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As a female writer in New York, getting a job on staff at a women’s magazine — owned by one of those skyscraper corporations where everyone in the elevator’s dressed fancier than you — was just about the height of everything I’d hoped for.
It didn’t work.
A corporate environment, one where attitude matters just as much (if not more than) the quality of your work, was all wrong for me. I don’t have a game face. If I have to stay at work until 8:45, I probably can’t maintain a bright smile and a can-do attitude the entire time. I’ll probably look like I just got kicked in the face. And supervisors notice that. Negative energy, they call it. Or bringing down the team. Maybe it was rom-coms of the early aughts that led me to believe that there was only one way to be a kick-ass career woman: Land a high-pressure job in a corporate environment. Work way too hard, and love every minute of it, or at least convince your supervisors that you do. And never cry in the bathroom. Ever.
My inability to fit in shouldn’t have surprised me. In college, I was an overwhelmed and anxious intern. After graduation, I was an overwhelmed and anxious receptionist. But none of those jobs were my dream gig the way this one was, and for some reason I’d imagined that I’d suddenly become some kind of alpha #BossBitch on top of her shit.
I was not.
I cried in the bathroom and forgot to email spreadsheets. I was preoccupied and stressed out and blatantly negative. I chafed against the hierarchy. Not only was I bad at the job, but I wasn’t pleasant to be around, a cycle that fed on itself. I wasn’t sure which was worse. On my darkest days, it felt like I was failing Feminism 101 as well as failing at being a woman in general.
Let me be clear here: This has nothing to do with a finer sensibility, a more artistic temperament, or any of that Tortured Artist Is Tortured bullshit. I’m not lazy, or somehow “above” a 9 to 5 job. I do have depression and generalized anxiety, but so do lots of people. I’m fully aware that I’m no special snowflake, something millennials often get a really bad rap for. I don’t feel entitled to anything. I’ve been a fine, reasonably happy employee in more casual offices, like the start-up I worked at in my early twenties (pictured above). It wasn't a cushy start-up. It was bare-bones, jeans-in-the-office, nothing fancy, and that's kind of the point. No heels necessary under your desk. No fake smiling required.
Sara Benincasa, author of the forthcoming book Real Artists Have Day Jobs, explains it better than I do: "The office itself is not the problem - it's a location. It's a setting. Corporate culture can be awful. I'm not the type of person who needs a ping-pong table to feel alive, but I recently visited an office with a nap room, and I thought that was pretty cool."
Benincasa wrote her book to remind young artists that there’s no shame in having a side hustle — even if it’s financially your main hustle. “The starving artist concept isn't glamorous. It's stupid and awful. It's nothing to aspire to. Being underfed and unhealthy fucking sucks. It's not some kind of cute pose. We don't value art and artists much in our society, so we've somehow fetishized their poverty as an adorable life choice. There is no romance to not being able to go to the dentist.”
I didn’t grow up wealthy, and the idea of being financially comfortable as a writer was a dream come true. I admired the hell out of my co-workers. If I’m being honest, I still wish I could have made it work — that pressure made me rise to the occasion instead of giving me panic attacks at Chipotle.
After doing some research on the subject, it seems I’m not entirely to blame. For female employees in a corporate environment, there’s a fine line between being a team player and being taken advantage of.
Sheryl Sandberg and other researchers have written about the gender-skewed expectations of “office housework.” In addition to their normal workload, female employees are expected to organize company outings, ordering cupcakes (and then cleaning up afterwards), even make the coffee. When a man declines to take responsibility for these kinds of duties, he’s busy. When a woman does, she’s selfish. We’re supposed to be team players — not Don Drapers.
Take the study cited in this Times piece, which evaluated responses to one male and one female employee enlisted to help co-workers prepare for a meeting:
For staying late and helping, a man was rated 14 percent more favorably than a woman. When both declined, a woman was rated 12 percent lower than a man. Over and over, after giving identical help, a man was significantly more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises and bonuses. A woman had to help just to get the same rating as a man who didn’t help.
This is especially pronounced in female millennial employees. The phenomenon of career burnout in women under the age of 30 across various corporate fields has been well-documented: Women account for 53% of corporate entry-level jobs, but they only hold 37% of mid-management roles. That number drops to 26% for vice presidents and senior managers. Only 11% of women permanently leave the workplace to have kids, which means this is occurring for some other reason.
Young women relatively new to the workplace often link their work email to their personal, as I did, and check it at all hours of the night. You’re never really off work. And when your job is especially coveted or glamorous, you’re taught that you’re lucky to have it. Sure, you’re lucky — but you probably earned it, too, and the fact that other people want your job shouldn’t make you stay in it when you’re miserable.
Learning all this the hard way paid off for me. I’m fortunate that I’m now able to make a living freelancing. Now that I don’t have to smile for anyone, I find myself doing it a lot more.