Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

How wearing a ‘big ball’ necklace helped me battle workplace sexism

I didn’t know it would be a statement. But after my sexist colleagues began responding, I wore it daily as a badge of honor.

The path to becoming an executive is tough for women in all sorts of industries. But when I started my career, I decided to make it even tougher on myself. I went after one of the most male-dominated industries there is: mining.

After all, my father taught me that I could do anything a man could do. I was determined to prove him right.

It took grit and fearlessness. Fortunately, I had enough of both.  My male colleagues expected women to show them deference; I challenged them and questioned traditional ways of doing business. They expected me to clean up coffee cups after management meetings; I did no more than my share. They expected me to be cautious and demure but were stunned when I picked up the phone to book a meeting with Peter Lynch, the famous investor who wrote One Up on Wall Street.

Basically, I acted like a go-getter professional, just like most of the men in the office. Still, I developed a reputation. Our company lawyer even warned people about me: “Look out if you disagree with her, it’s like walking into a buzzsaw.”

If I had had the proper — that is, male — body parts, they would have not only accepted but appreciated my behavior. They would have admired my gutsiness and called me a “real man.” But because I’m female, I upset the status quo. They were very uncomfortable around me and suspicious of me.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that something traditionally feminine, a piece of jewelry, became a source of both derision and strength for me.

It was the early 1990s. My go-to accessory was a big fake pearl dangling around my neck on a long gold-colored chain. Apparently, fake pearls were all the rage back then, thanks in part to U.S. First Lady Barbara Bush. So I considered mine a fashion coup.

But the men in my office saw it differently. They took one look at the pearl and gave it a different meaning. They decided that it explained my “ballsy” behavior.

After all, in their view, there could be no other explanation as to why I wasn’t “acting like a girl.” The office joke quickly became that I wore that “big ball” so I could exhibit “masculine” behavior.

I had a choice to make. Never wear it again? Wear it to make a statement on certain days? I chose neither. Instead, I began wearing that “big ball” every day. I decided to “own” the message.

I developed a comeback for when my colleagues made the joke. I’d tell them it came from the last guy who disagreed with me. “Beware,” I’d say, laughing. “Do you want yours hanging around my neck?”

It wasn’t fun, and the sexism of their behavior was never lost on me. But I used it to give myself confidence. By turning it into my statement, rather than theirs, I showed that they wouldn’t get me to change my successful ways in business. Their demeaning remarks wouldn’t stop me from moving forward.

That confidence, combined with my hard work, helped me advance to the top echelons of the company, becoming senior vice president. I was eventually inducted into Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women Hall of Fame and received the Trailblazer Award from Women in Mining Canada.

Along the way, I worked to help other women face down workplace sexism. I also came to see how the antique “gender boxes” we put ourselves and each other in hurt both women and men. These boxes allow for only two types of leaders: women who are expected to be collaborative, caring relationship-builders, able to bring people to a consensus, and men who are expected to be independent, action-oriented risk-takers, able to assertively close a deal.

This is to our detriment. Businesses in today’s multifaceted economy require increasingly diverse leaders whose management techniques enable them to move agendas forward while still taking care of their stakeholders.

I left mining to work full time on these issues. I’m now a corporate director, speaker, blogger, philanthropist and mentor. Through my work, I help everyone see gender in a new way.

I call it “Gender Physics.” It’s the title of my new book, as well as my training course.

Rather than writing off the idea that certain traits are inherently masculine or feminine, I’ve decided to accept that many people will see them that way. So instead, I explain that we all have both “masculine” and “feminine” energy. Gender Physics is the practice of optimizing the best of these energies so we can express ourselves freely as individuals and be the best version of ourselves — at work and in life.

These days, sexism is less often as blatant as what I once had to go through. But it remains in place, hurting both women and men. To tackle this, we have to change how we see each other and ourselves —  no matter whether we’ve got jewelry or ties hanging around our necks.