"It made me feel physically sick with injustice." How my career became my real-life Handmaid's Tale.

Like so many others I was recently held captive (metaphorically) by The Handmaid’s Tale. I binged it, to the point where I’m ashamed to say I stayed up past midnight one night devouring the last two episodes. Sadly I did not have the pleasure of reading the book back in school and so I watched with horrified fascination while the life of June (Offred) and her fertile kindred unravelled at the hands of the ever-sexist Gilead.

It was as terrifying as it was intriguing, and while many people have drawn parallels to the possible future of America under their current administration, the saddest part for me was the parallels I drew to my life right now – or more specifically, my recent career experiences. While thankfully I haven’t been forced into any sort of sexual servitude nor expected to bear children for barren superiors, there is still so much inequality that exists within our workplaces – even those priding themselves on their gender and inclusivity endeavours.

Let me explain.

The first fulltime role I took after graduating from my five years at University was in the hospitality sector as the only female on a senior leadership team. The deck was already stacked against me but I was excited about the opportunity… until I was told by the GM that I would have to wear a uniform. The same uniform that the ladies on reception and the floor wore. There was no rationale given by him other than a vague mention of how it would limit jealousy within the predominantly female administrative staff. The rest of the senior leadership team – all men – would continue to wear whatever suited them (ie. the same sort of corporate attire that I had been wearing myself). Praise be!

Fast forward to a few years later and I found myself working for a global family-run corporate B2B business, once again very excited about the opportunity and eager to get my hands dirty. I had been reticent to join the business initially but the COO had pulled out all stops to convince me (including a nice healthy salary increase) but what he had failed to divulge during this wooing was the list of ‘rules’ that all employees needed to abide by. I was given this lovely list to read through on my first day and it included gems like the rule that all female employees were required to wear lipstick (ideally red), heels and pantyhose. AT ALL TIMES. All female staff – whether they were customer-facing or simply (like me) working in HQ. I soon also realised that the hiring policy for customer-facing reception staff more closely resembled the requirements for a catwalk than those of answering phones and taking messages. Blessed be the fruit…


Listen: We deep dive on all things The Handmaid’s Tale on The Binge. Post continues after audio.

Next role and I breathed a sigh of relief – a huge Fortune 500 company, a household name. Surely there would be no discriminatory lipstick or uniform requirements here. And there wasn’t. Hallelujah. They even had a huge diversity and inclusion movement, along with unconscious bias training. Excellent. Except. Except that I learnt after a few years toiling away building a hundred million dollar business that I was paid less and levelled lower than my male counterparts. And it wasn’t just me, it was all the women on my team. There were more than 20 colleagues who had the exact same job as me, and within this group, four of us were in a ‘top talent’ program (defined as the top 15% of talent in the organisation). Two of us in this top talent group were female, and two were male – no complaints there. The only problem was that although the two females in this group were literally being told we were performing at a higher level than the majority of our peers, we were not only getting paid and levelled lower than the two males in the top talent program, but virtually all of our male colleagues. I’m not even talking about one level – the disparity was up to three levels lower than some our male peers. This is despite the fact we were doing the exact same job, often with greater revenue accountability and being told we were two of the highest performers in our organisation. Neither of us had taken any maternity leave (not that it should matter) and we had both been at the organisation longer than 90% of our peers. There was literally no excuse or explanation as to why we found ourselves in such a situation of disadvantage.

Image via SBS.

So I took it to my manager, and I asked him  - why was I being paid and levelled lower than all of my male peers when it is clear it is not performance related? Well we may as well call him Commander Waterford because he had no explanation. Probably because there was none. Well, none other than the fact our entire leadership team was made up of men. My manager, and his manager and his manager and his manager. Men. Right up to the CEO. Our team was a boy's club.

It honestly made me feel physically sick with anger and injustice. The fact that I was being disadvantaged purely because I am female, and there was nothing I could do about it. Oh I could complain of course, but let's be honest with ourselves - how far do you think that gets you in most organisations (particularly when they are run by men)? Perhaps I wasn't going to be carted away in a black van, but I also wasn't getting any help - and that was a fact my manager confirmed when he acknowledged it wasn't fair, but he and his superiors weren’t prepared to actually do anything about it.

Image via SBS.

In this day and age with all the studies that prove diversity (and not just gender but all types of diversity) drives positive financial performance within all organisations, it is honestly unbelievable that women still find themselves in such blatant positions of inequality. The truth is I should have been paid and levelled at least equally to my male peers (whom I was told I was actually performing better than). But I wasn't. At least I can console myself with the fact that I'm the Moira in my tale, because when faced with the outrageousness of my inequality, I simply escaped. I left. I just couldn't keep doing my job (and doing it SO DAMN WELL) with the knowledge that I was being screwed (again - metaphorically) by Commander Waterford and his merry band of sexist Gilead leaders.

Every now and then I think about my fellow female handmaids ex-colleagues and wonder how they are coping with the gross injustice of being financially (and career) disadvantaged thanks solely to their boobs and vagina. Perhaps they are at least getting to play some Scrabble from time to time.

Under his eye, indeed.