“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” — Professor L. Thatcher Ulrich, 1976
I love this quote — when I hear it, I instantly think of the Suffragettes.
Those incredible women rocked the world, earning their place in history by regularly misbehaving, ferociously breaking through social norms and smashing the status quo.
But this quote has often haunted me, too. I want to make an impact on the world — as a civil servant, I am passionate about solving complex problems, and have always harboured high hopes for the place I would hold in social policy history (first female cabinet secretary?) But I am also highly agreeable and conscientious. That is (for those unfamiliar with the Big Five personality traits — and forgive the oversimplification here), I like to please people, and I like to follow rules.
I was not particularly happy to learn that the arc of time tends to forget women like me.
Plus, I had fairly substantial evidence to the contrary — I had been very successful in my early career as a civil servant, gaining promotions earlier than my peers and frequently put forward as a young, BAME woman of high potential. Plus, it was the civil service. Surely rule-abiding gals like me were perfect for one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world?
Breaking the rules
And boy, are there plenty of rules in government.
Not just the complex (somewhat archaic) protocols of Parliamentary procedure; or the many mandatory steps that must be taken to achieve collective decision making in Government; or even the fiendishly complicated rules for claiming expenses.
There are also hundreds of unwritten rules, the ones you learn by reading between the lines, that ostensibly affect women (though not exclusively).
- “Flexible working actually means being paid to work four days a week but still logging on on your non-working day to clear submissions”. (A rule I have deciphered after several years of watching incredible senior female leaders rise to success only if they ignored their out-of-office and carried their iPhone to their children’s football match);
- “Being chatty and challenging is charming in men; it’s childish and defensive in women”. (A rule I’ve uncovered after speaking to a variety of young female leaders across Whitehall); or
- “Hot desking actually is all about ‘survival of the fittest’ — get in early and you’ll get a better working environment”. (A rule which disproportionately affects people — mostly women — with caring responsibilities like school drop-off).
These rules weren’t explicit — no one said them, but they manifested themselves through the combination of HR policy design, social expectations and a challenging (Brexit?) working environment.
So, like many others, I followed these rules. I logged on when I was supposedly off; I adapted my conversational style to be more measured and accepting; I started coming in earlier to make sure I could bag the best seat.
But I found it exhausting. Emotionally, I was worn out from being someone I wasn’t, and physically, I was drained by this constant expectation of alertness. I was one of those well behaved women, disappearing into the void of collective memory reserved just for us.
“Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” — Rear Admiral Grace Hopper
My foray into disobedience began quietly. I started by desperately seeking personal and professional acquaintances’ approval every time I even tangentially broke the rules. But, over time, I grew in confidence, realising that my world wasn’t shattering every time I misbehaved, and, through trial and error, working out which rules were easier to break than others.
I asked for compressed hours, even though I don’t have a family (I run a social enterprise in my spare time); my chatty, relaxed nature broke through; I made friends with people on the other side of the office as my morning gym routine meant I frequently didn’t sit with my team, friends that ended up being useful professional acquaintances too. And when I’ve got things wrong — which I have done — I’ve apologised and learnt my lesson. But I’ve not followed rules. Instead — I’ve started creating new ones. This small disobedience is vital for creating a workplace that respects the value that women can bring to public service.
And so, whilst I wasn’t tearing down legislation and building a new framework for female democratic empowerment (that probably would have violated the Civil Service Code) I was behaving badly, in my own particular way. My form of disobedience — and the form of disobedience I want more women in government to demonstrate — is the quiet revolution, the counterpart to the historic, fist-clenching disruption that our Suffragette sisters sought.
It’s about dismantling the smaller, incipient, implicit assumptions that bind women and hold them back from reaching their potential in the public sector. It’s about the small steps of individual women that pave the way for giant leaps for womankind.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be a little bit naughty.” — Tim Minchin, in the musical Matilda
I recently went to the theatre, to watch Tim Minchin’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. My two young nephews loved one song in particular — including the lyric mentioned above — so much so that my sister bought them a T-shirt emblazoned with it afterward. Eight- and six-year old boys need no reminding that naughtiness is a desirable characteristic (I suspect my sister will live to regret buying that T-shirt) — but sometimes, twenty-eight year old women (like myself) working in government, do.