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Alicia Wallace: What Must A Woman Do To Convince People Of Her Worth?

By ALICIA WALLACE

The BPL debacle has been interesting to watch. Every day, another layer is peeled back, exposing not only what has transpired behind the scenes, but the motivations of individuals.

The dismissal of former chair Darnell Osborne is being questioned for many reasons. Was there a personality conflict? Were there issues of impropriety? Is there a hidden agenda? Without all of the information and evidence to support or refute claims made, our conclusions depend on our trust in the sources and the personal experiences that shape our perspectives. As a woman who almost always opts not to wear make-up, I have been paying attention to the conversation about make-up and who should pay for it.

Mad about make-up?

Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister spurred a conversation about make-up and company financial responsibility with his accusation that Osborne billed personal make-up services to BPL. It was later reported the invoice in question was for make-up application for 15 people as a part of a public relations project including the revamping of the BPL website.

Why would this be a focus for Bannister and why would he choose to highlight it, of all things? Aside from pettiness and desperate attempts to redeem himself, he certainly intended to highlight Osborne’s gender and use it against her. It is the easiest way to bring a person down — feminise them.

Women in leadership do not have an easy time, judged differently than men in the same roles with comparable backgrounds and capabilities. Many people only ever envision men when they think about power or leadership. Many do not believe women should take on certain roles or earn over a certain amount. There are assumptions about the ability to make decisions and manage others that are solely based on gender norms. To bring attention to the $750 make-up bill is to remind the public of Osborne’s gender and use it as a weapon against her. To mischaracterise the description of services invoiced is to deceive and brew distrust.

In addition to the negative effects of Bannister’s claim, this creates the opportunity to have a discussion about women and work — a feminist issue. No matter the company, position, or compensation, there are specific expectations of women in the workplace that have nothing to do with the performance of our duties as contractually agreed.

Women — architects of productivity

Women are expected to perform acts of service and, in particular, acts of domesticity. In the small offices and stores where both men and women work — whether verbally assigned to it or taking note of others’ disinterest or refusal to do it — women do the extra work of cleaning and organising. Think about the small businesses you encountered in your professional career. Where there was no cleaning staff, who did what? Who swept and mopped the floor? Who threw the mould-covered food out of the fridge? Who noticed the strange smell in the bathroom and made it go away?

Beyond cleaning, women become stand-in parents to the ailing staff members, people with wardrobe malfunctions and those who bring personal problems to work and need a good old problem-solving session to clear their minds. We are the go-to people for emotional labour. This work, uncompensated and largely unnoticed, keeps companies running. It enables people to work.

Everyone knows no-lunch-Larry is difficult to work with when he has not eaten and someone needs to share theirs with him. ‘Kennedy’ cannot focus on anything until every relationship problem has been divulged and a course of action decided. The boss raises hell when there are fingerprints all over the display case and no one can work for the 30 minutes of ranting. Women are taking care of all of this - and without thanks.

In fact, this service frequently draws criticism. Co-workers complain we talk too much, draw too many people to our desks, spend a lot of time on tasks outside of our portfolios and are always too tired to work overtime. The reason for all of this is obvious, but only if you pay attention to what is happening in the workplace and who is making it happen.

What’s in your compensation package?

The kerfuffle in response to the idea a woman executive might have expensed make-up services is not surprising. We are especially sensitive about money, how it is being spent and how financial decisions affect us as consumers and citizens. In addition, we are generally not aware of the non-salary benefits that are sometimes a part of the compensation package. We sometimes talk about health insurance, pension plans and vacation, but moving costs, cell phone allowance or reimbursement, wardrobe allowance, childcare assistance, training opportunities and flexitime rarely come up. We think of many of them as exclusive to expats, but they can be and have been negotiated before.

Jobs cost money

Make-up is difficult to discuss for many reasons, not the least of which being the competing ideas that it is a luxury and it is a necessity. One of the laziest attacks on women living in poverty, for example, is their spending on beauty products. If you do not have much money, the seemingly dominant idea is that you not deserve to have your hair done, polish your nails, or wear make-up. What if your job requires it?

Company policy may not blatantly state that make-up is a requirement, but it is impressed upon employees in various ways. Have you ever seen a female bank teller at work without make-up? Flight attendant? How many sales people in jewellery stores in down town Nassau are make-up free at work?

Airlines are notorious for sexist policies at 30,000 feet. Many require women on staff to wear make-up and high heels. Some go as far as to describe the cut of acceptable footwear, stating how much of the foot should be exposed. They have weight maximums and some only allow women to wear pants under very specific circumstances. Given the requirements, it only makes sense for airlines — and companies with similar sexist policies — to include a make-up allowance in the compensation package.

What if we were as concerned about women’s wellbeing in the workplace as we are about women’s appearance and the cost of the required — explicitly or implicitly — beauty enhancement products and services?

