There is a darker side to London than meets the eye. What am I talking about? Well, here it is: the pattern of anti-female bias across my adoptive city is, in my view and despite many well-meaning speeches and initiatives, disturbingly insidious and still going strong.
Obviously, there is an unwritten rule forbidding any self-respecting female saying that we live in a sexist world because it makes you at best a difficult women, a feminist, or even worse, a feminazi. Enough is enough. The proportion of female senior executives remains ridiculously low, and the same can be said for management boards and for non-executives. As for excuses, well, I have heard them all before: ‘There is nothing stopping women from getting these jobs. Why do they complain all the time?’ Well, darling, first try juggling a household and childcare with a career involving responsibilities and long hours. Add into the equation, in my case, a husband who travels all the time. Maybe then you’ll understand what I am talking about. That said, you probably won’t, because apparently the right way to deal with these things is to brush them under the carpet. Dear oh dear, what are you on about? The wife/mother/girlfriend in the family is the glue that holds everything together, right? She is there to put up or shut up. Preferably shut up. Calm down, dear.
On top of childcare problems, as a woman it is difficult to be taken seriously in a professional environment. And don’t you dare be good at your job, because the more successful a man becomes, the more likable he becomes; the more professionally successful a woman becomes, the less likable she becomes. I used to be project manager for the driverless train Line 14 in Paris. We opened a brand new Tube line in a capital city. I was always praised for my performance but considered to be bossy and difficult. Male colleagues never had such comments about their attitude; a bossy man was a good leader anyway, it was part of his job to be tough. More recently, I had to make a business decision. My intentions were judged, commented and interpreted. I was made to feel guilty about my choice, was told that I was only interested in money, was branded a liar, and so on and so forth. I can’t help thinking that if I had been a man, nobody would have batted an eyelid: it would simply have been a bold business decision but a good one. A classic case of double standards.
In London, on top of the usual difficulties, I had to deal with the sexist cliches about the French. I remember being told ‘You’ve got lovely legs. Very French. Like piano wires.’ ’Great. And no, I don’t have an open marriage and I don’t smoke. Glad we ironed this out.
Naively, when I started my career I thought that things would get better eventually. What can I say? I was optimistic…Well, they didn’t. Mind you, it didn’t stop me, and I did everything I could to find ways to juggle family life and work. I am actually in a good place: I have my own business, I happen to be a non-exec for a local French bank, and I write a bit. But guess what? I’ve also recently been asked to ‘tone down’ my writing, or else simply to stop writing altogether as it interfered with my work and exposed my family to censure; and, to cut a long story short, I am fuming. As is usually the case here, it wasn’t done directly, because that would be too easy, right? It was suggested during conversations that the reasons why I wrote a blog were unclear. The comments were probably made while sipping tea out of a bone china cup. ‘How about more milk and sugar in your tea, my dear? It softens the taste (which you so clearly need). In my view, whoever took upon himself to make these suggestions to me (well, indirectly of course, which in my view makes it even worse), has stepped out of line, and clearly hasn’t had much experience of independent-minded women. Maybe he missed that particular memo.
In the same vein, I have had the surprise to see that some of my personal travel arrangements were discussed, interpreted and commented in a certain national press. Seriously? Don’t people have anything better to do? Here is a newsflash for you: I am an independent woman, and can travel and live wherever I want. It’s nobody else’s business but mine. Have you heard about privacy? But hey, no hurt feelings and I’ll even give you a scoop for free: I am running in the Navajo nation soon, and I am thinking of buying a tepee and staying there. How about that?
Still, it got me thinking: what more could I do? Should I stop blogging? Sell my business? Bake cakes all day long? Do I also need to be invisible and hide underground? Shall I smile and say nothing? Stop everything? That’s simply not me. (And even if I did choose to become this paragon of domestic virtue and nothing more I’d then probably be told that I am just a WAG and make no actual contribution to life).
This is the 21st century. So why can’t I have a voice? Why can’t I go wherever I want? Maybe it’s me: I am an embarrassment: too harsh, too direct, to independent. Truth be told, I already tone down my opinions most of the time. I have learned not to be as direct as I would like to be. Believe it or not, I am trying hard to conform. But still, apparently it isn’t enough. In France, in the UK or anywhere else.
I have come to understand that networks of old boys tend to stick together, and I’ll always be an outsider anyway. They won’t let me in, I’ll never be part of that club. So, for once, I will not tone down my answer to anybody who tries to impose on me views, judgements and comments that come straight from the 19th century with this pleasingly domestic and rather wonderful French expression:
‘ Va te faire cuire un oeuf’.
It’s polite French for ‘f**k off’.