The Cage Breakers: A Story About Women, Work & Love (Author’s Note)

It never fails to amaze me how the events that often end up most changing your life are the ones that you never saw coming. My 2016 included a deep foray into researching gender equality and why it is that we don’t have more women leaders, and it all began with a very uncomfortable and very unexpected moment.

In early 2016, I was asked to give a casual fifteen-minute talk about my career to a room of aspiring career-changers in their twenties and thirties. The company hosting the talk was a career change platform called Escape the City — having worked with them for several years (and having hosted many similar events to this one) I thought I knew what to expect.

When the evening arrived, I described my career to date, which has been fairly entrepreneurial. I co-founded a social enterprise in my final year of university. I then worked in marketing and product management over the past decade, mainly with Escape the City but also with Virgin and with law tech startup Lexoo. I talked about writing for the Huffington Post and about the several books on career development that I had written over the past few years.

When it was time for questions, a soft-spoken, sweet-seeming guy in a suit asked: “This could be a controversial question, but do you ever look back on your career and wonder if you have been selfish?”

Wait, what?

It shouldn’t have bugged me, but it did. As I talked to my friends about it afterwards, a girlfriend said: “Seriously, don’t let that throw you off. Even if he did ask softly — he wouldn’t have asked that of a man.” We talked about what might have prompted him — did he equate creativity with arrogance? Did he equate entrepreneurialism with… selfishness? I’ll never know. But what I do know is that the moment after he asked that question, I hesitated to explain something that I shouldn’t have had to justify. This moment was when I got sick of that feeling, and started to recognise it as a core part of the female experience. This is what pushed my interest in gender equality from mild flirtation to slight obsession.

These days, as a woman, if you choose to pursue your own dreams instead of existing to support those of a man, you no longer need to apologise. Yet as it turns out, no matter how progressive we like to think we are, there will still be a guy in a suit judging your choices and making you squirm because if you’re a woman — who are you to chase your own dreams? “Get back in the kitchen if you don’t want to die alone” is something this audience member never would have said to me or even thought, but it was still what I heard.

Why I wrote this book

My girlfriends are smart, funny, and kind. I love them for who they are and how I feel when I’m around them, not for what they do for a living. Some are artists, some are entrepreneurs, some work in startups, some in the corporate world; some are married, some are single, some have kids, some plan to stay child-free forever. I wrote this book for these women.

Collectively, they have had to deal with a significant amount of bullshit. When I’ve had to deal with bullshit myself — like that question from that guy — I’ve leaned on these women. They have shown me that writing this book is important. As young women in 2016, we are dealing with a spaghetti mess of mixed messages.

Lean in, but not too far, because men don’t like feeling threatened. Date and marry, but don’t define yourself in relation to your husband and kids. Keep your job, but don’t out-earn your husband because men don’t like it when you’re the primary breadwinner. Try and get promoted, but also be there for your kids. Be a great worker and a great mother, even though the perfect worker is available 24/7, as is the perfect mother.

As a female junior, you may be able to sue your senior male boss if he feels you up, but you can’t take legal action if he invites all the guys on your team to play golf without you. As a female graduate, you can get promoted all the way to the top (in theory) but (in practice) the idea of the glass ceiling has been eclipsed by what Kathryn Jacob and Sue Unerman call ‘the glass wall’: men and women can see each other across the divide but often struggle to communicate as effectively as they could.

I have been amazed at what passes for acceptable behaviour today, both in professional and personal spheres. Every time an intelligent girlfriend gets patronised by a male colleague, every time a sweet girlfriend gets ‘ghosted’ by a flaky beau, every time any girlfriend gets implicitly punished for daring to be smart and pretty, I remember my goal for writing this book.

My goal

This book aims to give women internal ammunition when they face unacceptable behaviour. As a woman, somewhere along the way you will deal with a man who feels blinded by your brightness and tries to dim your light. I have been lucky to work in fairly progressive workplaces, but at work events outside of my job, I have been sexualised and patronised enough times to have seen that it is harder for a man to break your spirit when you are fiercely chasing your dreams.

I have worked with plenty of positive, supportive and encouraging men. I have also come across a few fully grown men who have seemed childish and truly mean at times, and I have learned that their toxic behaviour often stems their own unresolved issues. The more I talked about these experiences with other women, the more I realised I was not alone.

I’m not saying, ‘don’t get emotionally affected’ because I feel like sometimes that’s impossible: I have definitely cried in the bathroom, gotten teary on the tube on the way home, screamed into pillows, and so on.

After I’ve let it out, I’ve realised that some people carry darkness within that they refuse to acknowledge or let go of, and because of that, they wilt.

They try to make themselves feel bigger by making someone else feel small. Certain men have taught me that when life hits you with a dark force, you can ignore it or you can use it. Cruelty can make you kinder; insensitivity can make you more empathetic; rudeness can make you graceful. If you give into the darkness, the darkness wins.

We cannot talk about female empowerment without talking about male sexuality, because as it turns out, they go hand in hand. One of the theories I have found most helpful in my research is the concept of ‘precarious manhood’. This is the idea that manhood, unlike womanhood, is a status that is not inherently given — it has to be earned. Even after it is earned, it has to be reaffirmed over and over again.

A man only becomes ‘a man’ when he demonstrates his ‘manliness’. When some men feel they are being ‘put down’ by women, this threatens their manhood. To demonstrate their masculinity, they feel the need to be extra aggressive in order to re-assert themselves. Insecure men need to assert their manhood more because they are not inherently, firmly, deeply confident in their masculinity. Sadly, for too many men, ‘asserting their manhood’ often translates into acting like an asshole.

In my own experience, this has been quite boring to deal with. Yet it has taught me that men do not flare up because they lack emotions. It’s easy to feel like when men put you down — or treat you like a kid, or a sex object — it’s because you have no power. If anything, you have too much potential power, and they are trying to take it away from you. We are all learning how to operate in this new world of changing gender dynamics, as we explore in the story ahead.

The story

This is a story about Erica and Liana, two fictional thirty-year-old women living in London. They have been best friends since they were eight years old. Erica works as a lawyer in a corporate firm; Liana works as a front-end web developer in a digital agency.

Erica is married to Lachie, who she met at university. Much to Erica’s dismay, Liana is yet to have The Talk with her ‘special friend’ Adam, who she has been semi-dating (‘dating’ is a generous term) for the past year.

Both women are glass-half-full people. They were not the mean girls at school. They were sporty without being the best on the team, they were smart without being top of the class, they got good grades and had good relationships with their parents. They also got drunk with their friends and had fake IDs. These days, if you met them on the street, you’d notice how down-to-earth and normal they both are, how it makes them both pleasant and yet forgettable.

The story takes place a week before the 2016 United States Presidential election.

This is an excerpt from the tester version of The Cage Breakers (now available on Amazon).