Olivia Hawe went from an all girls school to an all male start up…
The majority of my teenage years were spent in a single sex environment, at an all girls’ grammar school in Wolverhampton. Many of the stereotypes are true: we would unwittingly hitch up our tights in public with an almost endearing lack of self-awareness, and speaking to boys left many of us blushing – myself included. Four years at university helped me make the transition into ‘real life’, where men were a normal part of my everyday experience. Yet graduating university and getting a job at a start-up where I was the only female employee represented a whole new extreme, and my girl-centric past meant that it was inevitably a daunting move.
If so many of the clichés surrounding all girls’ schools were proven true in my experience, I wondered whether the stereotypes that plague the working world – discrimination, misogyny, pay gaps, the glass ceiling – were going to define my first step on the career ladder. This was a very real fear, drilled into me in the lead up to my first day as I read the news, scrolled through Twitter and chatted to my girlfriends.
Of course, for every stereotype of a girls’ school which is true, there is another which is resolutely untrue. Girls’ schools often get a bad rep for being a breeding ground for bitchiness and insecurities: but for all its shortcomings, school was a genuinely positive experience for me.
My all-female education helped me become intellectually confident, and to navigate puberty without feeling self-conscious about what boys thought of me. Contrary to the common view, going to a girls’ school gave me the confidence to see myself independent of my gender, and to fully embrace who I was as an entire, well-rounded person whom just happened to be female. The lack of boys made an acute awareness of gender differences a faraway concern. Our school motto was ‘developing strong, independent-minded, articulate young women’ – but by the time I finished I didn’t care for the gender qualifier.
Nevertheless, the gender disparity at work did concern me slightly. Apparently, it is statistically unsurprising that the co-founders of my company are all male. I came across a study stating that women are less likely to take entrepreneurial risks due to fears of low or erratic earnings and difficulties attaining investment: the exact type of statement that represents the glass ceiling I was scared of hitting.
Yet being a woman in 2017 is a great place to be, in many ways. The #MeToo movement, among other shows of solidarity, unity and empowerment have driven me to actively embrace opportunities that at first seem difficult or out of reach. My life so far had not made me an expert in tech, coding or boys, but despite my apprehensions I got a job at a tech start-up and am now reaping the rewards.
I am privileged to be working for a company in which I feel respected and valued irrespective of my chromosomes. Just like my single sex education, being the sole female in a male working environment has allowed me to develop as a young professional, and prove myself because of my skills, achievements and talents: not my gender.
Since starting in September I have gained so much, and this is all because I had the comfort to ignore the stereotypes that haunt each of us at every turn. I went for the job I wanted because I wanted it and that was all that mattered. My company, CityStasher, works across Europe to provide a network of bag storage locations for tourists and city dwellers – I’ve already been to Paris and to Edinburgh for business meetings, translated our website into French, and tried my hand at coding.
I know that not all women are so lucky. My sense of satisfaction at work may well be helped by the fact that a start-up has, by default, a lesser sense of hierarchy. It is run by young guys who are keen to keep the company structure as flat as possible, and who are themselves switched-on, intelligent individuals who want to build a company free of antiquated gender hierarchies and taboos. Working towards a world where women are afforded equal opportunity, and comfort, in the workplace should still be a priority. Studies have shown that having women in senior positions within companies not only increases capital investment, but also decreases the chance of a company going bankrupt – it’s absurd to deny that women are equally valuable, and archaic.
I have been subject to heavily gendered environments at some of the most critical stages of my personal and emotional development, and it has taught me that stereotypes do not have to hold you back from seeking out opportunities. Be aware of them but don’t assume that they will hinder you, and if they do then prove them false – to work towards a world where there are none that needed to be proved false. School taught me to ignore female stereotypes, and working in tech has taught me to ignore male ones too. My anxieties about entering a male-dominated work environment have been proven unfounded, reminding me that stereotyping works both ways. We would all do best to take each other as we find, and take no more.
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