Having been in single-sex education through most of my formative years, and having previously worked in female-dominated environments at summer jobs and temporary contracts, facing specific challenges in a work environment because of my gender had never really occurred to me when I started my first ‘proper job’ at Steps.
I’m so pleased that it’s still not something I really have to consider. Never in my almost-8 years with the business have I felt that any challenges have been because I’m a woman. I’ve found it an inclusive and supportive environment- with my viewpoint or comments being valued, listened to, and sometimes actively sought to add a different perspective.
My experiences have, however, largely been gained in this one business – and in a specific area of the business at that. So, as we approached International Women’s Day 2022, I wanted to hear from my female-identifying colleagues, the fellow Women of Steps, about their experiences – both within this business and in their previous working lives. They shared so many fascinating, insightful and (in-some cases) gasp-worthy stories that I could easily have turned this blog into a 10,000 word dissertation – but, instead, here are a few highlights:
When I first went on maternity leave, Steps hadn’t experienced anyone else in my role as Client Relationship Director going on maternity leave before. My colleagues were very supportive of this and we worked together in the months prior to my leave to plan how to handover my client relationships and ensure that they continued to be cared for and nurtured in my absence. I found it harder when I came back – my male peers had never taken a year out from the business, and so didn’t have my same lived experience. They did, however, continue to be supportive, listen and help me be successful in my role in a part time capacity. I hope I can help future female colleagues by sharing lessons learnt and being a positive example of how it can be managed successfully.
When I was working as a temp I often had a very different experience to the one I have now at Steps, In one job, as the woman I was expected to be on the boss’s arm for meetings (ugh!!!!) and it was seen as an honour to be in his favour. One company I worked at was like a scenario we’d write for clients now – one day when the office ran out of milk, one male colleague came to me with the empty carton to tell me and I replied, ‘well you know where Sainsburys is and here’s the petty cash’. He was so shocked. My male colleagues used to try to make me feel uncomfortable by talking in highly sexualised terms – it didn’t work on me but it was a nasty power game that they only did to women. It’s almost needless to say that none of these things have ever happened to me at Steps! Any experiences that I have had specific to my gender since joining Steps have been positive and have been because as a woman I could bring that added perspective or particular insight.
As a pregnant woman, I know that some work environments may not always view this positively. Concerns of stigmatising and discrimination can easily creep into your mind because of this. The working culture at Steps, however, has made me feel fully supported both professionally and personally throughout my pregnancy and I have never felt more empowered and inspired to develop within my role.
I have had lots of experiences in the workplace that are specific to gender – being told by a man “why are you at work you should be at home,” and being picked up and thrown over the shoulder of a male participant before the start of an event, stick in my mind. On the other hand, I believe that being a woman has benefited me positively many times in my career, working in Learning and Development I have been surrounded by impressive and generous females who have invested time and energy in me. At Steps I am lucky enough to work with a great team of people. My experience is that we live our guiding principles about genuinely wanting diversity of thought and actively seeking the wisdom that everyone brings to the room.
I often lead identity-wise with my role as a parent because that role touches every part of my life in some way, and it is a part of me that needs accommodating when it comes to my career. In the past, I have done most of the accommodating – and this has sometimes looked like a patchwork of gigs pieced together when I wasn’t taking care of a small human. Today, the truth is, I am still balancing my role as a mom with my work at Steps, but the difference is who is doing the accommodating. My experience at Steps has been the understanding that life and family are valued, and if I needed to bend my day to make school pickups happen, that’s OK. Equally as important, if I need to blast Sesame Street in the background while I take a call with a colleague because sometimes Elmo needs to help me parent while I get some work done, that’s OK too. The gift Steps has given me is that I can have the flexibility and trust to work full time within the time that I’ve got.
When I look back on my theatre career, it does occur to me that I’ve had to spend a lot of time justifying my decisions or asserting my authority because I was perceived as too soft or gentle or friendly. And more often than not, I was having those conversations with men. At Steps, I haven’t had to consider that! I’ve never at any point felt that my contributions weren’t being seriously considered and valued – even if I wasn’t 100% confident at the time. There’s no pressure to appear more certain than I am or put on any kind of show. I can think out loud or work through ideas or ask questions in a meeting without feeling like it diminishes my status.
My experience as a woman at Steps has been wonderful. I’ve never had my gender influence or affect any of my conversations/ opportunities or experiences, which speaks volumes about how talent focussed I believe the organization is. This is particularly evident with our agreed start time of 10:30am (or later) when we used to go into the office. This provided our majority-female staff with a lot of flexibility to dedicate time to our morning domestic routines before getting to work, which worked brilliantly for all of us.
I spent much of my early career as the only woman in a very male dominated environment. I was often patronized, flirted with or generally dismissed. It taught me to be tough, not give an inch and work three times as hard to prove I was as good. Over time I came to realize that I did not need to prove myself more than the men, I needed to do my job. The particular moments of being patted on the head, asked if I would sleep with someone, being told to make the tea, or to take the notes now make me smile. Steps is very inclusive of all and my experience has been positive. I do see some of my female colleagues apologizing for themselves and their point of view and I think that tends to be a female trait. I try to support them not to do so and have confidence in their voice.
Steps has always felt very equitable in my experience, but that said I do consider it a responsibility to be a woman on the Board and to ensure that I lead with the same spirit of equity and inclusion that I’ve felt while I’ve worked here. There’s one direct experience that really stands out for me. I didn’t have a conventional journey to becoming a mother. Together with my partner, I experienced fertility treatment, miscarriage and baby loss before I fell pregnant naturally – over a period of 5-6 years. Steps were genuinely ‘in my corner’ throughout that journey – I felt supported and truly able to bring my ‘whole’ self to work. That experience shaped me as a woman, a mother, an employee and now as a leader, and I will always remember the shared joy when my daughter first visited the Steps office and met my colleagues. It was like bringing her into an extended family, and for that I’ll always be grateful.
What struck me from speaking to my colleagues is that those who shared stories from previous work lives often described experiences with the caveat that they could never see this happening at Steps, while those who shared experiences from within the business focussed instead on the positive experience of being trusted and feeling their ideas are sought after, listened to and valued. For both groups, it showed to me a shared view of what I myself have experienced – that being a woman at Steps is an overwhelmingly positive experience. From stories of pregnancy and parenthood to career development and female leadership, it is clear that we are practicing what we preach in terms of flexibility and inclusion – helping to shape the female experience at Steps into something we can all be proud of. In the words of one of my newest colleagues Tivarni ‘we love seeing that there are successful women working across the whole company, and that one of our founders is a woman. Doing it for the girls!!’,