Why Didn't You Warn Me?

Like many women my age, my experience with sexism at work has not been defined by overt actions but by insinuations, subtly gender-specific suggestions and bad advice couched as compliments about how "young I look."
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Three young men on bench indoors watching woman walking past
Three young men on bench indoors watching woman walking past

I'm not proud of it, but I called my mother recently and blamed her for something that had nothing to do with her. (That's what parents are for, right? No?) Our chat began with a seemingly innocuous discussion about office politics but evolved into a series of stories about men at work talking through me, around me and about me. I'd never have considered most of these interactions gender-related in the moment, but as they blended together I started to see a pattern that felt oddly... well... anachronistic. When my shock finally coalesced into words, they were, "Why didn't you warn me this would happen?!" Poor mom.

What I meant by "this," of course, is difficult to describe with any specificity. Like many women my age, my experience with sexism at work has not been defined by overt actions but by insinuations, subtly gender-specific suggestions, bad advice couched as compliments about how "young I look," and a lot of seemingly innocuous language that takes on a gendered meaning only in the work context. Identifying these small moments of misogyny has, to a large degree, involved learning a new language comprised of words I know with meanings I don't. Plenty of women have pointed these issues out -- I haven't discovered something groundbreaking here -- but the scope of the problem still caught me unawares and the ways in which I'd been brushing off small moments of misogynistic behavior and blaming them on other factors (I once "looked young" because I was, after all) startled me. I'd known that women weren't getting paid as much as men, I'd known that we weren't getting the same opportunities, but "small" sexism was so much more insidious than I had realized. How, after all, do you identify the moment that "looking young" morphs from being a compliment and/or truthful statement to being a subtle knock on your work credibility? If Google is any guide, a lot of women are wondering this.

In the decade since I entered the job market there's been an explosion of measurable social progress. Same-sex couples can marry in most places. The 99 percent is a term we all use, conservative politicians included. Our president is black and several potential 2016 contenders are women. These changes have been satisfying, but just as we still live in a world in which Ferguson protests are warranted, we still live in a world in which sexism and misogyny remain prevalent issues that impact people's lives in measurable ways. I seem to keep learning this the hard way, not because nobody is talking about it, but because gender discrimination is so difficult to disentangle from the other social politics of the workplace, especially in your insecurity-laden, poser-y, confusing youth.

It's not that I don't see the broad strokes of improvement; I do. Still, I've learned firsthand the tone your boss uses to speak to you, the "helpful" observations he makes about your work, the insinuations that you aren't fitting into the company culture, and the degree to which he chooses to overlook your experience, age, qualifications or intelligence when considering who to mentor cannot be easily or effectively analyzed for gender bias in the moment and often slip by easily. It's the degree to which the same seemingly-innocuous language is being employed nationwide to exclude women that makes your head spin; it's actually pretty astounding, even if you've been reading pop-feminist blogs religiously and have done your history homework. That, or maybe it's just that a lot of my friends and peers "look young" because they are in their 30s but "small," seem "entitled" because they are educated and ambitious, should stop being so "impatient," and should do a better job of "fitting in." (And isn't it terrible how women can never "make up their minds" without seeming "abrasive"?) If there is one major piece of wisdom I can now say I've learned definitely in my 30s, it's that women can never stop being vigilant and that vigilance is exhausting.

Feminism is having a moment right now, which is wonderful, but today's brand of popular feminism doesn't provide much advice on what to do about workplace sexism beyond staying "strong." The corporate-baron brand of "girl-power" feminism that figures like Sheryl Sandberg bring to the table tells women how to take on big moments of prejudice in splashy careers, but it's notably silent on how to identify and combat the little, subtle slights for those of us who have not yet made it to the top. Realistically, I suppose there isn't much to suggest anyway. There's no government body that handles complaints about mild sexist implications and it's the cumulative effect of these actions that's problematic, not just the moments themselves. In many cases, subtle misogyny isn't even meant to be malicious; the men (and sometimes women) that perpetuate these issues often aren't setting out to exclude women and many would be horrified to discover that their actions say otherwise.

For myself, however, I'd just like to get away with being "smart" without being "strong." I want there to be widespread acceptance of the truth, which is that women who are short at 22 will also be short at 32 and 42 but they will still be older and wiser. I want to know that there is such a thing as a non-gendered company culture. But most of all I don't want my own (hypothetical but obviously ambitious) daughters to helplessly call me and demand to know why I didn't warn them.

My mother, by the way, handled my outburst calmly and thoughtfully, as mothers of self-possessed, demanding, confident daughters learn to do. She replied, "Nobody warned me either. You never expect it." Touché.

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