I'm an abrasive bitch - so what!

Judith Fordham, award winning business owner, author, acclaimed speaker, criminal barrister and until recently Associate Professor in Forensic Science at UWA, has worn zebra print shoes into a courtroom, represented transsexuals, bikies, alleged murderers and rapists, and raised four children as a single mother. Her story, far from a fairy tale, saw her leave an abusive husband, move States, undertake a law degree as a mature aged student and bring 4 children up on her own. I first met Judith at the Telstra Business Awards, when we were nominated as a finalist in 2016. Judith and her business Fordham & Roast (Partners in Crime) were the 2015 winners of our category. Her radiance shone and her sense of humour immediately captivated me. She was my type of gal! A quick witted straight shooter, with a sense of humour; characteristics often kept hidden by too many that you meet in the corporate world. I was instantly in awe of her charm and charisma, her abilities and her talent. When the opportunity arose to sit down with her in person, I jumped at the chance. There were six questions I really wanted her perspective on.

Spending time with Judith Fordham

Who has been most influential in your life and why?

My father
He was an evil man whose early influence was the catalyst to me developing ‘imposter syndrome’. (Impostor syndrome is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud). I have, ever since, been trying to prove to the world that I am a capable, competent and worthy person.

My year 12 Teacher
A predictable choice for many, this particular teacher however had a profound effect on me. He announced that the students in his class had an IQ higher than his own. I thought this an incredible statement to make to us the first time that he met us. It showed such humility, and was the first time I really believed that I might be capable of high achievement. He promised never to talk about sex, politics or religion and I think he broke his own rule in the first week of teaching. He instilled in me the passion to question everything and to never take no for an answer. The smartest person in the room is the one that continually questions. The dumbest and most dangerous is the one who does not know that he or she does not know.

My daughter
I will never forget the day that my daughter gave me a Mother’s Day card with the personal message ‘Congratulations you have broken the Fordham curse!’ With a long family history of alcoholism and domestic violence, I broke the cycle, and raised 4 decent human beings who will not carry that history with them. Her words touched me. On a more practical note, it seems the other thing I have taught them all is “never waste a trip”. That holds true in every aspect of life, from cleaning the house (carrying something with you whenever you go from one room to another), to embracing all that every life experience has to offer.

Chief Judge
A retired Chief Judge of the District Court once said to me “I came to scoff and stayed to pray”, talking about going into a situation with a preconceived negative view. I meditated on his comment and it became my ABC philosophy. Assume nothing; Believe nobody; Check everything. His phrase encapsulated the ethos of my work: never assume - it will fast lead you down the wrong path.

Tenacity is a characteristic that everyone in business requires if they are going to be successful, can you pin point the moment, or moments in your life that built your level of tenacity and ability to bounce back?

My father definitely started my journey of perseverance and tenacity; but thankfully he didn’t define it or finish it. I think that childhood experiences certainly have an impact on you developing tenacity. Whether you run from things and hide, or meet them head on shapes your future. My father certainly made me defiant in nature. I never saw any other choice in life than to simply keep going, to never give up and to get things done on my own. It just wasn’t acceptable to me that I was not going to succeed. One story that stands out in my mind as an example occurred at 16. My father wanted to punish me. He told me to take my knickers down to be caned. I stood there and give him a resounding ‘No!’ It was a pivotal moment for me; I was making a choice which I knew to be dangerous as it would anger him, but I could not make any other and survive as a person. This mindset built the foundation out of which my tenacity flourished. I think it has served me well in life. Apply yourself, believe in yourself and just keep going.

I read that you value honest and direct communication. Why do you think that when a woman demonstrates these characteristics in the boardroom or the court room she is called an abrasive bitch?

Sexism in the business world is still there. Our assumptions are learned at our parent’s knees. Whilst it is getting better I think we are still a couple of generations away from changing our mindset.

When there is no time, or when you are in an environment of high stress, the most efficient means of communication is to be direct. When a man communicates directly it is not seen as loaded. When a woman communicates with directness it is and she is often labelled a bitch. This is because of ingrained and stubborn notions that women should be kind and self-effacing, saying “sorry” before giving an opinion or interrupting in a meeting.  Companies today pay lip service with gender neutral phraseology in their recently devised policies and procedures to support inclusivity and professional conduct in the workplace. The reality is that what goes on behind closed doors in the office is a far cry from the institutionalised statements in the policies. Has the lip service done us any harm? Probably not; it has educated us. But only time will produce the fundamental shift in mindset that will truly change beliefs.

