Sometimes I catch myself feeling bitter, or maybe just plain angry. Maybe worse yet, sometimes I feel deserving of the momentary smallness another person has projected onto me.
I’ve experienced blatant sexism; I’m sure all women have. That kind of sexism is easy to spot though still denied by many. But it’s not really covert.
Then there is the kind that is more insidious. This kind sneaks up on you and has you question whether or not what you’re experiencing is actually worth recognizing as sexism. It’s the kind of stuff we tend to explain away.
I’ve had a male colleague speak for me—while I was sitting right there—in trying to persuade my boss: “She doesn’t want to sit here, she’d rather sit with other designers…”
I did, in fact, wish to sit exactly where I was sitting, but I wasn’t consulted in the matter.
I’ve had the same male colleague make another sexist comment to me in the presence of my boss, who was scheduled to take part in a photo shoot and was feeling a bit jet lagged/in need of grooming.
“I’m sure Alyssa has some makeup she can help you out with,” said the colleague.
In another, harder sexist blow the same male colleague told me that I was “unusually aggressive”. For an assertive, high-achieving woman in a man’s world, this is a hard one to take on the chin.
I've been told that I'm "not that great" and "maybe ... only 10% better than everyone else" in response to my assertive confidence. When women have to push themselves that much harder to be taken as seriously as men in the workplace, these comments are inappropriate. We should be encouraging female confidence, not making attempts to squash it.
I’ve even gone to presentations where I was addressed in the way a teacher might address a high school student, despite that fact that I am educated, in my mid thirties, with solid experience in my field and in a leadership position. In fact, on occasion people have tended to resist acknowledging my position of leadership as though I’m not entitled to it.
In short, it is hard for women to rise in the workplace—even harder when we catch ourselves putting up with experiences like the above that undermine our positions in front of important people and eat at our self-esteem.
If you are the new employee—male or female—and a high-achiever, I think it’s par for the course that any already-established high-achievers in the office will go on the offensive. But attacks like the above examples, however intentional they may or may not have been, are unacceptable. They drive low, designed to keep women small. And frankly, I’m tired of making excuses for them.
More men need to be educated about sexism, and both men and women need to be encouraged to leave gender and social stereotypes behind in an office environment. This, to me, has nothing to do with the label Feminism and everything to do with my own personal desire to be perceived as and treated as a human being first, a woman second. I'd like to be awarded the exact same opportunities and receive the exact same respect as my male counterparts when I deserve it (and most often, I do).
If you are a man and you're thinking, I don't treat women at work any differently, I believe you. But ask yourself this: If you have a female boss, have you ever considered her a nag or bitchy when she bugged you for a project that was due or pointed out something she didn't like about your project and directed you to change it? Have you ever referred to a female VP or CEO who is a tough businesswoman as a "monster" but given no second thought to a male businessman who is just as tough? Have you ever mistaken a new female coworker for younger and less experienced than, or even not quite as smart as she is? Or walked into a client office and accidentally mistaken a female professional for an administrative assistant? Those are a few ways we may subconsciously let gender stereotypes get in the way. Even women are sometimes guilty of seeing each other these ways.
I started becoming a high achiever when I left my family and close friends behind and moved to New York. I learned a lot about myself, gained full independence, and found my path. Every job I take, significant project I work on, and sometimes person I meet has been a part of that personal path in some way or another. Earning money has not been the goal, but rather a secondary necessity to sustain the journey.
I've never felt that getting married and having babies is my path, though it may become part of my path one day. But it's just not something I've ever had a passion to actively pursue. I'm happier doing my own thing, and I've never really understood why legally binding myself to someone with a piece of paper and a couple of rings is necessary. Society says, this is what you do. Maybe I want to do things a different way.
In 2008 I went vegan and started heavily finding spirituality. I studied many religions, philosophy, esotericism, and read two fictional books that especially stood out to me: The Alchemist and Siddhartha. The ideas I clung to after reading these books were about the cyclicality of the universe, finding our individual paths to enlightenment or just plain old happiness, that we all share a universal connection, and that one fixed idea can never account for the fullness of the truth. That, and all experience is necessary—even materialistic experience—because it leads to understanding. This is all very powerful.
But one thing is lacking in both of these strong and influential books. In both, the protagonist is male. In both, females are pieces of a larger puzzle accumulated on the male’s path to fulfillment. Her role is to push him to achieve, or wait for him to return to her once his journey is complete. A strong female protagonist is missing in both books. I hope, and believe, that women are also capable of following their own path without playing one of these two assigned roles. In The Alchemist we learn that love will never keep a man from his Personal Legend. But I feel that so, too, should it not keep a woman from her's.
This is a theme throughout religion and spirituality—the woman is secondary. And when she refuses to be, she is demonized (Lilith). Not that far from the way we tend to be viewed when we are assertive and confident in the workplace today.
So I wish I could find a book with similar themes to The Alchemist or Siddhartha that has a female protagonist; where both male and female play equal roles and meet in equality on their individual paths to enlightenment. Something to help inspire me a bit more personally when I'm feeling particularly discouraged.
Maybe I will try to write one…