Most women in business I come across have experienced some degree of sexism at work.
It’s not always a momentous, career-defining moment; forms of sexism can be extremely subtle, and often go completely unrecognised.
But for Mary Morton, who took her leave from a corporate environment to enter a small business partnership seven years ago, the experiences were palpable.
Who: Mary Morton
What: ID Collective
What’s your elevator pitch: I am one of the directors of ID Collective, a multidiscipline public relations marketing company.
How’d you get here?
This was a bit of a departure for me. For most of my professional career, I had worked for the man — literally and figuratively speaking. I had worked in organisations, male-dominated, big ones — so it was a bit of a leap of faith, in my early forties, deciding to go and work with someone in a small business. But I was ready to do it, it was the right time in my life.
I had been passed over for a senior position in the organisation for which I was working because — and I was quite explicitly told this — because I was a woman, and that they weren’t ready to have a woman running that business.
I stuck around for another six months, worked for the guy who got in, and then the opportunity presented itself and I thought, “Right, I’m gonna run with it”.
In that moment when you were told that you weren’t going to get the gig because you are a woman, how did you respond?
I was astonished. I had always worked in male-dominated organisations, often prompting some very funny but totally politically incorrect situations in which I found myself.
But that was one of the few times when I felt really frustrated and angry that the fact I had two X chromosomes was the only reason I wasn’t going to be put in serious contention for a role that I thought at least I should have been given a shot at.
What do you think organisations like that are effectively rejecting or turning down when they bring gender into that sort of decision making?
I’m all for meritocracy and any job should be about promoting the best person into the role, irrespective of sex or background — those things shouldn’t matter.
What should matter with that person is the right cultural fitness, the right capabilities for the role, and who will do a good job of it.
When you start imposing artificial constraints upon a business by overlooking a certain segment of the community or the employees with whom you work, based on sex, you’re actually cutting yourself off from someone really good being in the role.
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And I can’t think of too many roles in this day and age that people can’t do simply because they’re a woman. I would struggle to name one off the top of my head.
What happened when you went through that decision making process, after you’d got over the astonishment of being given this bizarre feedback?
I’ve always been fairly lucky. I’ve had two or three fantastic mentors that I have had for most of my career. I spoke to all of them, spoke to my husband, and they all counselled me to maintain a calm and clear head, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and to see how things unfolded.
In my own experience, the advice I’ve always given to people who work with me is don’t shoot from the hip. Always take a deep breath and stop and think about what the consequences to your next action might be, because it’s very easy to act in haste and repent at leisure.
I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I didn’t have anything else lined up, I hadn’t even really been looking.
I started talking to different people about what potential opportunities might be beyond that job I was in. And out of that emerged the opportunity with Amanda, who was my friend, and with whom I’ve happily been in business with now for seven years.
Tell me what that was like, that moment when you were making a decision to leave the corporate world and enter a small business.
Quite scary. On the one hand, really quite scary.
I’d always worked in environments where I was almost always holding senior positions. I’d been on the executive management teams of some really large organisations, but ultimately there had been other people to manage the little things. To worry about whether people were being paid properly, to worry about the HR issues — all the sorts of things that, as a small business owner, suddenly you need to take on yourself.
I’m a reasonably confident person, I know what I’m good at, and I knew I would be good at the role I was going into, but there’s always a slight frisson of, “oh god, am I stepping into the abyss?”
And on the other hand it was really exciting and liberating to go into an environment where you’re the mistress of your own destiny.
If I had to pick one thing that I really still appreciate in the morning when I get out of bed — even on the bad days when you’re worried about cashflow and “is that client happy?”, and is this going to stay on in six months — is that you still have immense satisfaction in knowing that it’s your empire and you created it and you’re ultimately in charge.
Have you ever had the chance to explain that feeling to your previous employers?
Well, one of my mentors was the outgoing chief executive, and I’ve had a number of discussions with him. He pointed out that of all the industries I could have worked in, the one I was working in was perhaps the most male-dominated and riddled-with-conflict-of-interest industries. He said, you couldn’t have picked a worse industry to be trying to grapple with the glass ceiling.
