International Women’s Day 2020: Suzannah
by Suzannah Howson
I have always been a girly girl, growing up with a Persian mother who radiated femininity it was natural to play with dolls and emulate these culturally stereotypical female roles. My father was a residential property developer, the old-school kind who would renovate and build most of it himself. At seven, I was helping him putty windows whilst still ensuring my dolls were all dressed appropriately for their tea party. My playing as a child was always a balance and it felt normal to live with these two polar opposite gender typecasts. Naturally when I fell into property like my father, I retained my feminine edge like my mother.
Joining the construction and property industry was a mild shock to how I had grown up with my family and properties, this industry didn’t really fit with being a girly girl and I quickly learnt it wasn’t the way it was done. Within my first week of working I was politely advised by a female colleague that perhaps it was better to dress ‘more like a man’ with trousers and a shirt, so I would be taken seriously. I was disappointed to say the least that being myself didn’t fit with the industry I wanted to be in.
After five years in various organisations with both men and women telling me to dress differently, not giggle too much, be less feminine, don’t wear dresses, perhaps cut my hair, wear less makeup, and comments even so far as to be told that; ‘I was only seen as fluff that floated round the office’. I was asked to go to networking events so I could draw men’s attention, only be to be asked by men if I could run along and find the ‘man who knew what he was talking about’ as clearly in their eyes I did not.
As you can imagine my motivation and drive to be in the industry was diminishing with each passing day. The polar opposites I so enjoyed in my childhood where being me in reality was not accepted.
By 2012 I just about gave up hope until I spoke with an old colleague who had recently started with others his own project management firm. He wanted me to join as they were growing and needed someone who had worked in the higher education, commercial and science sectors. I was initially reluctant as I was so deflated by the fight just to be me, that I was seriously considering changing industries, so I thought I’ll ask him straight out (what did I have to lose) “can I be myself here?” . He responded with “you can only be who you are, and that’s all we can ever ask of you”.
I took the opportunity, one last go to be in the property world I loved. Whilst the majority of people in this new company were men, their views or shall I say their ‘non-views’ of me being a particularly overtly feminine woman were refreshing and empowering. No one ever gave reference to it, and with each passing day I was growing as a person and there was nothing I felt like I couldn’t do, their support and indifference to my girliness made me love my career again, and even when faced with negative views outside of our 3PM family it didn’t bother me as much anymore. There are people in this industry who support you for who you are and what you love to do regardless of what package it comes in. This is what our industry needs more of.
I progressed, I became a mother of twins, chose to work part time and still managed to become an owner of this fantastic business. The opportunities were there for the taking, I was inspired and when you are surrounded by like-minded people who are passionate about being themselves and driving change whilst enjoying the work they do, it is easy to succeed. “Inspiring, Trusted Leadership” emerged, led by me, it balanced perfectly the drive across the diverse views inherent within us.
I firmly believe there needs to be more companies that embrace real individuality in our industry (not just say they do) and try not to fit the person into a role or stereotype they believe it should be.
Staying true to myself and the polar opposites inherent within my upbringing is now a strength I employ both in the board room and with everyone I work with. Balancing my femininity and, well… femininity (as to be in construction does not mean you need to be masculine) within this world is the only thing I can do and the only thing anyone can do is be true to their-self. I am proud to be part of something where your individuality is what makes you, what allows you to succeed and ultimately what makes you happy.
To hear the younger generation say ‘this is the first business I feel I can really be myself, be who I am naturally and not be judged’ is all the success I need.