Posted by / Category London, Stereotypes /

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.


Look: I’m baking! I am such a good girl, right?

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’.

  • Ronald

    I so want to say hard-boiled but more seriously there are several points to make. I apologise but some of these are questions which might be best answered as part of another blog post.
    How did other women respond to the “bossy” woman?

    Darling is not in my spoken vocabulary, and if it were I wouldn’t dare use it with you by the way! Also the use of love, duck (still used by some male bus drivers in Yorkshire to men and women alike) is no big deal in the scheme of things either!

    Many (if not all) of these frustrations will be borne by others not just women and non-Brits, but different races etc no matter how good the accent or ability. The BBC’s issue with gender pay reminds everyone of this too!
    A lot of men cannot handle being bossed by successful women especially if they think they should be doing her senior job. However this may be generational and socio-economic too. In your Métro example, I suspect you were also dealing with men with classic male working class traits (ie woman’s place in home etc) and I suspect an element of being a foreman is involved.
    Regarding popularity of male managers vs female, part of that is they employ someone to do the nasty bits of work )sacking workers) so maintain their popularity and have the confidence of their mates.
    Also I have no interest in colleagues out of work activities unlike most Brits management level people in my experience nor do I want them as friends – it is work!
    Finally, the indirect nature of suggestions is irritating but so British!
    You are, in short, 30 years ahead of your time!

    • Thank you. I am really glad that you enjoyed the post. To cut a long story short, I was the first female project manager, and also the youngest one (ah, memories!). Female colleagues were all very proud and supportive. Male colleagues, well, sometimes not so much. I had no problem with the shop floor -they welcomed me with open arms, in fact. It was more the middle-management -they were always commenting on what I was doing, and it was annoying to be scrutinised like this.
      But hey, here I am, still going strong. Onwards and upwards, as they say, right?

      • Ronald

        true!

  • James Casserly

    Wow. This is an eye opener for me Muriel. I knew that women are still dealing with double standards and pure ignorance from many men, especially in business, but I didn’t realise how insidious it is to the point your privacy is being invaded and you are being told to “tone down”. Well here is my response, either they accept you as you are or let them f**k right off. It’s begrudgery and nastiness along with misogyny. Who do these people think they are? And in a business situation, is it not your job to think about money? As you say, if you were a man, they’d be offering you cigars and clapping you on the back for taking risks and making decisions that meant making money. Sounds like you are dealing with a lot of utterly despicable people. And the insinuations and sheer chauvinism and sexism and objectification of you, based purely on your gender and your nationality. I wonder how much of this is also the post Brexit racism and anti European sentiment being openly voiced against you? I really am sorry that you are putting up with so much crap from people. May I say, I wish I had colleagues with half your intelligence, grit, determination and work ethic. Please don’t ever let anyone stop you from being yourself and expressing yourself.

    • Ronald

      no it has been like that since equality kicked in. I was not surprised to hear that in the 60s the British Unions opposed female employment in male areas and of course low unemployment meant low male employment back then! You only have to watch tv shows and films from the 60s to 90s and think not much has changed with regards attitudes to “careerist” women

      • I don’t think that I am career-driven. I am just me. I am doing what I can to juggle family and work. But you are right, not much has changed in terms of attitudes towards women who are ‘different’.

        • Ronald

          “careerist” meaning working and expecting or deserving to progress in a career.
          To be unfair a man “juggling family and work” is a poster boy while women doing all this are ignored or demeaned in general.

    • Thank you James. Don’t get me wrong, I think that we have come a long, long way. I was reading the newspapers this morning and saw that only now have women in Saudi Arabia the right to drive: see, it could be much worse.
      Obviously it doesn’t excuse what is going on over here, but it puts things into perspective.
      The thing is, people seem to believe it is completely normal to behave like this with me. I am fair game. Really? I really don’t understand. We still have a long way to go.

  • Alistair P D Bain

    Good on you for remaining resolute and independent! Fuming with you!!

    • Thank you! I am glad that you understand. The funny thing is the way is that, on the face of it, we are all equal and all that. The reality is a lot different. But we’ll get there.

  • ps green

    I’m 80 and can say: in my first job, with (now defunct) firm ICI I was paid substantially less than the young man sitting next to me doing the same work. Now, I’d be paid the same, thanks in part to the EU. Another good change: men push prams, hang out laundry, take their children to the GP/dentist, and more. So there has been improvement and there are grounds for hope..
    So far, so good. BUT there are also all the negative aspects of masculinist British culture that you mention.
    Might it be because, as yet, no male role(s) have replaced the traditional ones of provider and hero/leader as endlessly promulgated by single sex public schools,
    the origin of occupants of most positions of power? Not to mention the Old Boy Network, anglophone media etc.
    What can be done? How can men find their inner niceness and feel at ease with women? It is sometimes said that this characterises French society. I know from experience that older women are mostly treated as normal human beings in France, unlike in GB.
    ‘If only Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo’ as I say to harumphy old men!
    Finally, please keep on with your blog. Rise triumphantly above pettiness and continue to interest and enthrall your readers, including me, Sarah.

    • Thank you Sarah. I am glad that you understand where I am coming from. French men can be sexist too, but it is done, in my view, in a less insidious way. I will rise above pettiness as you say. But right now I feel tired. Very tired.

  • The Skiathian

    Good for you Muriel. Tell them the way it is, the best bosses I have ever worked for in the UK have been women …

    • I don’t think that being a good boss has anything to do with gender, but I am glad that you had a good experience with female bosses!