Surviving (and thriving) as a woman in the 90’s, London’s boy’s-club liquid-lunch heyday

Is “ballsy” just another word for “resilient”? As founder of Altezza People, I talk a lot about resilience – here, I chat about how I honed my own signature brand of flexible toughness. And it all started during one of the most transformative and controversial decades we’ve ever lived through – the 90s.

 

Despite a certain amount of promising change on the horizon, women working in the early 90’s really got a bum deal.

With interest rates at the highest they had ever been, it became a matter of economic survival for women to join the workforce.

For the first time ever, women were contributing just under half of the household income, with quite a chunk of that being spent on childcare.

Things were changing at home, too. The age at which women marry started to climb; after averaging out at 21 for over a century, it had jumped to 25 by 1997. Perhaps because more of us started to pursue higher education?

At the same time, the rate of divorce also started to climb as more women could achieve economic independence, even if that meant just about scraping by.

I joined the workforce at the age of 17. It was late summer 1988 in fact.

Liquid lunches and smoking at your desk

Back then, I had no plans of marriage and could not wait to escape from further education to pursue financial independence.

My first job was in an office in Pall Mall, in the swanky West End of London. My office was just a few doors away from the ‘illustrious’ RAC Club, a historic membership-only establishment which at the time was strictly  gentlemen only.

For an ambitious, fresh-faced 17-year-old, it was an exciting time. I joined London’s white-collar workforce during the age of the ‘long lunch’. Flexitime was the norm and outside the hours of 10am to 4pm, you could smoke at your desk.

Sexual harassment was “just part of the job”

When I first reported experiencing sexual harassment at work, it wasn’t taken seriously.

Working in Life Assurance, there were a lot more women working in the office than in the elite, client-facing roles. We were, however, regularly ‘wheeled out’ as the real subject matter experts when it was time to woo a high-profile client at a wine bar.

Most of the women I worked with chose not to complain when they were sexually harassed. I’d often hear my female colleagues trying to reassure or warn one other…

“Oh, ignore him, he’s just a perv.” 

“He’s not dangerous – but just be careful if you go on one of those long lunches, make sure you come back to the office so we know you’re OK!”

And if sexual harassment was ever being discussed publicly, we would roll our eyes and say, “Mr. So-and-so has been up to his tricks again!”.

“We worked hard and we played harder”

I decided if I was to be heard, I needed to do it with urgency and aggression.

The next time I had to complain to my manager about someone touching me inappropriately, I advised him that if he didn’t act, my father would.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing was done. My father didn’t get involved either, upon my insistence. What was the point? I felt stupid about making a fuss at the end of the day.

We worked hard, played harder and grew stronger. And I have to say that in the end, the men of that era helped to define us because we defined as ballsy, even a little scary… resilience.

There was a mixed group of us, all in our early twenties working and learning about life together. We were inseparable for a while, leaving work for ‘Happy Hour’ together despite the threats of bombs that were a constant way of life for us at that time.

Bombs were found and defused all the time. It could be chaos when the West End was locked down. We became just a handful of the thousands of commuters that walked for miles to reach the other side of the river to be reconnected with public transport and our onward journeys. It was part of life, we didn’t let it interfere with work or the fun afterwards.

Suits of Armour

When our day-to-day reality requires us to wear a mask, it becomes easy after a while. We begin to embody the kind of persona that can survive in the society we find ourselves it.

Back then, my work persona wore a trench coat, carried a leather brief case, and always had the latest issue of Vogue or the Telegraph on hand (although neither were ever read!).

She loved vibrant suits, and she rocked yellows, bright reds, and royal blues. She had a particularly fabulous purple two-piece from Principles, with a cropped box jacket and high waisted mini skirt. She hid herself well and no-one would have guessed that the mask was to hide the, now 18 year old, who grew far too resilient too quickly. She didn’t know it herself!

“I was told I was fat when I was a size 12”

While I could control my wardrobe, and could hide the vulnerable side, I couldn’t control how people in the office – mainly the men! – perceived me. Despite hovering between a size 12 and 14, I was regularly told I was fat or ‘chunky’.

I look back at photos now and wonder how I ever believed that. Even now, in my mind I haven’t changed a bit, im still the same! Well, maybe just two dress sizes and 50lb different, but who’s counting!?

Born in the 70’s, working in the 90’s, the generation of women I was part of really were resilient. We fell over, but got back up – then we stuck plasters on the grazes and carried on.

But we obviously did not want the same for our children in the years to come.

The power of outward ‘toughness’

We used our voices and positions in power to create change over time.

The names I recall now epitomise resilience in that era to me: Deborah Meaden, Madonna, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and Dame Karren Brady; who was once described as the ballsiest Baroness since Lady Thatcher.

They all have something in common, don’t you think? I certainly resonate with their outward ‘toughness’ and how they have managed to make it work for them. And while resilience is about toughness and not taking people’s shit, it’s also about being totally at ease with who you are.

The women I admire have nothing to prove to anyone. They know not everyone agrees with the way they live their lives but because they have real resilience, that doesn’t matter.

What is resilience, and why do we need it?

As defined by Michael Neenan; resilience is the ability to experience hardship and not only survive it, but learn from it.

I like to describe resilience with the phrase “bounce-back-ability”. It’s about how we bounce back from the things that we have to face on a regular basis, both physically and mentally.

In psychological terms, having resilience also allows us to grow from these challenging experiences.

Continual growth is an essential skill; our worlds are always changing and if we can’t shift shape with it, we suffer the consequences.

A life-changing soft skill

People often contact us to talk about resilience workshops, and no wonder – who wouldn’t want to become more resilient in 2024? Personally, I can’t believe we’ve made this far as species without having soft skills like resilience baked into our DNA! Unfortunately, resilience doesn’t always come naturally to us. But it is an incredibly valuable life skill that can change your life.

“Enough was enough”

I discovered the true power of resilience in 2020, when my life-long fight to desperately prove myself finally came to an end. Not just ‘bounce-back-ability’, but ‘enough is enough, no more. Time to be ME!’ I was recovering from a divorce, raising three kids, and starting my people development business. Throw the dreaded menopause into the mix and the charade that I had been living was wiped out completely, forever.

Sometimes, a mask can be a helpful tool; like how ’20-something Julia’ donned her brightly coloured power suits to survive in the boy’s club of Life Assurance. But over 30 years later, I didn’t want to rely on that anymore. I wanted to tap into the resilience and true grit that I’d be honing since I stepped into that Pall Mall office at 17. 

Enough was enough, it was time for me to be my me. And it took a bunch of horses to guide me, because I was scared and thought that there was nothing about the real me that people would like. I had been living inside a shell for decades. What if I didn’t like who she really was? What if I didn’t recognise her?

Final thoughts…

As I write this, I cannot quite comprehend how I have become part of female history.

Quite aptly, this piece is being published shortly after the launch of our Young Talent campaign, which talks about how we are successfully supporting soft skill development. and shortly before International Women’s Day. It’s even a once-every-four-years leap year – certainly a good omen for female empowerment!

For me, it’s felt good to pause and appreciate just how far we’ve come. I look forward to expanding the amazing work we do with people in business – not just women – to build resilience and honour all of the strong ballsy women who discovered it the hard way.

 

Proud Co-Author alongside 21 other Ballsy Women, The Secrets of Successful Women, Volume 2

Launch date, Friday 8th March 2024

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Julia with horse

Julia Jones

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