I work for a national non-profit organization whose mission is to advocate for women-owned businesses. We currently have over 18,000 businesses of all shapes and sizes as part of our international network, and we contribute over $6.5 billion to the regional economy. This year, we also hosted a major conference -- the sort of thing Ann Friedman questions in a recent New York Magazine piece.
In theory, this job is the perfect union for my feminist beliefs and communications background. Even though I was always told that feminism and economics could never reconcile their differences, we were proving we could hang with the guys. And by guys I mean insanely rich men who run oil companies. Yes, that old boys club.
Corporations who work with us respect us. We're successful, intelligent, and we can run with the big players. These conferences play a huge role in ensuring that business happens, that contracts get signed, and, most importantly, that women know they’re part of a network of winners.
But somehow I left the conference feeling like I just can’t win. Over the span of three days, three separate incidents occurred that left me wondering how the hell I am supposed to convince the world that we are leaders when even the men I trust most can make me feel small. Surrounded by over 4,000 powerful women, enveloped in a warm blanket of words like “empowerment” and “success,” I felt weak.
First there was the shady marketing dude, all of 22 years old. Now, I am ten years his senior, but I think one of the perils of coming off as “cool,” and “chill” is that people misconstrue you as being down for WHATEVER, and that whatever includes cocky, clueless nepotites from Texas.
According to him, he spotted me on Night #1, and by Night #2 decided to “close.” His words. I could barely turn him down before he tried to lay down some boysplaining. “This is what happens at conferences like this,” he said. “Look around. No one has a ring on. What happens here stays here.” Even ones with panel names like “Women in Industry: Impacting Economic Growth” and “Wonder Women: How to Build Strategic Alliances for Global Partnerships.” Right on.
He saw no conflict between my position –- age and job -– and begging me to drink the “giant bottle of vodka” in his hotel room and “see where the night takes us.” Ugh.
Back in my room I got my second reality check that being a woman at a women’s conference still doesn’t mean you’re in a safe space: A whiskey or two in me, I saw that a friend from back home was calling, so I picked up. I needed to vent about the 22-year-old. He'd understand, he’d listen, and he’d assure me that this dude was not representative of all Dudehood Worldwide.
We've known each other for years, and we have a great, open relationship wherein we can talk about anything –- or so I thought. He seemed to notice that I was a little drunk and feeling some type of way, so the floodgates opened and next thing I know, he’s asking to see what I look like in the shower.
“Do you even understand where I am right now?” I asked, glancing over at my co-worker sleeping in the next room (non-profit = shared living!) and the next day’s schedule of more high-profile keynote speakers, workshops, and at least three cocktail parties. He ignored the question and asked if I wanted to have phone sex.
This is where my feminist studies degree and women’s empowerment were supposed to take over, right? But I let it go on after I said no. I tried to reason with him, giving practical reasons why (“I’m sharing a suite with a coworker – this is weird”) but that only led to more phone calls. More text messages. Eventually, I shut the phone off and went to bed, thinking sleep would be my cure-all to feeling beyond agitated.
It wasn’t. I woke up hungover, tired, and angry. I felt betrayed, a little bit violated, and irritated that this man, who knows so much about me, my secrets, and especially my feelings around sexual objectification would pull something like this. I wondered if it had been an isolated incident, and decided that I’d have some real talk with him later, but for now, I had to get to a breakfast keynote.
Then, between the fruit plate and my morning coffee, it happened. A dick pic. At 10:30 am. Unsolicited, unwanted, and not from the conference beau or my platonic so-called friend back home. It was from someone I’d dated five years earlier and dumped for lying to me. A dick pic at 10:30 am on a Tuesday, while listening to the president of our organization address a massive room full of CEOs, principals, presidents and their staff about “how powerful we are as women.”
I covered my phone with my palm, trying to shield it from 3,000 pairs of eyes. What would they think? I could hear them now, peeking at my screen, judging me while I shamefully tried to shut down my old iPhone that was now conveniently frozen on this message thread.
A funny thing happens at these conferences -– and I’ve attended enough of them to know. Strong, determined businesswomen get together to talk about how strong, powerful, and determined they are. Not in the name of feminism, as I’d once hoped, but in the name of business, of capitalism, and of corporate America and beyond.
We don’t talk about the little things that happen on the daily and can make us feel like we’ve taken ten steps back -- these daily slights are expected. It is what it is. We shrug and move on and we’d never dare talk about any of this because nobody wants be That Girl. Or That Woman. The Whiner Who Reads Too Much Into It.
They were just drunk/having fun/playing around. When I brought up the "Three Instances" to coworkers and friends nobody was surprised. “Of course he did – of course they all did! What did you expect?” This is what happens in the “real world.” where weddings bands are removed at business events. No questions -- just play along and don’t forget what you are and what you’re really here for, ladies.
Meanwhile, all I could do was sit back and think about how ironic the timing was, and how what I experienced over that 12-hour span mirrored my experiences overall in life.
We, as powerful, strong, independent women are free to walk around, do as we do, and, speaking of expectations, expect only the best from those who surround us -- but in the end selling the idea of “empowerment” means very little when we are still dealing with sexual entitlement and misogyny.
I don’t feel empowered, because that word is empty. I feel helpless.