The Unwelcome Squeeze

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Red-blooded male seeks passionate, flexible, experienced and uniquely skilled professional for high intensity relationship. Must have stamina, a strong desire to please and a willingness to work nights. Female preferred…

Gentlemen: grab your dangly bits and cower in a corner. Ladies: grab anything sharp, heavy and likely to inflict pain. Let’s talk about some of the shamefully sexist things that used to happen in bidding. (And when we’re done, let’s talk about another unacceptable culture that shouldn’t exist in our profession.)

Back in 2003, I was sitting in a smoke-filled bid room with eleven hairy, sweaty men. At the head of the table was the company’s managing director who, on this occasion, decided to begin the meeting with a statement. He sat forward and tilted his head towards the open door, through which could be seen a typing pool of female secretaries and telesales ‘girls’. The MD licked a gob of yellow, cigarette-stained phlegm from his lips and said, gruffly, “Tits’n’ass, they’re good to have around the office. Gives us blokes something to look at though they’re only for decoration. You wouldn’t trust ’em with real work.” The room erupted with laughter. Then, speaking loudly so that those outside could hear, the MD said, “Still, we’ll let ’em in here when we’re done, won’t we lads, to empty the ashtrays; it wouldn’t be right for a fella to clean up after himself once he’s finished his business…”. The comment was met with jeers and wolf whistles from within the room, except from me who – as the new boy, the non-smoker, and the recently-engaged romantic – found the whole experience to be stomach-churningly appalling.

The experience haunts me still, not least because the MD was a bully who singlehandedly set the company’s culture. To him, women were second-rate citizens; disposable objects with an “it” pronoun, brought in to be gawped at and do menial work that was only appropriate for the ‘lesser’ sex. I worked for him for three months before quitting on the spot after he spat in my face for “lacking balls”. So maybe I’m more feminine than my trouser suit would imply?

Fact is, I’m a bloke and carry the shame of condoning unacceptable behaviour towards women. I didn’t speak out. I dislike confrontation and so it took me a long time to challenge the status quo.

The trigger point for me came a few years later when I was telephoned by a female colleague working on my bid. Her voice was trembling as she spoke: “I’m so, so sorry,” she said, “I’ve been put on gardening leave and won’t be able to help you with the submission.” “Why, what on earth’s happened?” I replied. She then told me how she’d been summoned to her manager’s office, asked to remain standing, and then told that she was being made redundant. “Why?” she’d asked. Her manager stood up and replied, “Well, it has come to my attention that you are trying for a baby. You know how busy we’re going to be and yet you’re planning to be absent when we need you. So you might as well leave now.” Shocked by the news, I confronted her manager. His answer? “F*ckin’ women, fannying about trying to compete in a man’s world. Just ignore her. Time of the month, mate. She’ll get over it. Anyway, she’s not pregnant yet; so I’m free from all that HR bullsh*t.” I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t report him for his comments, but I did encourage my female colleague to pursue legal action.

This sense of ‘jobs for the boys’ or ‘it’s a man’s world’ shouldn’t exist in bidding. After all, bidding is office work. It doesn’t require the physical strengths that have been the excuse for male-dominated professions in the past. But there’s an underlying machoism within bidding, perhaps linked to aggressive sales targets or customer demands, that encourages unacceptable behaviour even to this day. I’m referring to a culture that expects us to get tough, make sacrifices and do whatever’s needed to get the job done. It’s what I call the unwelcome squeeze.

We’ve all got soft bits, by which I mean our good natures and desire to please. (They’re our best assets.) We accommodate the demands and timelines of the bid, the behaviours and peculiarities of those with whom we work, even the occasionally rude or offensive comments of customers, suppliers and colleagues. We’re ‘compliant’ to the rules of the game and ‘submit’ to the pressures placed upon us. It pleases others, even if we’re left feeling exploited.

This ‘submission’ culture, to me at least, creates a sense of injustice akin to the sexism that exists within our profession. It’s not right to ‘shut up and put up’ with a culture where we’re expected to sacrifice so much of our home lives to meet the demands of the bid. Being made redundant for wanting a baby? Criticised for not sacrificing holidays or weekends? Overlooked for promotion because we’re a ‘nine-to-fiver’? Not quite ‘giving our all’ when it comes to our end of year review? Perhaps ‘too distracted’ by non-work interests, studies or commitments? Does any of this sound familiar? Perhaps it’s time for a new organisation that stands up for ‘People with Lives in Bids and Proposals’?

Ooh, we’re in dodgy territory here. Aren’t we supposed to ‘man up’ and do whatever’s needed? ‘Man up’? Pah. Knickers to that. You don’t need balls to play this game.

This article was written by Nigel Hudson.

Nigel is passionate about professional development. He designed and delivered the APMP award-winning Bid Academy for Vodafone and co-authored Europe’s leading proposal syllabus with Strategic Proposals. He’s trained more than 4,000 people worldwide.

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