

And last of all, this example of meetings serves to remind us that it’s a rallying call for all women to speak truth to the power of those men who seek to shatter women’s voices in the workplace.

Photo credit:

How can you lead at work when your power has been taken away?

There is an inbuilt problem with all forms of leadership training. It doesn’t matter which school, which philosophy, which era you’re dealing with, if you’re working with women and if 1 in 4 of those women have a history of sexual abuse (which, according to national statistics they do), then there is a problem with your theoretical approach if it doesn’t take into consideration the powerlessness associated with sexual trauma, women’s attempts to grow through this and the effects that this has on work performance, including the ability to take up the mantle of leadership at work.

Leadership training encompasses a variety of approaches, and often starts early with girls and boys encouraged to adopt representative and leadership roles at school through a number of avenues, including student representative councils, captaincy and heads of sporting teams and the school. The education environment mirrors the later workforce through the promotion and early adoption of leadership philosophies by sending children to mega events at stadiums to hear about leadership from iconic practitioners and embodiments of excellence in leadership from earlier generations. Youth leadership is also fostered through a number of civic, religious, sporting and state organisations with a similar bent on encouraging separation from the pack and building future leaders.

Within the workforce leadership training is endemic. Workplace trainers, specialised consultants, universities and the public sector all offer forms of leadership training and encourage staff to undertake sometimes protracted courses which can last over a period of months as workers fresh from earnest training sessions are missioned to return to their workplaces to put in place some of their freshly honed leadership skills newly learned in order to reflect on the outcome of this in future leadership training sessions.

But who is all this aimed at? To the middle managers? To the upcoming trainees? To those with the sparkle of promise? Are they men? Or women? What happens if you don’t cut it in this regard at work, will you be overlooked and not have your name put down on the list for leadership training? And who determines whether you’re leadership material or not? And lastly, what about the self-promoters that just put themselves down for training sessions to craft and fine tune their leadership potential, because well, they’re always putting their names down for things…

Part of the trouble with this paradigm is the question of whether leaders are born or made. Clearly the industry promoting education, courses and training works from the premise that leaders are made and not born. And therein lies the problem: lots of women are unaccustomed to leadership roles, often not through choice but through circumstances, adverse life experiences and plain old sexism. And that’s before we get to the problem of histories of sexual assault. If you’ve suffered from sexual assault your power is taken away from you. You lose the ability to trust those around you and it’s very hard to put into place and embody the very values that leadership often requires.

Not everyone can wear their heart on their sleeves easily in this way, by professing their status, to mark themselves as imperfect, yet management and leadership manuals will tell you that in an effort to be an authentic and respected leader, you need to do just this. I’m not referring here to histories of abuse, but these too can be included here and are by some women.  You must offer up an imperfection because human nature is such that people will just make stuff up about you and so the theory goes, you might as well give them something because it’s better (and more manageable) than anything that they can make up.

So these days as workers we wear our soiled identities at work with pride. This is the school of authenticity, and authenticity in leadership is highly prized. This is an endearing state in which leaders are modelled on the greatest leaders known to humanity: flaws make leaders human.  There is an honesty, a humility, a frailty and an earnestness about being flawed, being real. And it’s very attractive.  Authenticity is the hipster beard of leadership training.

Authenticity is but one of a number of theories about leadership: we have models of excellence in leadership from the military, from those who think you can have it all by instigating effective habits, we not only have leaders, we have great leaders, quiet leaders, leaders on the line, leaders modelled on leaders from last century (and the one before), tribal leaders, technical leaders, high altitude and inspirational leaders, grateful leaders, servant leaders, wise leaders, principled leaders, values-driven leaders, spiritual leaders and transformational leaders. Where I wonder, is the tome on had-the-life-sucked-out-me-when-I-was-young-leaders? I did spy a volume on bad leaders and wonder if this is a joke (because hey, they’re really good leaders) or whether they’re just bad, in which case, why write a book about them?

For women who are quiet, who lack self-confidence, why are shy, who may be either introverted or extroverted in their social interactions it’s hard enough to play the confidence game in work cultures. But if on top of this women are suffering from the long term and lingering effects of sexual assault in childhood, with a legacy of having suffered the abuses of power, abuses of trust, exploitation by those who profess to care for them, boundary violations, and succumbed to the threats involved in maintaining secrets on fear of death and a misplaced, yet protective loyalty towards the very perpetrators of abuse, well, it’s not a level playing field is it? And we’re talking about one in four women here.  The echoes of this are mirrored in the present.

The trouble with child sexual assault is that the dynamics never really go away. They continue to be felt in far reaching and unanticipated ways as women negotiate their way through their everyday lives, and this includes work. A new manager starts work and asks you for something and you respond in a familiar pattern of subservience and wonder why? Someone startles you at work and you recoil as if you’re about to be hit. Disclosures on the news about the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse cause an abreaction, unusual behaviour and cause you to want to flee. You always seem to take on a lower role than you know you’re capable of, because you’re not able or willing to subject yourself to the stresses involved in taking on more.

Glass ceilings speak to the overt sexism that denies women opportunities to progress but there are far more subtle ceilings that need to be broken through in order for women to really flourish at work. And leadership roles, leadership training and all the insights, benefits and rewards that accompany this are part of this.

The seductiveness of leadership training and its potential rewards in leadership may not be available to all. However there may be a group of women at work who could benefit from all that leadership training has to offer, and in turn would benefit the workplaces to which women are attached. If leadership is part of the road to self-actualisation, then the lessons inherent within leadership training are desirable, even essential for women in the workplace with private histories of sexual assault that prevent them from becoming fully empowered both in their work and in themselves.

Just imagine it.