Thursday, October 15, 2015

On A Woman's Right to...Speak

One of the things that hounded me throughout my working life was having a reputation as a bitch.  I struggled mightily with this.  It hurt me deeply that I always seemed to be making people angry or resentful when I spoke, even when what I had to say was valid and had no malice behind it, only a desire to facilitate understanding and move a job forward.  I could never comprehend why my motivations were always misconstrued.  I was too negative.  I was too critical.  I was too smart…or, at least, I was routinely resented for allowing any public demonstration of greater than average intelligence.  Surely such a display was meant as a purposeful insult to those of lesser intellectual standing!  I remember a male district manager advising me, in the course of a discussion about why I was not terribly popular with upper management, "You don't always have to be so right!"  Excuse me?

And then there was the time I slammed my keys on the counter and turned to walk off a job when my immediate superior (a man) remarked to my face in the middle of a disagreement, “Well we all know who wears the pants in YOUR family…!”

To be sure, I had a blind spot when it came to changing my communication methods in order to avoid the labels I so dreaded.  I just kept thinking that as long as I was honest and earnest, people would eventually get me.  I could never quite embrace the truth that no matter what I said, the source of irritation was not how I said it, it was the fact that I said it at all.  I was always proud that I had enjoyed (very limited) success in a traditionally male-dominated career (restaurant management.) And for years, I labored under the misconception that I had been fortunate enough throughout my working life to have avoided sexism in the workplace.  Who was I kidding?    

After awhile, I just stopped talking at work.  If every time I opened my mouth I pissed someone off, I would just hold my peace.  I preferred a reputation as uncommunicative and surly over the “b” word.  Which, of course, was not a good choice either.  One of my last bosses called me into her office and berated me for being silent or giving one-word answers.  Apparently, that behavior was as threatening as having an opinion.  I couldn’t win for losing.  Any wonder why, shortly thereafter, I chose to “retire” from the workaday world and jump into entrepreneurship with both feet?       

I stumbled upon this Washington Post article on Facebook:

Famous Quotes The Way A Woman Would Have To Say Them During A Meeting

In it, author Alexandra Petri takes famous historical quotes (uttered by men, naturally) and re-works them using the kind of language women are expected to use when attempting to be heard in the average business meeting.  For example:

“Let my people go.”

Woman in a Meeting: “Pharaoh, listen, I totally hear where you’re coming from on this. I totally do. And I don’t want to butt in if you’ve come to a decision here, but, just, I have to say, would you consider that an argument for maybe releasing these people could conceivably have merit? Or is that already off the table?”
Wow.  What a reality check!   Petri may go a hair too far to make her point—the mealy-mouthed apologetics in the feminized quotes are over-the-top, to say the least.  But any woman who reads this, at the exact moment when she starts laughing and wheezing, “That’s ridiculous!” will develop an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of her stomach that the author’s core idea—that women are held to an entirely different semantic standard than men—is spot on.  And every woman who has ever worked outside the home can offer up corroborating examples from her own exploits in the workplace.

Great strides were made, back in the late 20th century, to abolish both racial bias and gender bias, in the American workplace, and in society-at-large.  We Boomers made earnest moves in that direction, when we were young and robust and full of ourselves.  But we didn't finish the work.  We didn't eradicate discrimination.  We merely covered up the most blatant examples, and ignored the more insidious ones.  All it took was a couple of decades of ascendancy of a Conservative agenda to pull us backward at least one step for each step forward we made; to make us understand that the work we believed DONE not only was not good enough, but is in no way safe from being UN-DONE. 

Get angry, ladies!  Know when you're being disrespected!  Fight for the right to speak openly and honestly! No person should ever be held to a different standard of behavior based on her gender, any more than on the color of her skin, her religion, or her citizenship status.  We need to recognize discrimination for what it is, whenever and wherever it occurs.  We need to apply ourselves to rooting it out and replacing it with a fair standard for every American in the workplace—male, female, black, white, immigrant or native.  And we can never, NEVER relax that vigilance.  Because we can never be certain that the good changes we put in place will last forever.  Or even past our own generation.        


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