I’m halfway through The Women’s Room by Marilyn French, a great tome of a feminist novel, published back in 1977, which has by no means lost its punch in the present day. I’ll certainly be writing a proper review once I’ve finished it, so suffice to say now that it’s got me thinking a lot about power relations between men and women. My thoughts have been drawn inexorably towards the year I spent working in the printing industry, a monolithic industry that was far from enlightened by the early nineties, when I had the dubious pleasure of working for four different male bosses simultaneously. Now that enough time has passed since I was at their beck and call, I can see them as characters with some entertainment value, but working for them was enough to put me off traditional business hierarchies for life.
So there you have me, back in 1992, freshly out of Cambridge, smart, quick and ready to throw a lot of loyalty and energy into my new working life. I’m sure I had idealistic images of how it would be. I always really liked business, and back then going into academia was not on my list of priorities. I loved organizing things, enjoyed plans and strategies, and thought highly of the art of persuasion. I thought business was going to be exciting.
My first boss was an alcoholic who had recently left South Africa in something of a hurry. There were rumours that he had shot a man, but given that he was very good at a form of subtle self-dramatisation, I am not sure now I believe them. I knew nothing about his past at first, of course. He was a man of medium height in his fifties with a neat beard, terrific bags under his eyes and an air of louche attractiveness. The nicest thing about him was his voice, which was low and appealingly accented, although I later realized that he rarely spoke loudly before mid afternoon, when his hangover had worn off. The working day was a kind of inevitable but tedious prelude for him to six o’clock, when we could all go down the pub. I quickly learned that staying in work until that point won me an invitation for a drink, and the minimal amount of staying power in the pub would win me my evening meal on his expense account. When you are young and impecunious and just out of college, these things are important. Once in a more congenial setting my boss would become entertaining and expansive, telling us tales of his hair-raising exploits in South Africa, his tangles with fast cars, etc. In previous times he would have been called a wide boy, a chancer. When we went to an awards ceremony in London he kept linking my arm through his whenever we met a client and introducing me as his wife. So he was a bit of a womanizer, too; there was indeed a wife, somewhere, but she was shrouded in her own clouds of disapproval, and probably far too real and intransigent a topic for my boss to regale us with. What I cannot recall is doing any work with him. He spent his days cloistered in his office and rarely emerged in daylight.
Someone, somewhere decided I could take on more responsibility at this point and so I acquired another boss, this one in charge of European sales. The idea was to utilize my language skills. This new boss was by no means as much fun to be around. He was a large, blustering sort of man, with that sticky, disintegrating look that school boys have as they trudge home at the end of the day. He was an indeterminate age, with thinning blonde hair that was permanently startled. It may have been simply rebelling against its owner’s misguided desire to place a parting just above his right ear and comb everything up and over the top. It certainly seemed to be urgently pointing in an entirely different direction. My new boss was without subtlety or finesse. He had a loud voice, particularly on the telephone, which caused much mirth among the sales personnel and suggestions that he could connect to Europe simply by opening the window and shouting out of it. I may have liked him a lot more if I hadn’t had to spend so much time in cars with him. He was without doubt the most terrible driver whose passenger seat I have had the misfortune to occupy. I had never, ever, before witnessed an automatic car bucking like a kangaroo. He had pale blue exorbitant eyes that darted here and there constantly, but which never seemed to actually look at the road, a trait I rather suspected extended to his mind. The problem was he had no idea how to relate to a woman who wasn’t a secretary or a wife, but to be fair he was quite sweet on the occasion we entertained important German clients. There were two of them, and the one who got in the back of the car with me, perhaps also mistaking my role there, declared ‘Was für ein hübsches Mädchen!’ with the air of one on holiday in a foreign land with no witnesses, and put his hand on my knee. When we got to the restaurant, my boss took me to one side. ‘Is old Hans there bothering you?’ he asked. ‘I won’t stand for that.’ And he plonked his considerable girth in between me and the lecherous customer for the rest of the visit. I was grateful to him for that consideration, but could have lived without the way he hectored me every time there was something to be done. He only had to ask.
Having two bosses gave someone the bright idea that an ultimate boss, above my two bosses, to whom I would ultimately report would clarify things. And so I gained a third meddler in my day. In principle this boss had more going for him than the others. He had been with the company a long time and was experienced and respected; he seemed to be privy to what was actually going on and more involved with decision making. And he was a conventionally handsome man, with a benign air and no reputation for tantrums, unreasonable demands or distressing out-of-hours habits. I looked forward to working with him, and so naturally it didn’t happen. He turned out to be the kind of boss who is permanently on the brink of leaving the office to do something earth-shatteringly important. We had one meeting that contained for me all the delights of a cocktail party where the host is repeatedly talking over your shoulder, on the lookout for more thrilling guests. After that our second meeting was endlessly postponed. Every time the hour approached, my boss would tear down the corridor towards the general meeting room as if NATO were assembled there waiting to prevent world war three. Or else he would slam down the phone as if having received a tip off that the hounds of hell were on his scent and, grabbing his jacket, and scrabbling into it awkwardly because there was no time for the niceties of dress, he would pause to offer me some urbane and charming words of consolation.
And then I had a fourth boss, who was going to replace the first, who was being ignominiously kicked out (par for the course for his career, it transpired). But I’m losing patience with the retelling now. He was jolly and he wore braces. I recall little else. By that time I was hightailing it out of business and heading back to the enclaves of academia where you could have a decent relationship with the people you worked with. When it came down to it, equality proved to be all for me. I never liked being told what to do, or berated unfairly when my boss had forgotten some vital detail in the telling. I didn’t appreciate being patronized or thrust into the role of female escort. I was uncomfortable and eventually annoyed when I was aware the person before me had no interest in what I wanted to say and was waiting only for me to leave him in peace. When I returned to the university, I fell back into the kind of working procedures that not only made sense to me but brought the work alive. My PhD supervisor was probably the greatest influence I have had on my career. She was (still is) a generous, brilliant, completely engaged woman, who tuned in to what I was trying to achieve and helped me willingly, encouragingly, to do it. We both felt passionate about our work and fully supportive of each other. If I have been a good academic mother to my students or produced any research of worth, it is due in large part to her guidance. I wonder if there is anything more important in team work, than entering into it on an equal footing, which is to say with mutual respect, a clear, shared goal and the willingness to encourage, listen and support? I would certainly offer no less to anyone who wanted or was obliged to work with me.