Women at Work – Never Quite Good Enough
We know the stats. Not enough women in leadership positions. Not enough women able to influence the debate about how we build our societies, run our industries and develop our cultures – and that’s the first world.
Elsewhere baby girls don’t make it out of the womb safely let alone through school, college or university and into the workforce.
Romance fiction might not be an obvious place to showcase this issue; to show heroines who are bright and tenacious, and have sharp enough intellects and elbows to survive and succeed in a male oriented workforce—but there’s no reason it can’t be.
At least that’s the way I think about it.
In my day job I’ve never had a female boss, except for two brief occasions where I was coming and they were going, so it’s men who shaped the work environment I had to navigate. Which meant a jumble of gender stereotyping, skills-typing, and artificial capabilities barriers to jump. Barriers my male, always better paid, even if not better skilled, colleagues did not have in front of them.
And on top of that, none of them got taken for an assistant who should bring the coffee, if they stood in the doorway of another male in his office. None of them faced subtle yet pervasive discrimination because they might decide to start a family. They got invited to golf days. They had the secret handshake that opened relationships and affiliations that greased career poles.
I had to work harder. But that’s okay. Every woman I know did.
And now I get to have my fun. I get to write about this dynamic, pull it apart and put it back together again in more a pleasing form.
I’ve written five and a half novels where I use gender workplace imbalance as a frame for the story.
The first is Getting Real. I wrote a female wild child rock chick. You’re going: “So, never heard of Pink?” And I’m going—that’s exactly the point. The rock sub genre of romance is all about the boys. The heroines are always in subsidiary dependent roles: the home town girlfriend, the journalist, the groupie, the biographer, the photographer.
There’s something crappy about that. Sure the women in these stories undo the men, bring the rock stars to their knees, but they never get to be the stars themselves outside their man’s eyes. And I didn’t think that was good enough. So I got to write it my way around. My heroine is a star and she falls for a roadie, an ordinary boy next door.
The second novel where I play with the theme of gender and work is Desk Jockey Jam. It’s only a little novel but a core element is the drama that plays out in the office.
In Jam, Bree scores a much coveted promotion from Ant. He’s steamed because it’s obvious to him she only got the job because the firm had equal opportunity quotas to fill.
He’d known from the moment they were hired together as trainee analysts a year ago that she was the one with gold star stamped on her forehead. She had the pedigree. She had the smarts. And as the year progressed and eight trainees became seven analysts, then six, and he’d watched her in action, he’d known she was his rival for the promotion.
But she was not a better analyst than he was.
So how the fuck had she managed to cut in on his wave?
He talks to his mates about it:
Ant groaned. “I lost the fucking promotion.”
“Ah, shit. Who got it?” Dan knew how much this hurt. He did the easy eye contact thing with their waitress and a second round of coffees was on its way.
“That bitch Bree Robinson.”
“You mean that deserving colleague you admire and respect so much?” said Fluke.
“I mean that bitch Bree Robinson.”
Mitch laughed. “Sore loser much.”
Ant gave Mitch the evil eye. “Fuck off. That senior analyst role was mine.”
“Hold up,” said Dan. “You said she was good. Knows her stuff.” He pushed back in his chair, settling in. Which wasn’t good. It meant question time. “Why do think they chose Bree?”
“She’s a fucking suck up.”
Dan nearly choked on a toast crust. “And by that you mean?”
“Probably what you’re thinking.” He wanted Dan to start thinking about something else, anything would do. Couldn’t the guy just eat his eggs?
“I’m thinking you’ve always said Petersens was a respected brokerage full of smart people. I’m thinking those smart people chose Bree over you for a good reason. Is that what you thought I was thinking?”
“I was thinking she probably has good tits,” said Mitch.
Ant ignored Mitch and focussed on Dan. “It’s got—”
“No wait, answer Mitch first. Do you think she got promoted because she’s got good tits?”
“No.” The right answer, but not a satisfactory one for Dan.
“She doesn’t wear low cut tops and tiny skirts and flaunt her body?”
“No. She wears tailored suits and puts her hair in a thing,” he gestured at his head to indicate Bree put her hair up there, all sleek and tidy. “It’s a brokerage, Dan. We don’t wear bloody overalls and tool belts either.”
“Right, so what did you mean by saying she’s a suck up?”
