Women, You’re Not The Problem — Our Sexist Workplace Culture Is

My year away from the office showed me just how toxic these environments are to women.
Isabella Carapella/HuffPost

After more than a decade of working full-time in various editorial roles and in a range of office environments, I am now, at 35, a freelancer.

On one hand, there is an obvious explanation for why I no longer hold a fancy title like executive editor or editorial director. I lost my job in late 2016 and, six months later, got pregnant with my second child.

“It’s just not a good time to start an office job right now,” I say when anyone asks about my plans to go back “full-time.” (As if having seven deadlines a week isn’t working full-time.)

Yes, I enjoy the extra time I have with my family and 3-year-old son, but if I’m being honest, “time with my family” isn’t the real reason I haven’t pursued an office gig. I’m not going after any high-level jobs right now because, honestly, I am exhausted from dealing with the rampant and unapologetic sexism of workplace culture.

I graduated NYU cum laude in under four years with a degree in journalism and a minor in gender studies. Yet as I steadily climbed from reporter to senior editor to managing editor to news editor, every new position came with more reminders that being a woman was a clear disadvantage.

There was the male colleague who watched porn all day at his desk — which was directly next to my desk — and commented about it, loudly, with other men at work. (Do I even need to say this was a male colleague? Do women ever, ever proudly announce they are watching pornography at work?)

When I expressed disgust, I was told to stop being so immature and to “lighten up.” That same guy, about 30 years my senior, also once told me “your boobs look great in that shirt.” I wore headphones for six months and eventually quit.

There was the reporter who had less experience than I did, who was hired after me, and who, I later found out, was being paid almost $10K more than I was. When I asked my company for a raise, my editor just started critiquing me more harshly and giving me poor performance reviews to justify the lower earnings.

“I was punished for not working harder to nurture and uphold a culture built around the lethal combination of aging white men’s ego and libido.”

Even though I knew I was outperforming that guy — breaking and writing more and better stories — I still believed, somewhere in me, that I wasn’t good enough.

There was the managing editor — one of the only men on our team — that I went to for guidance on how to resolve a workflow issue I’d been having with another colleague. His response? “This is why you don’t fill an entire staff with 20-something girls.”

There was the manager who, every week, after I gave in-depth, highly researched presentations about our website’s performance and KPIs, would take something I said and then repeat it back to everyone on the call — including our company’s president — as though it was his original thought. One time, I called him out on it. His response? Something along the lines of, “But the way I am phrasing it makes it more clear.”

There was the male friend who was recruiting for an editor of a startup. When I reached out to throw my hat in the ring, he told me, “We’re actually only looking for a guy for this role. Sorry!” When I pointed out that wasn’t legal, he told me to “chill.”

There was the male staff writer who, even though he reported to me, constantly interrupted me and talked over me in meetings.

There were the colleagues (both male and female) who, after I had a baby, rolled their eyes or got frustrated every time I left for 20 minutes to pump breast milk.

There was the hiring manager who asked if I would be dedicated enough to my job considering I had a young child at home. (She herself had kids.)

I know some of these actions are against New York State and other laws. I know I could have gone to “HR.” But not only did many of these companies not have a functioning HR department, it was super clear to me — as it was to many of the woman who have recently come forward with their stories of everyday harassment in the workplace — that it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.

How do you prove gender discrimination? How do you prove you’re not bad at your job when the man in power wants you gone for pushing back?

Thanks to the many women who have come forward with their own stories of experiencing harassment, bias and even assault in the workplace, we are now in a moment of dissecting how toxic workplace culture is for women. But it’s not just the disregard for our basic rights to comfort and safety that make it so toxic ― it’s also the general disregard for women’s ability to succeed.

When men in the workplace, intentional or not, call women “girls,” create hyper-sexualized environments, begrudge us for wanting equal pay, dismiss our desire for conflict resolution as immature, punish us for having children, interrupt or co-opt our ideas, they are telling us: You matter less. The basic truth, that we are simply not as valuable as men, is drilled into us at every turn possible.

In response to The New York Times’ decision to continue reporter Glenn Thrush’s employment despite the culture of toxicity he created and contributed to, feminist author Jessica Valenti tweeted: “What the NYT is doing—and has done since Thrush’s suspension—is signal to women that their careers are not as important as men’s. Full stop.”

That is the same signal I received from nearly every workplace environment I’ve ever been in.

It didn’t come from one person. It wasn’t created or enforced with intention. But, left unexamined, this dismissal of women’s concerns at work has the cumulative effect of making us believe we are less valuable.

I, for one, internalized that message as one of personal failing. I blamed myself for “allowing” the weight of these double standards crush me. Certainly plenty of women have risen to the top of male-dominated environments. Why wasn’t I able conjure their steely grit? Why couldn’t I lean in?

In the end, I think I just got too tired. Tired of watching mediocre guys coast to high-ranking positions based on their likability. Tired of the message that I needed to figure out how to exist in a culture that prizes and supports maleness and whiteness above all else. I got tired of hearing my own ideas repeated back to me. Of being cut off. Of watching women tear each other down in order to get ahead.

Of course, I’ve made my share of mistakes as an employee, as a manager and as a writer. Who hasn’t? I’m not here to say I was perfect. But the punishment never seemed to fit the crime. Because in the end, I wasn’t ever really punished for poor performance. I was punished for not working harder to nurture and uphold a culture built around the lethal combination of aging white men’s ego and libido.

Recently, Rebecca Traister wrote a piece in response to workplace harassment titled ”This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work, which describes how these power dynamics wear away at women’s confidence in the workplace. She unpacks the disappointment women feel for having “tricked ourselves into thinking [men] might see us as smart, formidable colleagues or rivals, not as the kinds of objects they can just grab and grope and degrade without consequence.”

Traister writes, “Women’s access to work and to power within their workplaces is curtailed, often via the very same mechanisms that promote, protect, and forgive men, the systems that give them double, triple chances to advance, and to abuse those around them, over and over again.”

The year I have spent away from the system of abuse has been one of reflection. I have focused on the many great bosses and colleagues I’ve had over the years, including male bosses who mentored me, treated me like a true colleague and saw my female qualities as an asset instead of a hindrance. Over time, I was able shift the blame away from myself and start to accept that I am fine — it’s the culture that’s in desperate need of repair.

Especially over the past few months, this outlook has been solidified again and again. To the many women who came forward with their stories, along with the voices of the journalists and writers who have analyzed and put these truths about workplace culture and sexism into context, I thank you. I thank you for helping me see that I was not alone in my struggle. For helping me see that my resistance to accepting this great untruth — that I was not good or smart or qualified — is a positive attribute.

The year I’ve spent away from office environments has helped me rebuild the confidence that was lost. I can focus my energy on the work instead of trying to navigate psychological landmines. Being away from an office environment has almost entirely eliminated toxic encounters like the once I experienced working in-house. It’s very freeing. The time has also made me realize that as long as workplaces refuse to accommodate women’s lives and realities in the same way they accommodate the lives and realities of men, these environments will always be toxic to women.

And as long as we, as women, continue to bend to these structures, as long as we perpetuate the myth that the system is fine — that it is we who are broken — we will exhaust ourselves by simply trying to exist.

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