This is a collaborative piece.
Having recently graduated from college and entering the working (“real”) world, we have begun to notice the gross reality of gender dynamics that exist in the work place. We’ve talked to other women about our experiences and feelings and found that many could relate.
Many argue that we have come a long way as a society in terms of educating and employing women. But if we get into professions just to be made to feel invalidated by particular male colleagues, then how far have we come culturally?
The purpose of this post is to share experiences that women face in the work place that often go unnoticed, unspoken, and in many cases have become normalized. Four stories are shared below and the women who have opted to contribute have also chosen to remain anonymous for the sake of their employment. Fear is something that comes along with speaking out and the risk involved in saying something is a very real chance we take. We would, of course, prefer to feel safe sharing these stories openly, but that is not a place that we have yet reached, as individuals and as a society.
EXCUSE ME, Shut Up
I’m not a fan of having to get dressed up for work. By all means, I like to look nice but if I could do my job in leggings and a loose tee every day, you bet I would. But I know that in my position, I gain respect from my clients by looking professional and put together. My clients need all the help and respect they can get in their lives so I take the dress code seriously balancing pencil skirts, blazers, heels, the ordinary combination of a professional female business wardrobe.
I’ll admit, I do feel more the part when I’m dressed-up, a bit more powerful and confident about my ability, a bit more assured that my clients trust me to do my job and help them instead of write them off like everyone else in their lives. Most of my clients and colleagues are men. I can keep up with the office banter, grant it it’s a good thing I play fantasy football and can talk the normal Sports Center and beer lingo, being from Wisconsin. I sometimes wonder how they would react if I randomly decided to go on a tangent about what color I’m planning on dying my hair, but that’s besides the point.
I’ve come to love my job, even the dressing-up; it feels good to look good I can’t lie. But I absolutely, full-heartedly detest, no, loathe the extra shall we say “attention” I receive for the way my body looks in my clothing. I’m curvaceous, I have quite the rack (brought to you by both sides of the family), but never do I try to intentionally flaunt this at work. One day I borrowed a roommates dress that was a little tight; not doing that again. The first guy I see in the office says to me “well that is quite the pretty necklace you have, which boyfriend of yours got that for you?” If you know me, you know I was contemplating smacking him. EXCUSE ME. Thoughts in my head:
1 – Yeah, you’re looking at my necklace, my ass. He was staring directly at my rack and the dress I was wearing even went up to my neck. Subtle.
2 – I can buy my own fricken jewelry thank you very much, hell no do I need a man for that.
And 3 – To even imply that I would date multiple guys at once like some kinda gold digger is beyond insulting.
Sadly I’ve gotten use to the reactions I get any day I come to work looking a little too, let’s say appealing and my coworkers and clients alike, can’t help but issue a slew of “well ain’t you looking fancy today” or my personal favorite, “I see you white girl.” Shut-up.
My co-worker put it really well the other day. He said to me, “someone was talking to me about you the other day and the first thing that came out of the guy’s mouth was ‘she’s beautiful.’” My co-worker goes on to say how frustrating that is, that I’m chalked up to be a pretty girl, completely omitting the work that I do and the passion that I have for my job.
Compliments about appearance are nice; as someone who’s dealt with major body and confidence issues for a long while, sometimes it’s the morale boost I need. But if looking nice and professional comes at the price of being just another pretty girl in the office, peace out, I’m done.
I’ll continue to dress the part for the sake of my clients, but the next person that says “dang you look fine,” watch out. And for the love of women, can we design some professional clothing that aren’t created to make my butt look tight, my waste look small, and my legs look built!
I Can Build My Own Damn Bike
Ooh, I bet you got a lot of whistles this morning.” This is what I heard when I walked into work one day. I was dressed in a black pencil skirt, flowy top, tights and some pretty sleek boots. I looked good. Felt confident. But of course I knew I’d be receiving a comment about it. Maybe it’s the feminist in me, raging more and more every day. But when I dress for work, for anything, I do it for myself. Not to get stared at by every man on the bus, the street, at work. And certainly not to get whistled at like a dog.
Now, this comment was a compliment. But it bothered me. Especially because it came from a woman. We’ve become subliminally trained to dress to impress. Because that’s how we draw attention. That’s how we hold power. By how we put ourselves together in the morning. True, I feel more confident when I look good. But I do it for myself. Anyways, maybe I’m ranting too much and not getting into the real thick of it. The things that really get beneath my skin because I am a woman in my workplace.
Whenever I need to move something or take on a task that’s not so ladylike, I most certainly, without a doubt, will hear “Oh, you need a man to help you with that!”. Sometimes, I do need a hand, but I’ll be damned if I hand over a box or a task to a guy that thinks I can’t handle it. I recently got a new bike through work and planned to assemble it on my own. I can’t tell you how many pushy offers I received to have one of our male residents put it together. I’m a pretty avid bike rider, know how to fix a flat, and most importantly, know how to read instructions. So I felt like I was qualified enough to put a bike together. But at least 5 people didn’t think so.
Maybe it’s because I’m so headstrong, but I assembled that bike all by my damn self. I got stares of amazement. Many from fellow females who thought I should have handed the task to a man. This is what irked me the most. Where along the line were these women told they needed a man to help them? That they were less than capable. Perhaps I’m a raging, headstrong feminist, but I prefer to be thought of as a capable woman. Especially at work.