When women dare to lead

Osborne’s job was not easy. It would not have been easy for a man, but had to be infinitely difficult for a woman, almost always deemed incapable or unqualified. Women are called “emotional” in the attempt to disqualify us by suggesting instability and an inherent inability to think critically and make decisions. We are called delicate and weak when it is convenient. The moment a women goes after or takes on a position of leadership, she becomes “biggity” and is demonised. She is heartless, “too hurry”, and does not know her place.

If a woman in leadership has to engage, not only with a board and staff, but with the general public, she is expected to soften her look. This is supposed to bring balance to the brutishness that obviously pushed her to her position of power. She needs to remind the public of her femininity. She needs to have her hair done regularly, have make-up professionally applied, make wardrobe decisions that distract from her height if she is tall and weight if she is bigger-bodied, smile as much as possible and be generally aesthetically pleasing. If she looks the way society dictates, she might be easier to listen to, right?

Who is supposed to bear this cost? Women are rarely employees the way men often are just employees. Women are rarely executive directors, chairs, magistrates, attorney generals, or candidates for the leadership of a political party the way men are exactly what they call themselves and claim. Women are their gender first, and everything else follows, usually weakened by their womanhood. Women do not get a pass for being overtly feminine and attending to the aesthetic preferences of society, nor do we keep the focus on our accomplishments when we eschew the traditional and the expected.

Make-up or not, paid by the company or not, there does not seem to be much women can do to convince the public of our worth. We do not talk enough about issues of gender in the workplace — including differences in policies and expectations — and how it impacts the way we work, and we certainly do not talk about the compensation we are entitled to, but rarely receive.

Negotiation skills — also an issue of gender — must a part of it, but misogyny is definitely at work. There isn’t enough concealer in the world to cover that up.

Comments

Porcupine 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Ms. Wallace,

Your points are right on. Trying to get to the bottom of it is another question. Many countries and cultures are making good progress around the world, others not so much. I try and see if there are some contributing factors. Lack of education seems to be high on the list. Fanatical religiosity seems to be another. We're not doing too well on each of those, are we? In fact, we even elect people to office who openly mock women and talk of abusing them. We continue to accept statements such as "I'is man" without question. We accept crimes against women such as rape and domestic abuse to go mainly unpunished. We embrace a religion that says god is a man and woman were made "from" man, as if this is sound thinking. We accept not only the things and extra work done by women in the workplace, and still do nothing about this same situation at home, where the extra burdens are not seen. More women need to speak out. The oppressors will never admit to the truth, nor be moved to change it, without being forced to do so. This is but one way that our country is losing the race toward modernity. It all boils down to a horrible lack of education. And, schooling is only a small part of the problem. Once that "A" student comes home to a broken, uncaring or abusive dysfunctional family, and ignorant parents if they are even around, all bets for truly raising ourselves as a nation, are off. There are but a handful of adult men and women in this country, it seems, who see this, or actually care. Your continued and unabated efforts are required, Ms. Wallace.

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Greentea 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Ms. Wallace, I second Porcupine's statements above. And have to make a side note on Mr. Bannister. For years people have spoken highly of his performance and potential publicly. I was always baffled by this because my interactions with him have shown him to a bit mediocre. Not bad but certainly not exceptional in terms of ideas or leadership. I can think of many women(and men) in The Bahamas who could do a better job that him and 95 percent of the men in parliament- on both sides of the aisle- and that includes the PM. Sadly that would not include the majority of the woefully silent number of women currently elected. Mr. Bannister's handling of this case and that of the poor woman who died out west in the early hours car crash, tells me that he is a political animal and not a national asset. The Bahamas can't afford petty politics - especially with BPL- and yet every cycle we insist on dealing our selves the same cards. I have come to believe that the majority of men in this country are misogynists to the core and deeply resent women. This can't work. I can tell you that many elected officials can hardly balance a chequebook, have zero understanding of global economics, are deeply misogynist, Christians in word and not deed, limited in intelligence and people skills, morally suspect, and yet we continually put them in charge of the nation. I am running on- but the Bahamas can't go anywhere until we recognize the equality of all. We consistently seek leadership from near the bottom of the barrel and you won't find many forward thinking women there.

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joeblow 2 months, 1 week ago

This article is jaded by an extreme feminist perspective. A person who is sensitive to racism can see it in every action, this is the view I see expressed here. Many women have reached the pinnacle of success in every field in the Bahamas, WITHOUT their sex being an issue. Venerated educators, lawyers, judges doctors, journalists, politicians, governor generals and hoteliers have all been women who earned the respect of ALL their peers.

Maybe the author should consider the actions of women who advance solely through political connections or expert use of their physical assets as the reason why some women may be objectified or not treated fairly in some workplaces. If the truth be told, in this country, there are far more people who are victimized because of family or political affiliations than because of their sex!

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