“It’s obvious isn’t it?”
“If you want us to think she slept her way to the corner office,” said Fluke.
“So does she have good tits?” asked Mitch.
Ant rubbed his eyes. “There are no corner offices, its open plan, except for old man Petersen and I’ve never looked at her tits.”
“For real?” They all looked at Mitch. He laughed. “You’ve looked at her tits.” He forked a roast tomato in his mouth and swallowed. “You’d be dead if you didn’t.”
“Fuck off, Mitch,” said Ant. “She’s a colleague, not some chick I want to take home from our friendly neighbourhood dive after five minutes of having her tongue down my throat.”
Ant has a lot to learn. And that’s before he discovers Bree is also a roller derby girl.
Here’s Bailey thinking about a job her ex-boss is offering her:
Bailey had spent five years of her life making Blake look good. Sure it’d been her job to support him, but she’d done more than her job; more than support him. She’d enabled him to be a star, and he’d grabbed every opportunity that sidled by, and a few that hadn’t. So now six years later, here he was, not spit exchange distance away, the CEO of his own multimillion dollar advertising company. And here Bailey was, technically unemployed, reputation slightly shop soiled, and all penguined up.
But you know what? Being Blake’s go-to girl again, someone to polish his dull edges, straighten his tie, smile and keep the home fires burning, while he was out conquering worlds wasn’t on her to do list. Even if that list did currently only containing the two words: Find work.
She’d done it once because she’s loved her job, enjoyed the challenges and yes—she’d been a little in love with Blake, which added to the whole sense of adventure at the time. It was Bailey and Blake against the world, finding ways to do impossible things, sometimes for the sake of seeing how far they could push the envelope. But she’d grown up, got over him, got out of the boy’s club that favoured the messy XY chromosome over the neat double X. She’d stretched her own wings and was making her own name in the industry, despite whatever momentary setback the blackout was causing.
Blake clearly didn’t get that. Because here he was fielding his wicked, ‘you can’t deny me anything’ grin, and assuming she’d salivate at the opportunity to be his lackey again.
She wasn’t sure what hurt more; that she’d expected better from him, the insult, or the knowledge he might be right.
Perhaps it was the best she was going to do in this economy. Taking his offer was a smart way to lick her wounds and stay sane and solvent while she waited for the rest of her contracts to come on board later in the year.
But no. It didn’t matter how right he was. She’d find another way to manage, because there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell she could be Blake’s fame agenda administrator ever again.
After White Balance, which is set in the Mad Men world of advertising, came Detained. In Detained my heroine, Darcy is a journalist. On the whole print journalism is one of those professions were merit ranks before sex, but broadcast journalism is another story. You can be bald, unattractive with a beer belly and still be on camera if you’re a man. If you’re a woman you can’t be thin enough, pretty enough, young enough or brunette enough.
Here’s an early scene where Darcy has to fight for an assignment against her boss, with the support of her boss’s boss:
Gerry propped his ‘years of long lunches’ bulk on Mark’s desk, wafts of cigarette smoke easing from the creases in his crinkled blue shirt. “She knows nothing about reporting business at this level.”
Mark kept his frown steady on the Richter scale and his voice level. “Is that right, Gerry?”
“Don’t fuck with me. What’s she got I haven’t, apart from legs to her hairy armpits and good tits?”
“I’m not going to respond to that, Gerry and neither is Darce. It’s beneath you.” Mark’s warning look was the kind you gave a dog about to steal a shoe to chew, right before you thwacked him on the nose with it to make sure he didn’t. Mark knew how much Darcy wanted to knee Gerry where it would hurt more than his 48pt-sized ego.
“This paper used to be about in-depth, intelligent, investigative reporting. She’ll write about his flamin’ hairstyle, and what he has for fucking breakfast.”
“Darcy will write about Parker Corporation, and if what Will Parker has for breakfast is part of his extraordinary success, she’ll write about that too.”
“Fuck. You’d be the worst managing editor I’ve ever worked with.”
“I bet you say that to all the boys.”
Darcy would’ve laughed but Mark hairy-eyeballed her.
A little further into the scene Darcy can’t hold back:
“Jesus, Gerry! I’ve done my apprenticeship.”
The words were bouncing around the room before Darcy realised she’d said them. She looked at Mark. There was a fight going on at the corner of his mouth, one side ticked up with the vague promise of a smile. He wasn’t going to shut her down.