I have so many examples and often amusing stories of gender inequality detailed in my book ‘Life, Law and not enough shoes’. You just have to read them!

In your opinion, has the business world changed in the past 30 years for women in business? If so, in what ways?

When I started in the public sector (over 30 years ago), women were required to resign when they got married. Then the world became a tad more “enlightened” and the rule became if you got pregnant you had to leave. I had a lucrative bursary taken from me when I got married, because I got married. My children said to me, “Why didn’t you do something about these things”. Back then there were no avenues to take such action, and most people did not realise there was anything wrong with such attitudes. So in that sense, the changes have been huge.

The world has opened up presenting more opportunity for women. Jobs are available now that once didn’t even exist. Prospects are always increasing and will continue to do so.

I don’t think we have changed in how we deal with aggression in the workplace. When a male encounters aggression their emotive response demonstrated is often anger; returning the aggression, which is deemed appropriate. When a female encounters aggression their emotive response is to feel hurt; which serves us little purpose. But if they respond aggressively, they are perceived as an out of control, a bitch. Women still need to focus on how to find an intelligent way to make our point without being too emotional. People should be more adaptable when they engage with other people. You need to understand where they are coming from without judgement. Let me share another story which highlights this point.

To say we meet interesting people as a criminal lawyer is an understatement. One of my favourite clients is a member of a bikie gang. We were in the middle of a trial and out on a break. He flung himself down next to me on a bench and spluttered:

‘That prosecutor, he’s a bloody woman!’

Being used to the ways of my star witness and his friends I knew immediately what he meant. However, just in case I was unsure, he elaborated: “Blood pussyfooting poonce, if he’d call a spade a fuckin’ shovel he might have had half a chance of getting a straight answer out of me. Couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag. Talk about a girl!”

Had it occurred to him I was a woman, I asked.

He looked at me as if I had gone stark raving mad “Nah, mate, you’re not a woman. You’ve got balls. You’re not a bloody woman!”

What could I say? I have had to learn as a female operating in the world of criminal law not to get too precious about gender stereotyping and politically correct speech. Understand the environment someone lives in and adapt your communication style to meet them. To change things you have to understand the other person’s world. That applies to all change, including sexism. Forcing people to behave in an outwardly non-sexist manner in the workplace or in the public eye, if they do not in fact change their attitudes, achieves little. We have to accept, though, that there are those who will never change, and that it will take another generation or two before lip service becomes the truth.

I'm an abrasive bitch take 2.jpg

In your opinion, do the same rules apply to women in business as they do for men?

No. There are the same superficial rules; but of course they don’t.

The one thing I hate more than anything though is when women are horrible to other women in business. When they emulate the worst of male workplace behaviour and stab you nastily in the back: that is disgraceful.

We all want to succeed in the workplace. That is what is meant by “winning”. We all have something to sell: our products, our services, our ideas. The best and most ethical way to succeed in this is to persuade: not to dominate or manipulate: to get a target audience to listen, a superior to change an approach, a bank to provide finance.

Persuasion involves understanding the reality lived by the person you are trying to persuade, and adapting your style to that person. This requires empathy and, in a good sense, humility. It takes a highly intelligent person to learn, develop, and use those qualities. Women have a real advantage here.

As a result of the way the world treats them, women have become very skilled at persuasion, which is more effective and more ethical than domination. They lead the target to making her or his own choice with the benefit of the information communicated (ie provided and accepted). That choice is likely to be a long-term choice, which in business underpins solid growth and drives increases in profit and market share

What would you say are the keys to survival in business?

The same as the keys to survival in life. Just keep going.

You don’t always need to have everything under control before you take a step. If you over control you become paralysed by indecision. You are better to make a decision and keep going. If it’s the wrong decision down the track when more information becomes available – change it. Be willing to take the next step; trust in your instinct. You can’t know everything. Be safe knowing that you made the best decision with the information you had available at the time. A retrospectoscope would be amazing but in life we don’t have this with us until afterwards. You are better to do something with love and good intentions than you are to do nothing!

Judith is truly an inspiring and sassy woman! To read more on Judith’s extraordinary journey buy her book ‘Life, Law and not enough shoes’. Funny, inspiring and readable, it’s the best gift you could give someone! If you’d like to connect with Judith you can email her judith@judithfordham.com.au, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/killerheel1/ or through LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/judithfordham/

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