This month the Lead Mama Lead book group is reading Taking on the Big Boys by Ellen Bravo. This book is both a reminder that the challenges we face are systemic and pervasive, but also that we have power and agency when we stand up against the system that holds us back.
Taking on the Big Boys is well worth a read when you navigate a workforce that holds you back. Although focused on the US workplace- the discussion of laws and legal wins is not universal- most of the content of the book is relevant to women working in the Western world, particularly in countries like Australia, the UK and others that still have a lot of work do to create better workplaces for women. What I like about this book is a lays out all of the problems that we face in our workplaces, as women and as working mothers, and the things that can be done, and that have been done, to fight back. The book is informed by Ellen’s career working with a leading national not-for-profit that supports working women in the US. She outlines clearly the problems, the diversions we come up against when we fight for change, and the activist strategies that have brought about change in the past.
When I look back over my working life, there have been several ways that I have taken on the big boys. At 17 years old, I challenged a new shift manager (a middle aged man) who had drastically reduced my shifts because I cost more than the younger staff. By then I had worked there more than 3 years and I felt emboldened. I had the strength and sense of self to: firstly, question him on it; secondly, tell him “how dare you cut my shifts because I cost a bit more than the younger staff. It is well known that I am one of the restaurants most productive staff members”. I felt confident to do this because I knew that every other shift manager would back me up (who were mostly women in their 20s). He backed down and my shifts were quickly reinstated to previous levels.
In another hospitality job while at university I worked with a number of teen-aged boys. The owner kept hiring from staff’s friendship group, and it somehow meant that the place was staffed by a majority of teen-aged boys. The culture quickly became toxic as they infected the place with their sexualised humour. For the most part it didn’t bother me. The line was crossed when the jokes started to be directed at me. I complained because I became surprisingly upset by what was going on. The jokes stopped but I later found out that they were very hostile about me when I wasn’t around. Sadly in this case the big boys won, and I left for another job to escape the environment. But at least I took them on.
In my first career job, I successfully negotiated one modest additional pay rise, and then later negotiated a second time but didn’t succeed. Instead I was targeted redundancy just a couple of month later, despite the fact that I was the only young staff member that had any client work, and I was paid only $1000 more than a man who was younger than I was, had less experience, was less qualified, had no international experience, and didn’t speak any foreign languages (these were relevant for the job). Again I took on the big boys and failed. I should have challenged the redundancy. They were clearly in breech of law with me. But the idea of seeking legal advice seemed too much trouble. I was happy for the door to close on that company. I didn’t want to work for them, and I didn’t have the energy to fight. I wanted to put my energy into finding something new. I know that I could have done things differently for me, but I chose the fight when I was employed and I didn’t have it in me to keep fighting them. Instead I put my energy towards finding something better. Things did work out for the better, as I secured a new job that paid significantly more and with the redundancy pay out I was significantly better off overall.
In closing, Ellen Bravo’s book shows us (again) that the system is stacked against us. (Something which I think we all know with our own experience too) But we can use that as a reason to give up and settle for less than we are worth, or we can use it as fuel in our fire. Through our challenges we can find our deepest strengths. Take some of the strategies and knowledge outlines in Ellen Bravo’s excellent book, and use them in your leadership journey. You never know where it might lead you. I know that each of us does not always feel safe to act and take a stand. But sit with it, and explore ways that you can take a stand, even if not directly in your workplace. Join a community organisation, get informed about your rights, seek anonymous advice from a support service, start a Mama Leadership Book Group to spread the message with your friends. There are whole range of ways that you can take on the Big Boys. The most important thing is that you find a way that works for you.
Take this topic further:
- Read Taking on the Big Boys. Or even better, start your own Mama Leadership Book Group and read it with your friends. You need a community of support if you are going to fight!
- Another good read, which deals with more individual actions you can take is Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club
- Finding your voice is part of the process of taking on the big boys. I highly recommend Speaking Out by Tara Moss for tips on how to find your voice, as well as dealing with the challenges when you do