I was really fortunate to get a job right out of college. It felt like luck of the draw, but after backing out of graduate school at the last second, I landed a full-time job with a not-for-profit.
I was relieved to have a steady income, but was still a little nervous to start my first grown-up job. The work environment was pretty casual, and I found that I was able to catch on to my responsibilities pretty quickly. Everyone seemed nice, and I was loving my new life working in the non-profit sector.
Unfortunately it didn’t take long before I started to experience some less than appropriate comments directed at me. And no, this wasn’t an instance of some creepy dude executive coming on to me, or staring somewhere a little south of my face while talking to me by the water cooler.
To my dismay, it was other women -- women in positions of power at the organization -- who treated me in ways that were… well…. sexist.
The scenario that stands out to me as one of the most blatantly out of line was when my boss’ boss (I’ll call her Leah -- that’s not her real name) headed over to my desk after wrapping up a meeting that I had helped plan.
Seeing her walk over, I thought maybe she was going to tell me the results of the meeting and any follow-up I needed to handle. Instead she placed a bottle of Coke that she was carrying on my desk and said, “Here, Elizabeth. This was leftover from the meeting and you look like you could use the calories.”
I remember my jaw dropping slightly, and that I was so taken aback that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I am petite, but not unhealthy, and not so small that my size would shock anyone.
Either way: my size, weight, and calorie intake were not the concern of my boss. This incident left me feeling embarrassed and ashamed. Our office had an open layout, so it’s safe to say almost everyone who was in that day heard her comments. Not only did she shame me about my body, but she did in front of everyone else I worked with.
I wanted to stand up for myself, to let her know how inappropriate the comment was, and that it wasn’t okay to talk about my body at work. I wanted to report the incident to HR, but my first week on the job, the woman who lead the HR team had also made a comment about my body out loud at work.
I was ordering shirts for a special event I was attending for work purposes, and this woman saw fit to speculate on the clothing order in the following way: “Your shirt probably needs to be an extra extra extra small! You’re so skinny!” So yeah, talking to HR wasn’t exactly a good option.
At other points, Leah had told me during work lunches that I didn’t look like I ate much, that I didn’t eat enough, that there was no need to have me order dessert because I don’t look like I eat cake.
Well as a matter of fact, I love cake! I like ice cream better, but that point is I wanted dessert, and I was pretty fed up with other women making inappropriate and snarky comments about me that were completely irrelevant to the quality of my work.
I had been silently raging to myself and venting to my friends as a means of dealing with these remarks, but eventually I cracked, and my frustration came out in the form of a couple workplace tears.
The day after a big fundraiser that I had played a major role in planning, I walked into the office feeling pretty great about how the event had gone. Months of frenzied work had gone into this, and I was relieved it was over and had produced excellent results. I came to work hoping for and in truth expecting some sort of congratulations for my efforts.
Instead, a woman who had mentored me when I first started with the organization told me: “You looked like a little girl wearing flats last night. If you want to be taken seriously and you want to be considered for promotions, you need to wear heels. You looked like a child, and you need to start wearing heels and thinking about make-up if you want to be treated like a grown woman at work.”
I cried as soon as she walked away. The phrase “what the hell” ran through my mind about 100 times a second for most of the morning. I had worked my ass off on this fundraiser. I had lost sleep, come in early, stayed late, and dealt with some very difficult rich people to make this event happen. And the only thing this woman could think to comment on was my choice in footwear and lack of make-up.
The most disappointing aspect about all of this, was that these were other women. As women, in a lot of ways we expect that certain men will tear us down, make ignorant remarks, and be generally disrespectful. But unfortunately women are also fully capable of treating other women like crap.
Anytime I experienced sexist comments, I wondered what would be different if they had come from men. What if it was a man in power at work who looked me dead in the eye and told me I needed to wear heels if I wanted to be successful? At a non-profit (sadly perhaps less so at a large corporation), it would have been a scandal. They got away with their shitty behavior because the assumption is that women don’t inflict sexism on other women.
The workplace can be difficult place to navigate for women at most stages in life, and proving yourself as a young professional is never an easy thing to do. The reality is woman-on-woman crime doesn’t end in high school or college.
I wish I had stood up for myself. I wish that in the moment I had had the words to tell them that I didn’t appreciate hearing comments about my body at work, how if they were concerned about my size for some reason, that they should have spoken to me in private. I wish I could have said that the fundraiser was a success and I deserved credit for my hard work, not a critical analysis of my appearance.
When I was ranting and raving to my friends about “the shoe lecture,” I swore to myself that I would never treat other women that way. That if I ever were in a position of professional power, I would remember what it was like to be 22 and just starting out, and trying to make things happen for myself. I will never really understand why all these different women thought it was okay to diminish my accomplishments and belittle me based on my appearance.
If you’re a woman in charge at work, treat your female employees fairly. Don’t make them the only ones who run random errands for you, don’t tell them to fetch your purse for you (another thing that happened to me during my tenure at this job…). Be respectful, and ask yourself if you would say/ask/tell the same things to your male employees as you do to women you supervise.
Now I have the amazing honor of working with women who are not only incredibly intelligent and successful, but they are wonderful role models for me. I get a lot of support, encouragement, and constructive criticism. I even get to work barefoot from time to time.
I know that I’m lucky to have women like this in my life, and especially lucky to have them at work. It makes a world of difference to feel comfortable, respected and valued at work. I can’t stress this enough. I know that I might not find great women to mentor me wherever I go professionally, but I do know that I don’t have to deal with comments and actions meant to belittle me.
Women in power don’t have to hand hold or coddle, but they don't have to be unkind. I hope that women who are mistreated at work, whether it’s inappropriate comments, not getting a deserved promotion, or having to push extra hard for a raise, will know that you can stand up for yourself and make it clear that you expect to be treated with fairness.
That your gender is not a weapon that anyone at work, man or woman, can use to make you feel like less of an employee or less of a person.