“I’m not going to apply for the job because I want you to get it.”
I was in my mid-20s and a promotion opened up in my division at work and I planned to apply for it. Given the hierarchy in our department, one male coworker and I were the natural ones to consider for the job. When the topic came up, that’s what he said to me: “I’m not going to apply for the job because I want you to get it.” I don’t remember what I said in the moment, but I remember quietly seething and thinking, “Don’t do me any favors. Go ahead and apply and I’ll still get it.”
I have no doubt that this man was well-intentioned and thought he was being supportive. I’m sure many people would hear that and not see anything remotely wrong with what was said. He probably could have expressed the same sentiment in a different way that wouldn’t have set me off. For instance, “I think you’re the best person for the job, so I’m not going to apply.” But that particular phrasing carried problematic undertones. It said, “I’m going to be chivalrous and get out of the way so you can advance” and “You won’t get this job unless I bow out, so I’m doing you a favor.” I had a very hard time imagining him ever saying that to a man.
You could say there was ultimately no harm done because fortunately in that particular situation I could brush that off and was confident that I was a better candidate and would get the job. But I’ve seen so many women who, after years of social conditioning, constantly question their leadership. If a woman heard that message from her colleague and then got the job, would it contribute to the kind of imposter syndrome that many women already struggle with? Would she worry that she wasn’t really qualified and only got the job because her male colleague stepped aside?
It’s this kind of subtle undermining that can be so difficult to pinpoint, and yet can have a huge impact on women’s careers and the quality of their work lives. For people who haven’t thought much about this kind of subtle sexism, the recent Ellen Pao discrimination lawsuit put it on display. Annie Lowrey wrote a fantastic piece on the lawsuit and the problem with “the sexism you can’t quite prove”:
The trial dredged up dozens of messy incidents that could be interpreted as sexist, or not. Pao’s attorneys argued that they were indicative of a discriminatory corporate culture, one that punished women for their ambition rather than promoting them for it. Kleiner Perkins argued that Pao just did not make the cut. She failed because she “lacked the ability to lead others, build consensus, and be a team player.” Ultimately, the jury sided with Kleiner Perkins. Pao did not prove her case, and she lost on all counts.
But reading through the trial testimony and court documents, it is impossible not to see a crummy culture, if not an overtly sexist one. And the problem is that sexism today very often is not overt. It’s subtle, and that makes it all the more difficult to identify and root out. It’s not your boss hitting on you and then demoting you to secretary when you spurn his advances. It’s your boss describing your assertiveness as too assertive, and suggesting you might be better suited for an operational role. It’s not your being asked to fix the coffees at a client meeting. It’s Cocktail Party Guy forcing you to return the conversation to business, so you have an opportunity to develop him as a source rather than talking about dogs for 20 minutes.
It is pervasive. It is persistent. And it is so, so exhausting, all those subtle hints that you are a little different and that your behavior is being interpreted a little differently. On top of that, it does have profound consequences, if made through a million tiny cuts.
It’s sad but hardly surprising that a randomly assembled group of jurors would not come to a consensus on interpreting this kind of subtle behavior. One can only hope that the conversation around this case has made people more aware of the perniciousness of subtle sexism. I’ve certainly seen my share of it, and I’m sure just about any woman I asked could come up with examples from her own career. Cate Burlington put together a list of “things my male tech colleagues have actually said to me”:
“You know about making coffee, right?” You have doubtless intuited this from the fact that I am the only person in the entire department who does not drink coffee. This is in no way related to the fact that all the other human beings in the room are men.
“It doesn’t have all the features; this is the soccer mom version.” Contact with the Soccer Mom (mater ludus) obviously requires special equipment and anti-contaminant protocol. They are highly infectious. Do not attempt to approach a Soccer Mom unless you are a trained professional.
“Haha, that guy thought you were the receptionist!” Did he? My, what a hilarious turn of events.
“Women are going overboard with this representation in video games thing, now. Like, calm down.” You are obviously a sensitive, liberal, fair-minded guy who would never say a sexist thing in your life. You know this because the last three girls you went on OKCupid dates with nodded in a vaguely affirmative way when you said as much.
“Let me know when you want to do that so I can help you. No offense, but you just don’t know enough about it to try it on your own.” What could possibly be offensive about your assertion that I am incapable of implementing some of the basic skills of our profession without your supervision?
Revealing this pattern of behavior and holding people accountable inevitably makes some men uncomfortable. They complain that they can’t say or do anything without making a mistake. But it’s not that hard. Listen to women who are telling these stories and believe them when they tell you it is demeaning and undermines them professionally and personally. If you find yourself inclined to defend some comment, think about whether you would say the same thing to a man. It’s not a foolproof test, but chances are that if you wouldn’t, it’s probably sexist. And you will make mistakes; we all do. Rather than getting defensive, learn from your mistake and don’t do it again.