A Woman in a Man’s World
I am a woman in a man’s world. My field is more than 70% male. In practice, this means that I am highly employable. Finding a job isn’t hard for me. Everyone wants a token female to create an image of diversity and inclusion. It is, however, difficult for me to actually do my job. Often, I find myself working with men who gravitated to this field because of the lack of women. They don’t know how to work with us, and they certainly don’t want to learn. They alternate between avoiding me completely or being far too fascinated by me. They want to be my friend, ask me questions they never dared ask another woman, or make romantic passes at me.
I am not the most socially competent person. I don’t know how to respond to awkward encounters. Usually, I laugh things off or ignore them. Sometimes, I get into situations I regret. I answer the wrong questions a bit too candidly. I act in ways that make men feel encouraged to treat me unprofessionally. I put myself in vulnerable positions.
I have felt regret, anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and fear after and during interactions with coworkers. I have changed my behavior, dress, and personal appearance because of the reactions of men I work with. I avoid bright colors and revealing pieces of clothing to avoid catching anyone’s eye. When I braided my long hair after a few hot days this summer, my boss couldn’t resist tugging the end of it. So I cut off 13 inches the next day and donated it to a charity. He fluffed my new short haircut, too. I cringed. But it’s all in good fun, right?
My boss only really touched me in a wrong way once. I was hanging off a railing, being stupid. He walked past and tapped me on the ass with his hand. I said “Hey” somewhat loudly. So he didn’t get away with it, right? It was my fault anyway for being there. And when he insists I walk ahead of him and hover-hands my waist from just behind me, that doesn’t count. Right?
#MeToo is making waves. Women are making a fuss. We are speaking out and talking about our place in society and the ugly things we experience. We are breaking the silence. We are not being quiet, well-behaved women.
My boss doesn’t like it.
There was a day during which women were supposed to stay home and prove to the world how valuable we are. I missed the memo and heard about it on the radio on my way into work. Later that day, my boss cornered me in my office. He sat in front of the door and asked why I came in. I laughed and said I didn’t know. He laughed and told me what a silly thing it was for women to do. Then he wasn’t laughing. He was demanding answers as to why women were making such a fuss. What made me special? He suffered, too! He didn’t get paid enough, either! When was the day to celebrate his problems?! Huh?!
I was quiet. I just wanted to do my job and go home. Why did I have to be the one to represent my entire sex? What could I say that wouldn’t make this worse?
There have been times when I made a silly mistake. Maybe I didn’t know how something worked. Maybe I just didn’t do enough research on something. Or I’d been caught saying something incorrect. Victory! He corrected me, and that gave him gloating rights. But it wasn’t just me he held it over—it was all women. Of course I made a mistake—I’m just a girl. I’m just like his daughter, or his wife, or any other woman. I felt shamed. I’d represented myself, and by extension, all females, poorly. I had to do better. No mistakes could be tolerated.
Once, I had a question—a point I need cleared up. So I walked down to his office. He had positioned himself strategically. To get to him, I had to walk down the long office past the desk whose occupant was almost never there. He had a long time to acknowledge his visitors before they could comfortably speak to him. Some started at the door and just yelled. But I didn’t have the confidence for that. I hated interrupting. And he was often on the phone or on a call on the computer.
So I walked down and leaned against the other desk waiting for him to look up. And he made me wait. For most people, he would stop what he’s doing and respond to them, I’ve noticed. He was certainly willing to stop a conversation with me to do so. But I waited. For minutes. Then he finally looked at me and asked, “What can I do for you, sunshine?”
Like other conversations, my work-related query was put on hold to discuss other matters. His weekend. My weekend. Personal lives. I didn’t know how to bring the conversation back to work. It lasted a long time, this conversation. I think he looked forward to it as a break in the day, a time to blow off steam and chat. Most times I did, too. Other times, it was just draining: a point in the day during which I felt powerless and out of control. Where the conversation could easily turn to topics that left me red-faced and shaking with discomfort.
But I laughed it off. (Laughter is a great way to disguise the redness and shaking, too.) I often play the part he has cast me in, a sarcastic but deferential girl. I often walk out backwards still laughing at things he is saying, trying to get out. Sometimes, I get out into the hall and he calls me back. Sometimes, I pretend not to hear him.
I don’t hate my job. I don’t hate my boss. I’m not physically afraid of him, nor afraid to be alone with him. Most days I can handle everything that happens. I can find my equilibrium. My calm. And it comes with its perks. Where else could I get a free master’s degree? He has done good things for me. Certainly, he has taught me about how work environments can be for someone like me. This job has been good for me. It has grown my career, my experience. And I’ve always been good at finding excuses for other people’s behavior. Anyway, I can leave when I graduate. I only have to make it that far and I’ll be home free.