I thought hard about writing this blog. I really did. I’ve been warned – a lot – not to stick my head above the parapet. To keep my head down. Not to make any waves. And – honestly – I considered it. Being labelled a difficult woman – a trouble maker – is career threatening. Even more so perhaps when like me and over a million women you are self employed and reputation is what you trade on.
But then I thought about it. That’s the point isn’t it. Words like ‘difficult’, or ironically ‘easy’, are used to shut us down. To make us to nervous to speak. To encourage us to maintain the status quo. To force us to walk that fine line between Madonna and Whore. Between caring mother and career queen. Between good girl and difficult woman. It keeps us in our place – nowhere. Somewhere in between.
And I have two daughters, two sons and I owe them better than to accept this. I am successful, and I am able and have an audience, and I choose to use that privilege well.
So, this is my story of how many men it takes to steal the credit of a difficult woman.
I was going to frame this around the times I have been labelled difficult as a campaigner. Many. And again, with the intent of closing the debate. But, you know, that’s a badge of honour. I fight for some of the most vulnerable children in society. Chosen a career in it. I can live with the insults because I get the change made.
So instead something much harder. The times I have been labelled difficult when fighting for something for me.
20 years ago, I wrote a first aid manual. It was my job. I was the lead for a national organisation and (believe it or not there is such a thing) was both the national first aid champion and an expert in how to make clinical language accessible for a lay audience (there’s a whole separate piece about interpretation of evidence that would put to bed any belief that all medical interventions are based on absolute empirical data……)
I wrote large chunks of the text; rewrote large pieces of what the doctors provided so it could be understood; sat in all the editorial meets and oversaw all the photoshoots. The agreement was that I would be credited as an author alongside the three doctors who had been my equals in the discussions on content and accessibility.
So – imagine my surprise (I was young then and these things still surprised me) when the final prints came through and I was relegated from co-author to first in the ‘grateful thanks’ list. Without discussing with me the three men had got together, decided that I shouldn’t be given author credit and had gone to the publisher to agree this.
Fast forward to present day. I set up and ran a massively influential national change programme. It was my concept. I found the funding, I ran the work and took the flack through all its challenges. It was accepted by the community, the funder and by most people that I was a, if not the, key architect of its success. So – imagine my surprise (I am old now and these things still surprise me) to find that I wasn’t included as a signatory on the impact report and was relegated to first in the ‘grateful thanks’ list. The 4 male signatories had got together and agreed this.
So – just for avoidance of doubt – let’s explore some of the potential reasons.
Did they do more work than me? Nope. Most had done less hours.
Were they better qualified that me? Nope. In the areas of expertise that I brought to table I was the best qualified member of either group.
Did they outrank me? Nope I managed 3 of the 7 and was the equal of 2. And the other 2 only outranked me in a governance context.
Did they not like me? Was I somehow a pariah? Had I done something wrong? I thought about that for a while and my answers are; who cares, who cares and no. But it was interesting that that is where I went. To self-blame. To question my worth. Whether they liked me or not, whatever they thought of me, was irrelevant. I deserved credit for my work.
But their responses – identical 20 years apart – were designed to stop me making the challenge that I should have done.
“It’s not that important or big a deal anyway – stop making a fuss”. Yeah but you jostled amongst yourselves to make sure you all got credited. You know it’s important. You wanted the credit because you know its value.
“Look you got first line in the people we thanked – be grateful”. For what – relegating me to less than you? For making it look like something that wouldn’t have happened without me was something I was a bit part in?
“Don’t be difficult”. And there it was. The threat to my reputation. The put down. The shutdown. The sense that I was asking too much.
Was I difficult? Well as Starlight McKenzie put it when I trailed this blog – I wasn’t a difficult woman; they found my demand for what was rightfully mine difficult. The difficulty belonged to them.
Was it because I was a woman? Well. They were all men. I was a woman. But also, this was part of a wider cultural issue in both organisations.
In the former there were less women in management and a culture of boys together. As soon a woman got pregnant eyes rolled. The organisation has since done a lot to change its culture and practice, being one of the first to introduce generous flexible working and wider equalities policy, but at the time it was a challenging place to have my first management role.
And in the latter the culture of ‘men together’ was oh so subtle but there. From the email exchanges between one contractor and another on how ‘hot’ some female school staff were. During a brief cash flow issue – the decision to pay male contractors first because they had children to support (ignoring the fact that our female contractors did too). Actually, on reflection, not that subtle!
So yes. Whether, it was because I am a woman that they did it, or because I am a woman that they thought they would be able to do it, is harder to determine. But yes, being a woman was a part of this.
And what did I do? I shut up. I silently seethed. These all 7 are men I rate highly and some of them I consider in very high regard. In organisations that I care massively about and that are doing good work. The internal conflict was significant – how could I make waves when it might damage the mission? On each occasion I was so exhausted by the doing of the work, and the need to get on with the next thing, that the fight to get credit for what I had achieved just seemed too much.
But now. I am writing this. And as I said at the start it is for my children. It is for the other times over the last 20 years. But it also for the 100s of women who contacted me after I have written on similar issues to say #metoo. To harassment and to stalking, but also to the more subtle ways that women are put down and oppressed.
I am writing this because I am not alone. This with beautiful strong words from my dear friend and leader of thinking Sarah Driver shows the narrative can erase women from success.
But – as ever the fixer- I am writing this with some suggestions for change.
For women – we rely much too much on the relational. And that’s great. But don’t rely on this alone. Have getting credit written into your contracts. Get pay and entitlements embedded into your agreements. And when agreements are breached pursue for redress. They aren’t doing you a favour giving you credit or pay – it is your entitlement.
For bystanders – when you see this. When you know a woman has contributed and isn’t credited, call it. Ask where the credit is. Through history success has been awarded to those whose name appeared in the byline. Do we really think that the ‘best of all that has been thought and said’ has really been the work of white men alone? Of course not. You can change it in the now so tomorrow’s history has a different narrative. Personally, I am grateful to the people who sent me messages on both occasions asking where I was on the credit list. It meant I felt less ‘difficult’ and less isolated. It didn’t change the outcomes but it made me realise that it wasn’t me – it was them!
For men – give it up. Honestly. When you get credit for something stop. Think. Be #heforshe. Did a woman do more than you? As much as you? If you can’t bear to loosen the grip on your own credit then don’t expect a woman to give up her hold on hers. Share the light.
And for me a reminder to make sure I never collude with calling a woman difficult or using those words to shut down anybody’s story. We all have to explore our own behaviour and consider our own privilege.
And lastly this made me think. I am a campaigner. I do want change. I do want a fairer society. I look around at the best campaigners and changemakers I know. They are all women. Or BAME. Or disabled. Or LGBT. They’ve all lived it. They’ve all lived the difficult label. They’ve all known the being on the outside. And maybe that is it. If you have always had privilege. Always had power. Always had the credit. What is the incentive for you to change the power base when it will inevitably come with loss to your own power. It isn’t that those with power cannot campaign, but I suspect that they have never carried the difficult label as a put down.
So, all hail the difficult women and – for those wanting to change the credit – my name is spelt KERWIN-NYE.