After a meeting in which she was consistently ignored by (male) client representatives, a close friend and colleague of mine was told by a senior, female colleague: “Don’t worry, they’re just doing a bit of willy-waving, once you start to look older you’ll learn to just wave your willy right back.”
I assumed that this was misogyny from the old guard. Things are changing, I thought. It will not be like that with people of our generation. A few months later, a fellow student failed to turn up to an important meeting, leaving me to complete his share of the work. “Sorry”, he said, “You’re just so organised – it’s pretty intimidating really.”
I asked myself how it can possibly be a personality fault of mine that led to his tardiness. I wondered if he would tell a male colleague that they were ‘intimidating’ and try to pass it off as a compliment. I began to collect comments such as these in the back of my head, increasingly bowled over with every new one fired at me.
I remain highly confident that my contemporary had no intention of responding to my gender. But this is the pattern that is beginning to frighten me. I am a typical university student: fourth year, humanities degree, closely involved in a society on campus. I am surrounded by young men who are self-professing feminists. Yet even around these outwardly supportive individuals, gendered comments are rife in everyday conversation.
What is worse is that I cannot help but notice the practically exponential rise of such comments this year, when I have been one of a small number of individuals at the fore of this society.
I am a confident person, outspoken even when sure of my surroundings. Six days out of seven I do not find it difficult to wave off such comments but my increasing struggle is in knowing how to raise the issue constructively. I fear that raising the issue makes me sound ‘complaining’, ‘insecure’, or ‘whiny’.
I spend increasing amounts of energy trying to forestall being called a bitch. It usually comes in the form of presenting my opinion in such a way that it sounds like an apology – a speech pattern that research has long shown is distinctly ‘feminine’. Last week my co-Editor in Chief was told to start putting ‘his foot down now’ – two days before the start of our editorship – and, when the individual in question came to apologise to me for his comments all I could do was spout apologies in return.
Sometimes I go home and, as I reflect a bit more, I begin to wonder if perhaps these incidents reflect something about me and – as crazy as it sounds – I begin to doubt my own femininity. Is there something fundamentally ugly about a woman being as driven as you?
I count myself lucky to be entering the work force in a time when the likes of Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence are speaking up about continued gender inequality. Two beautiful, successful women – amongst many others – who are telling of the bias that is against them. Lawrence articulated my fears perfectly in her open letter about the Hollywood pay gap:
“I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’”
I wonder how we can fight this unconscious bias, which is not only in the words people use to describe women but also deeply ingrained into women’s own speech patterns. Even in this amazingly articulated letter there is an apology: ‘Don’t hate me’, Lawrence says.
Yes, Lawrence’s example – haggling over millions of dollars – is far-removed from those presented here and, yes, this editorial is unlikely to be read by even a fraction of those that read the open letter quoted. Yet it is the everyday situations that are most in need of challenging.
The truth is that I do not want to apologise any more for my hard work and my ambition. Neither should any other woman at the negotiating table in the workplace. Perhaps I will never be able to stop the voice in my head that worries that I am too driven – not soft and fluffy enough. But for now, I can sure as hell vow to try and stop apologising to all the willy-wavers when they are the ones that are being rude.
Image courtesy of Fiona Grew.