At my relatively young age, you’d think that I wouldn’t have run into much sexism during my career. It was supposed to have been eradicated by now, right? Like racism? Female CEOs and black presidents mean we’re all buttoned up here. No more glass ceilings, no more trapdoors built into the system, no more cause for concern. The last bastion for the civilized nation is homophobia and now that we have openly gay athletes, we’re done with that in about two weeks, I’ve heard.
And it’s true, I can’t say I’ve experienced overt sexism – the slap your ass or bartered for cattle sexism. I’ve worked in the legal, technology and professional consulting fields as general support and the sexism I have experienced – being patronized, belittled and subjected to The Good Old Boys cliques – come nowhere near what people think of when you talk about sexism. It’s far more insidious. It seems like it’s more feeling than fact. You are meant to think it’s in your head and you’re taking things too personally and you are the one with the problem.
My most traumatic work experience was during my time with The Good Old Boys.
An incident occurred while I was working in the legal field between my transfer from junior college into university to finish my BA. I was at the firm for a little over a year and I worked evenings with two people – my lead and someone who was hired a few weeks after me. Both were men. The man hired after me, I found out later from him, came in making $1.50 an hour more than me, despite both of us doing the same work and having the same level of experience. It, cutely I now find, shocked me at the time.
Towards the end of my time there, already accepted into the university of my choice, my lead and I came to a disagreement. He and another colleague from a different department would gossip for hours during our shift and I asked him to please take it to the break room, since it was distracting. What followed was two weeks of passive aggressive quips at me, if not outright silence. I finally apologized, not because I really understood what I did wrong, but because I understood admitting fault was the only way he was going to start talking to me again, which, surprising no one, was very necessary in order for me to do my job.
A month later, he asked me to remove a book from my university’s library to be scanned. I scanned it as best I could on premise and then just checked the book out and brought it in. He instructed me to take more books out so the firm could scan them cover to cover, as there might be useful information in them. I objected, saying that if the firm wanted access to these books – of which they were a limited edition compilation of trade articles, all running about 600+ pages each – they needed to find a better avenue, because I was not taking on the responsibility for all these books that would be broken and damaged through the scanning process.
His solution was to order me to do it.
My response was to tell him in no uncertain terms to shove it up his ass.
I was not terribly diplomatic when I was younger.
So he emailed our supervisor and said, “I just can’t even deal with her anymore! I’m so upset,” and took a few days off work, because the sight of me would upset him further, I was told. So our supervisor spoke to me and it was decreed that we would all meet at the beginning of our shifts the following week and discuss this like levelheaded adult people who work together.
What actually followed was my being dropped into a room with my male supervisor, my male lead and my male coworker and being told that everything I felt and thought was personal and that if I didn’t find a way to work with my lead, changes would have to be made – “changes,” meaning my employment, or rather my lack thereof with the firm.
So I apologized.
To everyone. To the world. By the time the hour and a half meeting was up, where I wasn’t allowed to leave and I was forced to talk about why I was putting them all through this, I had basically taken on the burdens of both slavery and the Holocaust just to get out of that room.
I was nineteen.
The youngest person in that room. The only female in that room. And they united against me, scapegoated me and then forced me to sit there while I had my job threatened in front of my coworkers. The ranks had closed and I found myself outside of them.
I gave two weeks notice a week later.
I walked off the job a week after that.
I remember being on the phone with a friend a week after I quit, hidden away on a side alley of my new campus, crying my eyes out over what had happened. How weak and useless I felt. How resentful I was that my lead was the one who was making work personal and yet, I was the one who had to take full blame and apologize. That I’d let myself get pushed into – what I felt and still feel – was a false confession, an untruthful omission, and pushed around. How much I hated them and in part myself for letting that happen. I had hurt my own honor. I had lied to save myself and, in my soul, I felt that as completely wrong.
I found out years later that I had been blacklisted from employment there.
Frankly, I don’t think there is a paycheck large enough to entice me back.
Does that mean women aren’t capable of the same thing? Of course not. I’m not saying that. What I rail against – what makes me shake the bars and scream – is not exclusion, because that is a natural part of any group – it’s the inherent power displacement. I was not in that room with equals, who unilaterally decided I was in the wrong. I was not even in that room with people who understood me – or had made any effort to understand me. I was in that room with a wall, a power structure that I did not and could not belong to.
That’s when work stops feeling like a team of people united in a common goal and starts feeling like embattlement.
Now I feel it bears mentioning that the best employer I have had thus far has been a man. The reason I valued working with him as much as I did is because he valued not only the work I did, but also my insight into the company culture and the business. He promoted me and gave me a raise as my job duties expanded (something most business owners I have experience with will not do), gave me more responsibility and unilateral control over my own job, and trusted me a hundred percent. In his personal life, he was a complete dog, but luckily, I didn’t have to worry about his personal life, beyond making the odd reservation or flight arrangement. At work, he had determined I added value to the company and respected my work and me. He was my superior – more experienced, more knowledgeable and responsible for running the company – and I could respect that. We had a work relationship that worked for both of us.
