Being a woman in a man’s world can be a lonely existence.
As an engineer, working on a manufacturing site in the 1980s, for the majority of the time I was the only woman in the whole of the engineering function – apart from the boss’s secretary. Engineers, technicians, tradesmen and labourers were all men, apart from me.
Technically and professionally this wasn’t a problem. I was at least as competent as the next engineer and respected for this.
But socially there definitely were differences. In my year in industry and at university I socialised with my fellow student engineers, among others. But now at work, did I go out ‘with the boys’? Almost never. The social expectations – and implications – were very different.
Moving from engineering into politics, I found another male dominated environment, especially within the ranks of elected politicians.
But there is a difference. Here the gender imbalance doesn’t just mean that the sector misses out on women’s abilities and perspectives. Because politics helps set the rules for society, this imbalance tends to self-perpetuate.
Commentators will quickly point out that politics suffers not only a gender imbalanced, but also many others, including ethnicity, disability and school/university background. The following observation can also apply to some of these.
Politics is often a lonely place. It can also be intense, hard work and emotionally charged. As in many areas, creative ideas often spark out of discussion. Building relationships with kindred spirits is thus valuable to move policies – and careers -forward.
Who are those kindred spirits? People are usually drawn first to superficial similarities. So there is already a tendency for exclusivity. People who have been to single-sex schools, or worked previously in a single-gender dominated area, may have a predisposition to continue to form same gender platonic groups for social, personal and career support.
There is less of a working hours/social hours divide in politics, and political discussions can continue at all times. If groups of four or more meet regularly, whatever the mix of participants, this will probably not be looked on with surprise. But if smaller mixed-gender groups, and certainly if male/female pairs regular meet up for private chats, tongues will start to wag.
Media perception can be cruel – as can opposition gossip. Politics is a hard enough place to be without encouraging bad press. It therefore takes a strong person to break out of this mould and act positively to welcome greater diversity.
Indeed there is a double danger – attempts to be inclusive may themselves be misinterpreted. There is a thin line between being welcoming and being intrusive. In addition, standards and expectations of behaviour change over time and can be different in different places. There is so much potential to be misunderstood!
With all these social niceties to negotiate, is it any wonder that people tread warily, that change is painfully slow… and that there are high-profile accusations of people being over-friendly in the media, whatever the rights or wrongs of any particular case?
* Lucy Care is a member of the Federal Policy Committee, was a councillor in Derby from 1993-2010 and was a General Election Candidate in Derby in 2005 and 2010 She blogs at lucycare.net.