“I’ve been reporting for ten years. I’ve covered business, sure not at your level, Gerry. But I know the drill. I’ve worked crime, education, science and public companies. I’ve done bloody awful death knocks, and bat shit boring budget lockups. I’m damn sure I can interview a CEO and come away with a decent story.”
“A reclusive superstar CEO about whom not a word’s been written that’s not pure speculation or conjecture.”
Gerry had a point. Gerry always did, that’s why he was the country’s leading business commentator and Darcy was rattled by this whole thing. One minute she was writing about particle physics, the next Mark wanted her on a plane to Shanghai to write the definitive piece on Australia’s most enigmatic businessman.
This was the ‘Oh my God’ particle right here.
But if she showed any sign of weakness, any twitch of confidence, Gerry would elbow her sideways so hard she’d be writing the racing guide. And if Mark, for all his apparent consideration and support, smelled a whiff of fear, he’d have no qualms reversing his decision.
“I’ve got this, Gerry,” she said, looking at Mark. Mark who’d sign her expenses and ultimately approve her copy. And bounce her so hard if she fucked up, a job in a suburban paper writing about the need for more school safety zones would start looking good.
Later, Darcy gets a plumb television job, but she’s devastated to learn that her appearance is more important to her network bosses than the journalism skills which got her hired:
“Eat something, Darce. I know I’m not supposed to believe there’s such a thing as too thin for TV, but you look like you could do with a good feed.”
Our hero isn’t comfortable with how she’s changed either:
“I’d rather feed you.” He stood. “Do you like being this skinny?”
“You’d rather avoid me. And it’s virtually in my contract.”
He looked around for his jeans, handed Darcy his old flanny. “I don’t see me getting away with much avoidance. And that’s a crappy job condition.”
“Hey. I had to work hard to get that much attention from you. And I agree with you about the condition. Who’d have guessed being skinny would be a key factor in how well I can read a script?”
Now all she wanted to do was sleep, because tomorrow she was booked for another buck’s night and had to do this all over again. The picking up, putting down and waiting, the intense politeness in the face of drunk, drugged, and plain old boorish behaviour. And the abuse. Let’s not forget the abuse. Which ranged from the benign—‘Oh fuck, we have a woman driver’, to the more humorous, ‘It’s a chick. We’re all going to die.’
Later she tells our hero:
“I can’t fault a good tipper. And to be honest, a woman driver makes most people nervous. Even other women. The tips don’t exactly flow.”
He laughed. “You don’t make me nervous, Driver.”
Oh but she does, for all sorts of reasons unrelated to her profession.
And now I’ve started on my 10th novel and I’m still playing with themes of gender and work. It’s early days yet for this story called Insecure, and who knows where it will end up, (a very deep drawer with a missing key comes to mind) but the framework is a one night stand that goes sideways, between a senior company executive and an lowly IT geek.
She’d waited till he was alone, leant across the desk and said three words in a dirty low whisper. “I live close.” Then she walked away. This was such a bad idea, but the city was burning, so if the girl was on fire he had a duty to try to put her out.
Still he had to say something. He closed down the PC and followed her across the empty ballroom, Nolan’s eyeballs stuck to his back.
She waited, but she wasn’t in a socialising mood. “Look Mason, you either want this or you don’t.” She spoke softly in that you will obey me voice, looked him dead in the eye, daring him to misunderstand.
He was hooked. He’d been snagged by her from the moment she stood at the front of that meeting room, explained the game plan and called him on not paying attention in front of nineteen other people.
Later, Mason struggles with the power dynamic and what it means:
He thought about saying friend was a pseudonym for lay and that he’d made the career limiting move of fucking his boss’s, boss’s, boss’s boss, and there probably weren’t even enough bosses in that thought.
See, what an endlessly giving theme, resonant with conflict, strong emotions and vested interests. It’s our modern day battlefield. How could I not write it?
Of course I’m not the only writer invested in it, and others will do it, differently (The Beautiful Bastard series for example) and better. My fiction isn’t going to change the world, make the work environment any less fraught with complexity, but if each novel entertains one woman and makes her feel even marginally better about her 9-5 existence—my work in this is done.
And wasn’t this post excellent for giving all my covers a run!