Until one of the other higher ups decided he didn’t like the way I was being managed, that I was taking too much latitude, and that he was far more knowledgeable than my supervisor about how to best manage people. He had no idea what I did, no idea how to answer any of my questions, thought that my career tract was much more HR oriented than business operations despite my insisting otherwise, didn’t understand how the business worked, etc. etc.
This new manager played favorites to an insane degree, including giving sizeable raises to people for no rhyme or reason; made terrible business decisions; talked down to the female employees regularly; tried on several occasions to get into female employees’ pants (our relationship was far too contentious for him to try to get near my toothed vagina, as I’m sure he assumed I possessed); spread rumors about employees’ sex lives and did drugs on workplace premises with employees. Any time I asked (with deliberate politeness, because I could never be sure what would set him off into a tantrum) if what he was doing was really the best course of action, he would get defensive and tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I once found out during a termination that he had taken all the female employees from one department to a bar to trash talk about their then-recently-terminated manager. The only reason I found out was because the woman being let go mentioned another previous employee was encouraging a lawsuit for harassment. When I asked my manager why he would do that, he accused me of being on the terminated supervisor’s side and letting him get into my head. Because he was never wrong – only the way I was thinking could be wrong.
Another time, he asked me to work on a structure within a department he didn’t understand. So I dutifully put several days into the research, outlining and documenting what I thought the structure should look like. I sent it to him. He said we should meet. So we met the next day, at which point he picked up the piece of paper it was outlined on, threw it across the table at me, threw his feet up on the chair next to him and popped the cap of his beer bottle. From this reclined, casual position, he told me it was too complicated and needed to be done over. He told me in his body language and his attitude that my work required so little consideration that it didn’t even warrant his serious attention.
He was another one where I had to share false omissions to get out of meetings with him. He was another one that threatened my job for being too outspoken. He said to me at one point, “we don’t have the sort of relationship where you should think you can tell me that.” He followed that up by explaining he and his wife’s marital problems. He made it clear that he could speak to anyone, in any way and about anything he liked, but at no point was I to speak out of turn. He was older, white, rich and male. Every structure in his life and fiber in his being told him he was in the right, even when he was wrong. If I wasn’t willing to feed into that narrative, I was threatening his understanding of himself and that was a problem.
At the end of the day, I was a problem. I didn’t flirt, I didn’t position myself as lesser, I didn’t come across as non-threatening and meek. I had a voice and I expected to be heard. Even though I always asked him privately and respectfully about his decisions when they seemed to fly in the face of the business’ interests, I was challenging his authority and showing that I didn’t trust his judgment, which he took as an unwarranted and personal criticism.
Am I reading too much into this? I don’t think so. I spent months trying to develop a system that would allow me to dodge his outbursts and lectures. Every time I let my guard down, he would call another uncomfortable meeting and force another awkward, painful confrontation that would leave me anxious and ill at-ease in his presence. I began unconsciously leaning away from him whenever he came into my personal area. Again, I felt besieged.
I may not have been spun around and kissed on the street after a company happy hour as happened to one of my female coworkers or kept out for friendly drinks until 3 AM while his wife fretted at home like another or even been part of that group of women dragged to a bar under false pretenses and pressured to accept him as the better and more caring manager than the one before, but I felt his very presence as an assault and a violation. There was not one woman in that office that wasn’t harassed by this man in one form or another and when we broached the subject with each other, about him generally but not the actions, we smiled without our eyes and waved it off and acted like it probably wasn’t as bad as we thought it was. Maybe we had misunderstood.
And that’s how insidious it is. That we don’t even fully trust our own experiences, because we are working inside a power structure and maybe it isn’t meant the way it’s felt and maybe we are taking it too personally.
And maybe we’re lying to save ourselves, because that’s the only way out of that room.
I can only speak to sexism in the workplace as it affects me, a woman. I know that it must exist in even more complicated and layered ways, that it undoubtedly can lead to a manager with no teeth or inappropriate in the other direction.
But this sexism that I speak of, this one that lays under the words and happens in dark corners where you aren’t fully sure if what you heard or saw or felt is right – it’s real. It’s real and it breaks down the team; it breaks down your company from the inside. It’s as damaging to men as it is to women, because abuses of power will always take their toll. When you undercut any part of your workforce from being able to come to work and do his or her job, you have undercut your own company. Any second that is spent trying to unravel whether or not someone has crossed a line is a second that is not spent working as a team or working towards a goal. Any time your workers feel embattled, you have already lost the war.