Most women of my age have had some experience of sexism at work. Sometimes it can be truly horrific, other times it’s just mildly irritating, but it’s always diminishing.
We have made great changes in Australia over the last 50 years, sexual harassment is illegal and most workplaces now have avenues for redress that were not available to our mothers and grandmothers. This is definitely something to celebrate, but it hasn’t removed sexism from our culture or our offices.
What do you do though, about sexism that doesn’t actually affect your career or your ability to do your job? How should you respond when the source is someone you otherwise actually quite like?
Many years ago I worked for a man who was very supportive of my career. He mentored me, encouraged me, even promoted me. He had a number of female staff and had no difficulty in recognising their skills, or even in seeing in them greater ability than male staff. He was understanding and flexible on working arrangements, never objected to the occasional child in the office for a day or unexpected leave to manage family difficulties. I learned an enormous amount from him and am still very grateful for the opportunities he gave me.
All sounds great, right? Certainly not the description anyone would expect of a sexist boss. And in the definition of sexism in the workplace, where it denied me advancement, he was not a sexist boss.
He was however, uncomfortably chauvinistic.
There were endless jokes, looks, stereotypes and expectations, the ephemeral minutia of sexism you can never pin down, but too often colours daily subconscious interactions and never lets you forget that your sexual availability defines you in the eye of your beholder.
He would comment on my appearance, my figure, my weight, my clothing, it was never derogatory, but it was more than just “you look nice today”. He would section off parts of my body and look, just a fraction too long; he’d make jokes about how he couldn’t say what he was thinking because he’d my husband was bigger than him. He’d talk about the women we did business with as “eye-candy” and ask me if I thought women were flirting with him to get deals done. When I told him that what he thought was flirting was actually women uncomfortable and unsure of how to respond to the jokes he was making, he would laugh heartily and tell me that they knew him too well to be offended, he was just having fun and they were too.
On the few occasions I tried to explain that he was being sexist, he would get quite genuinely upset. How, he asked, could I possibly accuse him of sexism? He had no problem with women at work, as I of all people should know. He had proven that with the opportunities he gave me and the other women who worked for him. He believed, in all sincerity, that he found sexism abhorrent, the very idea that I could accuse him of sexism was insulting and ungrateful.
He was suffering from the inherent blindness of the confident, white, heterosexual man who had never felt diminished by casual sexism and therefore couldn’t comprehend its effects. He thought of himself as a good man, he was a good man, and therefore he couldn’t possibly be sexist. In his mind he was just a bit “cheeky”, bantering with the girls in a way that made them feel good. Anyone who read more into it or felt uncomfortable because of it was over-sensitive, or just didn’t understand him. It was their problem, not his.
It was very difficult to know how to respond to it. Not only was he my boss, but he was also a person I did quite genuinely like and respect, the work I did for him was enjoyable and challenging. In some ways it would have been easier to deal with had those things not been true.
Even writing this now, years later, I feel echoes of the doubt and embarrassment I felt at the time. It felt so petty, like I was being silly, over-sensitive and humourless. Terrible things were happening to other women, honest-to-god sexual harassment that made my minor discomfort trivial, to the point that even telling my friends about it made me feel weak and whiney.
It didn’t happen every day, but it was often enough that it had more effect than I realised at the time. Without really even being aware of it, I changed how I behaved at work. I took to wearing big, shapeless clothes, scrunching my hair back and eschewing makeup. I wouldn’t stand up when I was talking to him, I’d make sure desks, computer screens, even big folders were covering me. I was uncomfortable in meetings, aware that when he made sexual jokes about me, it made me look weak to other women and made it even more difficult to get men to take me seriously. I stopped eating in the lunchroom, because eating at my desk was preferable to listening to jokes about sex workers or stories about women he would have said very different things to “if I wasn’t a married man”.
I didn’t have to do any of those things, I could have been bigger, stronger, pushed back or refused to allow it to bother me, and thereby proved that I am a Strong Independent Woman™ who could not be diminished by small irrelevancies. That I didn’t felt like proof it was my problem, not his.
I don’t know how I would react to such behaviour now, with the benefit of years and experience I didn’t have at the time. Perhaps I would be able to be firmer about refusing to accept it and clearer about the effect it had. Perhaps it was a relic of its time and more men now know to not treat women like that, and more women know how to stand up to it when it does. But I still remember clearly how confusing and reductive it was, and how much of it I took on as my responsibility, not his. And I do wonder if it happens more than we know about because the women hearing it are, as I was, too afraid that talking about it would only diminish them further.