To stop or strive

Is there a pecking order with women in the workplace? I wonder sometimes.

I was sitting at my desk before when someone approached the team administrator sitting nearby. This someone was a senior HR person, an intelligent, ambitious go-getter in a nicely tailored suit. They had the social preamble, the HR woman asking the admin how her weekend was, before getting down to the real business of the moment – which was basically to ask the administrator to type her notes for her. As always the administrator cheerfully agreed, but I had to wonder if she was affronted by such requests? And if the affront cut any deeper when the request came from a younger, more senior woman?

The question may sound sexist, but in fact, I’m curious as to whether that relationship is any different from women as it is to men. I’m sure it is: but how?

Let’s face it there’s a hierarchy at work which you basically take for granted whether you’re male or female. If someone more senior asks you to do something then generally you will do it. It’s only a gut feeling – and it is possibly a sexist gut feeling – but I tend to think that many women find it easier with those instructions coming from a man rather than from their own sex. Certainly, the opposite is true.

It’s a complicated issue for me. I don’t much like being told anything, but that’s just my default setting regardless. If I’m going to be told then it’s no different if it’s by a woman or a man – but then I suspect I’m more liberal than most in that regard. Most of the time it’s not really a big deal. I pretty well work autonomously wherever I go and have done for years. I’m arrogant enough to take what instructions I do get with a grain of salt, and high enough on the ladder that the instructions are only ever going to come from the head honcho.

How did I feel though when I was low on the pole? Looking back I feel like I was a different man then. I was aggressively striving to be and do more all the time. I knew I was better than my job and as a result, was often impatient. I’m sure was pretty annoying at times, but I also did good work that no-one could deny. I worked hard and smart and I think it was probably obvious to everyone but me that I was going to get somewhere. For me, they were obstacles I had to get by, the necessary evil I had to put up with. Never once did I ever feel belittled in my role, because I never identified with it. I was not this thing or that thing, I was always me, H, beyond and above the confines of a narrowly defined role.

Someone over the weekend mentioned how I had always been driven, and in the way of these things I thought, was I? More particularly I was surprised that anyone else should see me that way. I look back at some of my colleagues from those early days and while there are a few who have gone on to bigger and better things, some are still in the same roles. That’s almost incomprehensible to me.

I’m always amazed to hear when so-and-so is still doing the same job at the same desk while I’ve had eight jobs and travelled around the world twice since then, not to mention having tripled my salary. It seems a surreal reflection of reality, but the truth of it is that many people are content where they are. There’s a certain security in doing the same thing day after day, in taking the same instruction and fitting into the system in a clearly defined place.  It’s easier letting someone else make the decisions.

Is that the world, those who stay and those who strive? Is it as simple as that? And in accepting one or the other of those ways of being does that then define your expectations?

You see things through your own eyes. I sit and observe and wonder if the administrator chafes against being told what to do when in all likelihood she has long accepted her role – and so doesn’t think twice. It is where she sits in the system after all. And I wonder because I have refused to take a permanent seat in the system, have shrugged the system aside in effect in aspiring to be more. It is natural for me to project my attitude onto her situation, but it doesn’t belong there.

In answer to my question then – and I hypothesise only – the situation is dynamic. It varies from personality to personality and from one context to another. Generally, though, people are either on their way somewhere or happy where they are – and that’s the end of the argument.

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