On Being the “Right” Kind of Woman at Work

I hope people respect my work. My assertive suggestions and pointed questions are driven by a quest to produce stellar work. And I do really good fucking work. But there’s a reason I’ll never work in an office again, and it’s that when you’re a Woman at Work churning out top tier product isn’t enough.

We also have to be nonthreatening.

To be a Woman in the Workplace is to find yourself atop a very thin wire. Fall to one side, and you’re too demanding and shrill, fall to the other and you’ll never be seen as a leader. And your destiny could come down to whether or not you use enough exclamation point in your emails or use the word “just” in front of sentences so as to seem timid enough not to offend.

Worse yet, the senior female staff can be the most ardent professors at the School of Make Sure You Smile.

If I had a dollar for every time I was told that my former (mostly) female creative team was perceived as “high maintenance” by the rest of the company and that we should be “careful” how we present our ideas so we wouldn’t be thought  of as “too sensitive”… I would have already completed that kitchen reno I’ve been dreaming about. We were a team of competent professionals who knew shoddy logic or strategic pitfalls when we saw it and you know, pointed it out.

To our female managers, we were earning a C- in Making Male Colleagues Comfortable.

Calling women hysterical goes back at least as far as the Greek medicine of the 17th century. The logic of the day insisted that our unfertilized seeds would rot inside us and make us crazy. By the time the late 1800s rolled around, anything could brand a woman as hysterical. Disinterested in marriage? Suffering from hysteria. Joined the feminist movement? Molly, you in hysteria, girl. The standard was clear and harmful: Men are rational, made for thinking and women only generate babies and emotion.

These days professionals have come up with myriad of ways to call women “hysterical” without using the word. Dog whistle terms like “high maintenance”, “undiplomatic”, “too forceful,” and “giving off a bad vibe” are the first to come to mind.

I know for a fact I have male colleagues who have thrown things across a room in frustration. I have witnessed them yell at one another, gesturing wildly. These, apparently are leadership skills for someone with enough testosterone to pull it off. On the other hand, asking “Why is the data-driven team not in this meeting about data?” or “Why are we mentioning this hideous town in an article about beautiful towns?” is – apparently – off-putting if you’re a woman. To not be a doormat is to be on the hysteria spectrum.

I commit an additional offense: I don’t care if I’m “bossy.” Yeah, I know what I’m fucking talking about so I’m talking about it like I fucking know what I’m talking about.

I have friends who like me. I have family who like me. I suspect my neighbors have me pegged as a friendly if a bit reclusive person who they would casually say “seems nice”. I am surrounded by people who dig me enough to spend time with me. I’m not submitting my name for Miss Congeniality around the office, because my objective is to be phenomenal for my client. Not to be the most liked in-house. For the record, I tend to get along very well with 90% of my colleagues, but it’s not my #1 priority at all times.

Something my female would-be mentors seem obsessed with.

I know women in power who spill sexist advice have experienced blatant sexism themselves. They are Women at Work so it’s impossible they haven’t. I imagine they’ve grown an emotional callus over the scar they earned when they were caught crying in a hallway and told to man up. They may bear the marks of long-healed blisters from a time they got burned for getting too animated in a meeting. Their own resulting insecurities cup runneth over into other women’s lives. Projection, your name is a woman who tells me to acquiesce to the male-dominated team so they don’t think I’m “being negative.”

Of course, the notion that women must be Nice at All Costs permeates life outside the office walls. Ted Bundy would not have been prolific but for the social pressure young women felt to help a strange man with a pile of papers and fake limp get to his car. The few who escaped said they got a terrible feeling a few hundred feet from his golden VW Bug and bolted. The rest probably felt that way, too. But they wanted to be nice.

Women at Work often tell themselves the worst possible outcome is losing a reference, even if that means not standing up for themselves. Their male counterparts are rewarded for showing initiative, pointing out areas of improvement, and pushing back on ideas they disagree with. They are exhibiting leadership potential. Women learn owning those same characteristics gets them labeled as out of line or too sensitive to feedback. They lose marks on their annual review because they dare to show slight emotion and are suggested to be more diplomatic. Never mind the amount of door slamming the men in the office perpetrate.

For women, moving up often means shutting up.

So I work for myself. I’ve packed up the last open office desk I’ll ever occupy and made two trips to the car with stuff under my arms, passing an all-glass conference room containing the executive staff. Peggy Olson out. I’d rather cobble together income from 15 different clients and an Etsy business than be made to feel a problem child because I expect additional pay for additional workload or to be allowed to point out potentially bad ideas.

There are plenty of things I hope someone says about me professionally: unrelentingly committed to excellence, willing to think creatively, able to speak up, ethical.

Doesn’t Act Too Much Like a Man just ain’t on the list.




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