Sometimes the lows can outweigh the highs as a woman in business, especially on airplanes. Monica Wolff explains.
There’s something undeniably exciting about the first few minutes of a flight. Settling into your seat, ruffling through the amenities kit, and checking what movies are on offer for the next few hours – it’s easy to get excited about having precious alone time on a long-haul flight. That is, until the man sitting next to you decides to make every minute of your journey together uncomfortable. This is exactly what happened to me during a recent work trip to Berlin.
The man in question was tall, a few years older than me and seemingly friendly. At first. We began with the usual shoptalk and banter that most people engage in when they’re lumped next to each other for ten hours. But it didn’t take long for the conversation to change direction. We’d barely begun taking off the runway when the chatter increased. As he continued to talk about his Danish wholesale fashion company, all I wanted to do was be left alone. I’d assumed by this point, that we were done with the polite chit-chat and I’d be free from to look out the window and wave a small farewell to Sydney for the next two weeks.
Since my new-found friend didn’t seem like he was going to stop talking anytime soon, I took the chance to open up about my business. I told him about Startup Muster and about the impact our statistics had. I told him I was on my way to represent Australia in Berlin at the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance Summit. And while he appeared to be listening, what he was really doing was looking for an opening to tell me his opinion on my world. The world I inhabit every day. A world that I am helping to create alongside my co-workers and amazing community of startup entrepreneurs.
Mr. X (let’s just give him a name) doesn’t waste a second before telling me the startup world isn’t something he’s familiar with, or cares about. His company as is explained to me, has more than 70,000 employees. It was the first time someone from a large, corporate organisation took the time to tell me they had no desire to ever understand anything about the startup community.
As the plane started taking off and my body was pushed back into the seat (who doesn’t love this part of the flight), the conversation suddenly became more personal. With two children under the age of five, Mr. X couldn’t believe I was 29 years old and that I didn’t have children. Adding to his chagrin was the crazy, out-there notion, that I actually don’t have any plans to have children in the foreseeable future and that my focus was on myself and my business. I told him the idea of having kids was “my choice, and not a priority at the moment.”
This then led to a further 15-minute conversation, in which a complete stranger fiercely started dictating the importance of kids at my age, and how this should be my sole priority. My favourite phrase of the moment became his “a life for a life” quote, which h used to illustrate that I had been given life as a woman to give life to others.
Normally, I would have been raging by this stage, spouting loud and proud that he had no right to tell me anything about myself, my body, my mind, or my future. But here we were, on a plane, thousands of feet in the air and I had to sit next to this man for the next ten hours.
So I did what I could. I remained forceful, unwavering in my stance that I didn’t have to comply with his attitude. I calmly asked Mr. X what gave him the right to tell me what I should do with my body or what life decisions I should make? And, of course, he had no real answer. He couldn’t even get over the shock that I hadn’t automatically agreed with him.
A woman with an opinion? How dare I?
With no genuine response to offer me, Mr. X then hit a new low. He decided to tell me about the female reproductive system and fertility. All I could do at this point was ask him how he would feel if I tried to tell to him about his body, his reproductive organs or his purpose. Besides the fact that he had no right to discuss any of these issues with me, he also failed to recognise how uncomfortable he was making me – especially seeing as I was traveling alone and I was stuck next to him with nowhere to go.
Finally, I recognised (albeit a bit late), that there was no reasoning with a man like this. My argument that I was an independent human being with free agency did not resonate. It didn’t even come close.
“Just give me five minutes to explain”, he said.
“I’ve given you 30 minutes already. When I get back from the bathroom, I am not speaking to you for the rest of my flight” I explained.
Why did I have to be put in this situation? Why did the very beginning of a long and stressful work trip need to be marred by an experience like this? Why did I have to be forceful and ask to not be spoken to? And why was this the topic of conversation that this man decided to latch onto? He could have spoken to me about my work, my role, my goals, my experiences – but no, he went for the baby-maker card.
But, my experience was hardly an isolated event. It was just one example where women face an uphill battle when it comes to being treated equally.
As a woman who runs her own business, I come across situations like this all too much. It pushes women down, it puts roadblocks in front of them when they’re trying to reach their full potential. That’s because instead of getting the chance to work on their business or goals, they’re too busy having to explain themselves to narrow minded sexists who still don’t understand gender equality, personal space and boundaries.
The entire experience made me extremely uncomfortable and preoccupied my headspace for much longer than it should have. And that makes me angry too. I have better things to do with my time. And so do you.
So, what can be done?
We can take a long hard look at the unconscious and conscious gender bias that permeates our culture on a daily basis. For many women in business, I doubt my experience on this trip has been surprising. These occurrences happen time and time again, in various shapes and forms.
This doesn’t mean however, that they should be accepted. And the more we let situations like this slide, the more everyone (men and women) will see them as the norm.
True cultural change will only be achieved when we recognise and seek to rectify inappropriate behaviour. That means that perpetrating individuals will face consequences for their actions, and businesses will undergo widespread cultural shifts with structures that incentivise transparency, equality and integrity.
This is what we need to do for ourselves. And, for our sons and daughters – whether we’re planning on having them or not.