It's a macho man's world...

... but some women do cope better than others when vastly outnumbered by men. They're the 'gender chameleons'. Emma Cook reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"I loved the Navy," disillusioned wren Lesley Morris told a tribunal last week. "But when you're at sea with 1,200 men and the majority of them are sexually harassing you, that is not a good situation for a young girl. Every single day there were insulting remarks." Lesley felt isolated, bullied and deeply betrayed; she developed clinical depression and took an overdose. The tribunal awarded her pounds 65,000 for her suffering.

Lesley Morris's case may be extreme, but is it inevitable that women will find it hard to cope where macho behaviour dominates? There are currently some 3,000 women working alongside men in the navy; more than double that in the army, over 5,000 in the airforce while 14 per cent of the police force are female. Yet the overall figures for sex discrimination cases are small - there have been nine industrial tribunals for sexual harassment across the armed forces since 1994. Undoubtedly, many incidents still go unreported, yet these statistics still point to a large number of women out there and coping. Could it be that some of them are simply better equipped in some way, mentally or physically, to combat strongholds of male chauvinism?

"You only hear about the extremes," says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester, Institute of Science and Technology. "[That is] the woman who goes to a lawyer or the woman who becomes one of the boys. But the reality is somewhere in the middle. Women who cooperate in an all-male environment are pragmatic, they know how to use social skills to side-step problems." Psychologist Ros Taylor, who runs an employment consultancy, goes further. She claims there is a discernible pattern in the way these women behave. Women who survive best in a macho climate operate like gender chameleons, she believes. Far from adopting a crude "one of the boys" pose, they flick pragmatically between archetypes of male and female behaviour; laddish, flirtish, intuitive, aggressive - whatever suits the situation best.

Susan, 38, who worked as a train-driver with London Underground for nine years, is a good example of the "gender chameleon" syndrome. "On my first day there the guard said to me, 'Oi, make us a cup of tea love'. I replied, 'You must think I'm your wife, darling'. One time they wrote obscene graffiti on my locker. I'd always go to the graffiti and write a reply that was even cruder." It was a balancing act; knowing when to adapt to male codes and when to enforce her own. "I remember when I first asked if I could play cards with them. They looked at me as if to say, 'Oh God. It wants to join in'. As it happened I beat one of the men and he refused to pay me. I challenged him later and, grudgingly, he gave me the money. But after that the men knew if I played I expected to be paid." She also used her femininity when necessary. "If I needed to leave early from work I'd say, 'I've started my period'. I'd get as far as 'per...' and they'd say, 'Go home'. It was their unwillingness to make women part of everything that sometimes paid off."

But it was her ability to understand their behaviour, without feeling threatened by it, that enabled her to claim the upper-hand. "They were like a group of naughty school boys who couldn't do at home what they did at work. There's no way a woman would walk into a depot and feel she belonged there," she says. "You have to accept you can never be one of the boys. If they tell you dirty stories, they'll do it to horrify. I couldn't be part of it and yet I refused to be shocked because then they've got a way in. And I also met and got on with their wives, which is always a good thing to do. Then they could relax with me when they knew their partners weren't threatened."

Phillipa, 27, a private in the army for three years and the only girl training alongside over 20 men, was another "lone woman" able to switch gender roles to suit.

"I was determined to be tough and do all the physical stuff. I was definitely one of the boys. But I would be a typical girlie as well - I'd flirt and flutter my eyelids if I needed to. And I would use humour - if someone said 'You look nice', I'd say, 'Mmm, I did it especially for you, Sir', in an ironic way so they never knew if I was sending them up or not."

Karen, 31, who managed a group of builders for three months, also ran the gamut between "feminine" and "masculine" behaviour.

"In arguments I'd match the men with swear words and shout louder. I'd work alongside them, stripping walls and carrying stuff around," she says. "But I was really flirtatious with them. When I told one workman he was my favourite boy, he nearly fell off his ladder. At some points they could have reported me for sexual harassment."

In contrast, Michelle, 35, a computer analyst who recently left her post in an engineering firm, felt unable - and unwilling - to behave in such a flexible way.

"As a woman I was completely side-lined - people were always making decisions behind my back. But I didn't see why I had to modify the way I acted - I wasn't willing to flirt because I'd prefer to put my energy into other things. I couldn't be 'one of the boys' either - it wasn't in my nature. I refused to play the same games as the men and that's why I felt isolated."

But it's not simply a case of going along with the boys. Phillipa, Karen and Susan adapted to macho cultures but were still very much able to be themselves. Karen explains, "I never think about the way to behave. I'll always be me. It's just a way of responding to different situations appropriately." For these three women it's less strategic and more innate. Corporate psychologist Beverley Stone explains: "It can be slightly manipulative but it's also a very creative method of problem solving." And one, she says, that can be taught. "There are some who are naturals but if people are willing to learn about themselves and develop their own self-confidence then they can do it." Taylor agrees. "We offer training like that all the time but some women won't do it for principled reasons. They feel, 'Why should I change - the world can change to suit me'."

Natalie, 35, a senior manager in the City, is highly aware of what happens to her few female colleagues who can't display a chameleon-like flexibility.

"The danger is they either get tough and get called 'that bitch' or they flirt and get called 'that slut'."

Natalie avoids both stereotypes by marketing herself more subtly. "I try to sell my ideas through others so people in meetings are quoting my ideas - it's a way of persuading colleagues without them realising it."

These are, Cooper would say, just a few of the interpersonal skills women have honed to navigate themselves through male preserves.

"They're very good at using their social skills and their pragmatism to side-step problems and put downs. It's sad to say it," he reflects, "but you have to manipulate the situation." But sadder to accept that Kay Kellaway's and Lesley Morris' treatment is what women can expect if they don't.

Some names have been changed.