The Skanky Shorts
I have begun a new job at a progressive, young, nonprofit organization. The man who hands me my check each month is friendly, flirty even. It honestly makes me feel uncomfortable but I have never said anything about it. I mean, I am new here, I am young, and he is in a position of power. So, I think, flirting is harmless and avoid him.
A few weeks into the job I make it out to a happy hour with a few co-workers. It feels good to finally get out of the work cloths and hang out with the people I am around all day. I show up in jean shorts and a tee shirt, my typical summer apparel. My uncomfortably flirty friend shows up and offers to buy me drinks. I’m broke so hey, why not? We all sit together and are enjoying each other’s company.
The flirting coworker’s next move changed my mood for the remainder of the night. The man who hands me my pay checks looks at me, to poke fun, and in front of our entire group says “She can’t be trusted, just look at her skanky shorts.” My face just went blank, I was confused, shocked. The first thought that popped into my head was, first of all, how dumb his joke was. It made no sense (so if you are scratching your head wondering what the point of the joke was, there was none). It felt like it was just a random opportunity for him to say something about my clothing choice. That in itself confused and infuriated me.
Because he pointed out my clothing in front of a large group, I naturally felt everyone’s gaze. I just sat there, feeling exposed. I tugged at my shorts as if I could disprove his statement, maybe avoid the potential judgement of my colleagues who’s attention was now on my lower half. I didn’t want to stand up for the rest of the evening out of fear that everyone would look at my ass and judge the clothing I had chosen to wear. He, in that one statement, caused me to feel embarrassment, anger, fear, shame. I questioned how long he had been looking at my shorts, thinking they were skanky. Was it when he bought me a drink? I felt angry. He embarrassed me. I felt violated by his analysis of my outfit.
I sat in my own silence turning the comment over and over in my head. Why the fuck was he even looking at my shorts? Who gave him the right to draw his own conclusions on the style of clothes I choose to wear out? Weather it was in or out of the work place, he has no right to call my clothing skanky. What was he saying about me in that comment about my shorts? I don’t wear those shorts out anymore. He continues to flirt at work. I wonder if he thinks about what his simple words and actions have the power to make me feel.
The Questions Behind My Silence
I feel two simultaneous jabs on either side of my torso, just below my ribs. You know, the type that you might get teasingly from a significant other, or pesteringly from a little sibling. The kind meant to get a rise out of you, meant to make you jump, giggle, and turn around to teasingly slap the person who did the jabbing. This is not one of those times. I’m at work.
I’m caught off guard by the pokes. My body tenses involuntarily. My head whips around and my mind races. What was that? Who touched me? Why?
In the few split seconds that it took for me to turn around, my mind had not decided how I felt, let alone come up with how to react. I was surprised but not quite offended, confused but not quite angry. Mostly, I was just shocked and weirded out.
My eyes caught a glimpse of one of my male co-workers walking behind me. His head turned back to meet my bewildered glance and he smiled. I immediately knew then that he had poked me on my sides.
A hundred questions flooded my mind.
Is this normal? Should I be mad? Am I offended? Is this harassment? Should I tell someone? Why would he even do that? He’s married. Is he trying to bug me? I would never do that to anyone. Ever. Especially at work. He is a man and he is much older than me. I know he would never go up behind another male co-worker and do that. Is this a gender thing? An age thing? Do people even take me seriously? Or am I just some kid they can pick on? Is it a cultural thing? Is this teasing okay in some places? What am I supposed to do? How do I react? They never tell you what to do in these situations. Am I being silly? Should this not be something that bothers me? Does it bother me?
They, you know, the teachers, youth leaders, parents, and counselors, they always tell you to report sexual abuse. They tell you to let someone know if anyone verbally or physically harasses you. But what about all that grey area. What about when a male co-worker sneaks up and teasingly pokes you in your sides? What about when you don’t know whether it’s something inappropriate or if you’re just being too sensitive? What about when that person who makes you uncomfortable is one of your bosses?
I still don’t know exactly what I should have done in that situation. I told a few of my female co-workers that I trust about the incident and I was surprised to hear that they have had similar, and some worse, situations and stories involving that same male co-worker. One co-worker even reported one of the incidents, but apparently nothing really changed.
So what is my solution? For now, I avoid being alone with him. I respect him less. Sometimes I’m rude to him. Sometimes I rehearse in my mind how I will react or what I will say if he tries something else or says something inappropriate. Is that the right answer? I don’t really know, and I think the not knowing how to asses these situations bothers me just as much as the fact that these things happen in the first place.
So the days come to an end. The weeks pass by. The comments are made and then they fade. We get stares and whistles, snide comments, uncomfortable feelings. We hope for an end. Some of us will speak up. Some of us won’t. Some of us will get angry and take action. Some of us will be scared. We will stand up for ourselves and for women as a whole, for equality and for liberty.
We will speak and act for the future and for hope. For now, we hope that you join us in this effort and raise the awareness and share your own stories. Listen to other’s stories and listen to yourself.
We hope that the accounts you read and the real women behind them stirred your hearts. We hope that you will bring this challenge and this awareness into your own communities, families, and workplaces, and give someone else hope.