Prior to that I’d done lots of work with the AFL, with the Grand Prix incorporation, and the Royal Agricultural Society. I worked in a very male dominated law firm and generally speaking I enjoyed it.
There were moments where I rolled my eyes and thought, “Oh my god, can they be serious?”, and I still remember, infamously, when I was a consultant with a really big sporting organisation, where they were paying me a large sum of money to provide them with consultancy advice and I sat down in a room full of men in the executive management team and one of them noticed that there was no coffee in the room. They all looked at me and said, “Can you organise that?”
And I said, “Well I could, but that would be the most expensive cup of coffee any of you have ever drunk because you’re paying me $350 an hour to do this work for you so perhaps somebody else could do that”.
So the chief executive then picked up the phone to his secretary and sorted it out. But I can remember, I was laughing, it was so astonishing that they thought that’s what I was there for.
And in this in recent history?
Ten or 12 years ago.
So it’s a modern century? Not the 1950s or anything.
No! I’ve had fellow executive managers pull me into their laps, pinch me on the bum …
I have had some hilariously funny moments. I still remember sitting in a meeting, all blokes and me in a room, when one manager held out his hand across the table and said pull my finger, and did a fart, in front of everyone! And they all thought that was hilarious, and I thought, “My god, you don’t even know me and you’ve just done that”.
The things that men say and get away with and if you were a woman, you know, you’d be in front of HR before you can say, ‘”I’ll just pack up my stuff”.
There’s a strong perception that we’ve come leaps and bounds when it comes to company culture but how rife do you think this still is in the corporate world?
Oh, I think it’s massively rife. I think a lot of organisations pay lip service to gender equality and respecting women in the workplace. And they go out of their way to demonstrate that.
There are an awful lot of companies who have made a commitment to gender equality and respect, and I look to government and creative marketing industries which are pretty good. But if you scratch below the surface of a lot of stockbroking firms for example, in the finance sector, I think you would still find it.
Certainly in several of the industries I’ve worked in — like footy, racing, cricket, basketball — women are still perceived as great at being secretaries and executive assistants, but [employers are] not absolutely sure that they can contribute to the big stuff.
My hat goes off to people. Women use all sorts of skills and capabilities and competencies to succeed in business and I’m really proud of the fact — not that it would be that exciting for anyone anyway — that I’ve never had to undo a couple of buttons or lift up a skirt to get work across the line.
In the main, I’ve generally succeeded on my merits. I don’t think being a woman or not being a woman has played a part in it.
Funnily enough, having worked in environments that are very male dominated, I now run a business across two states, where we have close to 40 staff, and the vast majority are women.
I can remember, back when I joined forces with Amanda, we had a total staff of 10 people, and even then we were all women. It was one of the few things I had reservations about. How would I go from having to work with chauvinistic middle aged men to working with a lot of relatively young girls in their twenties?
But it’s actually been fantastic. I made a number of them read Lean In [by Sheryl Sandberg] a couple of years ago because I think we do lean in and support each other and it’s actually been fantastic.
What advice would you give to women who would consider leaving the corporate world to start a business or join a business partnership?
I would say take the plunge. Take a deep breath and take the plunge.
Apart from anything else, one of the good things about having your own business is that you can do as much or as little as you want. It has allowed me to have a much better work/life balance and I’ve been able to adjust my hours around having a young kid.
That to me was one of the biggest advantages of going out on my own.
But you know, it’s fun. It’s fun planning what your business is going to look like in two years’ time, five years’ time, ticking off the notches on your belt when you achieve them, sometimes ahead of schedule. We certainly didn’t expect to be a 40-person strong business four or five years ago.
Is there anything you miss?
Every small business owner will tell you, the Christmas period is always a big one. That’s the time you always go, “Jesus, I wish this was somebody else’s problem and I didn’t have to worry about this”.
The other thing I think I sometimes miss, and it’s better now that we are four directors, but sometimes I do miss having an independent and slightly objective view point from outside. So we have quite deliberately, from time to time, engaged someone who comes in and goes through a bit of a health check with us as a board of directors, how we’re working with each other, providing an independent review of our business decisions.
So they are the two things that I had missed. I’ve had very few regrets. It’s been worth every second.