By Caitlin Spring
Oh, so this is what they were talking about when they discussed sexism in the working world. It usually wasn’t particularly overt, several people who witnessed it probably didn’t even notice, and some who did thought it was pretty funny; some good banter.
I had made it through my undergrad without ever having to do any group work. However, I was recently part of a team with a definite power hierarchy and a formal working structure. This year’s senior leadership body was comprised only of men, and initially I saw no problem with this. We’re a very liberal group. We stand on the right side of issues of oppression and discrimination. However, throughout the process of working in this team, certain situations arose that made me feel deeply uncomfortable: they contribute to the discourse surrounding sexism in work environments. Once I’d had some distance from the group I was able to reflect, and what I looked back on was highly problematic.
It’s important to remember that sexism is almost never going to involve your boss standing in front of you saying, ‘You are a woman, therefore you are inferior to all the men here’. Instead, it will be a series of trends that, when examined together, show women consistently undermined in various subtle ways. Patriarchy is powerful, it’s built into how we speak and how we act, but there’s a responsibility on all of us to educate ourselves so we don’t propagate the kinds of misogynistic behaviour I experienced.
When I started to reflect, I realised that the two people the group leader had the biggest issues with were women. They were both women who executed their jobs really well. They were women with strong personalities: so they were labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘opinionated’ and ‘stubborn’. They disagreed with the group leader on some of his decisions. I didn’t find the fact that there had been disagreements problematic; no one is going to agree all the time. However, I found the manner in which these disagreements or conflicts were handled, particularly so. When these women voiced their opinions over the table as supposed ‘equals’, these were often disregarded in light of their ‘difficult and unreasonable’ viewpoints. A lot of the team saw these women, who were brought on board for their expertise in their respective fields, being publically undermined in meetings, and did nothing.
Then there was the time when I disagreed with the way my work was handled. Instead of my concerns being respectfully listened to and considered, the leader sent me a picture of his name and title, and I was told that this ‘isn’t a democracy’. I was then told to stop being so ‘emotional and sensitive’. My rational concerns were reduced to my temperament. I was later told to be mature. For decades, women’s concerns have been reduced to infantile irrationalities. Small actions like this speak to how women are professionally undermined. It is the compounding of these small instances that do great damage to how women are seen (by men and other women) and how women see themselves in workplace environments.
And then there was the time when the sexual relationships of people in the group were discussed in a working Whatsapp chat. No one shut down the inappropriate and offensive jokes that sprang up from this. Comments like, ‘oh, that is poes funny’ were used. Using ‘poes’ is problematic enough, using ‘poes’ in response to slut shaming made me deeply uncomfortable. Anything that contains a ‘bros/hos’ binary is problematic, especially when done in a seemingly professional context.
Something we released for public viewing was called out for having homophobic undertones. Nothing constructive was done in response to these allegations, and those who raised the concerns were ridiculed behind the scenes. Laughing at anyone who’s standing up for gay rights is not okay.
Throughout this experience I was so tempted to justify why I had a legitimate reason to be frustrated. Yes, I was directly affected, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be objective. So often the victims of discrimination feel the need to defend ourselves to prove that we aren’t crazy, that it is real, that we have a right to be upset – and this is dangerous. I know I’m not subjectively twisting and fabricating the truth, nor was this article written out of angry emotion, despite accusations to that effect. This is an article about how easy it is to be part of the problem and what I’ve learned from my experience.
I’ve learned that people who are perfectly nice can be extremely misogynistic and oblivious to their role in propagating patriarchy by undermining, dismissing, and slut shaming the women on their team. I’ve learned that most people simply won’t understand why you’re upset when these instances make you uncomfortable. I’ve learned that far too much is defended in the name of a joke, too many ideals forgotten for a moment of banter. However, I’m not the only one who saw these things. I’ve spoken to various people on the team who hold varying levels of power and when pressed a lot of them agree with me. But if so many of us were uncomfortable, why didn’t any of us speak out sooner? Everyone needs to speak out when someone is being targeted; a disrespectful act is never small. Surely we’ve evolved from letting the popular kids pick on someone? What is it about a group dynamic that allows for such unacceptable interactions to take place? I think a strong responsibility rests on leadership to set the boundaries for social interactions, I think there needs to be a definite line of what constitutes ‘going too far’. I think that line was absent. I don’t see the senior leadership body as a homogenous group of sexist men; I know that isn’t true. A lot of the sexism was propagated unintentionally, but lack of awareness is not a sufficient excuse.
That being said, I’m horribly disappointed in myself for not speaking out sooner. But it’s hard to go against a group dynamic and sometimes it’s hard to realize how problematic a situation is until you’ve had some distance to reflect on exactly what it was that made you uncomfortable. And it’s also important to remember that even though I didn’t speak out enough at the time, those who propagated the wrongs and I are not equally guilty.
Sometimes people aren’t receptive to being called out and can get ugly and defensive. Don’t let someone intimidate you as they try shift blame from their own discriminatory actions to your uncomfortable silence.
We are the future leaders of this country. Our interpersonal relationships have to be conducive to the society we want to live in. No sexism, or racism or homophobia can ever be tolerated for a joke. Let’s not write essays about a just society and then act in a way that destroys that future in our next social interaction.