I got my first job at sixteen working at a Gap in an outdoor shopping mall. Fresh-faced and always wearing a long-sleeved black t-shirts and flared tan corduroys, I spent nearly every day after school folding shirts and offering assistance to customers looking for the perfect jeans. I often ended up commiserating with customers, and on particularly long “feeling shifts” my boss, Steve, would pop his head out of the manager’s office to remind me my 15-minute break was almost over and send me back to the floor.
In my mind, Steve looks exactly like a Tom of Finland illustration. With his orangey-red, close-cropped haircut—offset by a matching handlebar mustache and his freckled muscles wrapped in a raglan tee—he looked like a hard-ass. And he was—when it came to adhering to policies and procedures.
Truth be told, I didn’t mind it. His expectations were straightforward and his motives were guileless, but what I liked most about my boss, besides his love of Tori Amos, was his complete indifference to almost everything except work while we were at work. Maybe it’s because he was a proud gay man in his early 30s who’d survived far worse than a Black Friday promo and seasonal teenage employees, or perhaps he was just a model employee and decent human being. Whatever it was, it didn’t matter. He treated all sales associates the same—fairly and with respect.
It’s this sense of fairness and respect that I’ve anticipated in every workplace since. Unfortunately, a lot of the men I’ve worked with aren’t Steve.
If you haven’t experienced sexism in the workplace, you likely just haven’t been working long enough. In the years since my first gig, I’m no longer surprised by the lack of respect and fair treatment of women at work—but as my career has aged, what I’ve found more surprising is not that it still happens, but that men seem to think that sexism is a problem of the past. It should also come as no surprise that because 56 percent of men believe that women no longer face gender-biased obstacles in workplace, most women neglect to speak up when it comes to confronting sexist behavior on the job for fear of losing their job.
I once worked for a creative director who always let me know that my ideas “missed the mark,” “weren’t compelling enough,” and “just not very good” before presenting them as his own and later assigning me to work on the project.
Another time, I worked in an office where a male coworker sat me in a darkened room and asked me to be nicer to him. No longer surprised by this kind of behavior, I pointedly asked him if he’d ask another man to by nice? That the last time I checked “nice” wasn’t in my job description, but professional was and I’d been nothing but and encouraged him to be the same.
Later, my heart pounded against my chest as I fought the urge to excuse myself to scream in the bathroom. I drove home with hot angry tears streaming down my face. I’d no longer be able to work on the project comfortably and there’d be no smile for me to hide my disillusionment.
Four years ago, I left Dallas to restart my life in Austin and hastily took the first job I was offered at a small, family-owned advertising agency eager to start a new chapter of my life. I’d been hired as a junior copywriter in a male-dominated office where the CEO-cum-Creative Director had hired his own family members to fill most of the roles from account execs to the head of HR. This gave me pause, but I told myself it was new job jitters. I reminded myself that I was lucky. Austin is a tough market to break into, and while I was used to working in female-dominated offices where no one could claim blood relation to each other, this couldn’t be so different, right?
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I should’ve trusted that pause.
Shortly after I started, the CEO asked me to begin keeping track of everything I did throughout the day and submit it to him every morning. If you’ve ever worked in advertising, you know timecards are normal. We keep track of our hours per project, per week to stay within a client’s budget. But this request felt different. No one else was being required to take this extra step to track their time, but I did it without question fearing that asking would make me seem unagreeable.
After several weeks of keeping tabs on my daily to-do list, the CEO let me know that before submitting any work, be it a list of taglines for luxury furniture or a blog post about gluten-free beer options, I was to run it by the other copywriter, a male who would “check” my work. Again, this request seemed over the top. I’d never been asked to submit my work to anyone before turning it in.
One day he asked the male copywriter, another male art director and myself to work together to brainstorm ideas for a new commercial spot. The three of us collaborated on a concept and then went our separate ways to write separate versions of the spot. We turned them in. Two days later, my spot was chosen. However, when it came down to giving credit, the CEO bestowed it on the male copywriter. How was he to know if it had really been my work and not that of the male copywriter? After all, I was to “get my work checked” before turning it in, thus allowing the other copywriter to tweak or improve it. The other copywriter sat quietly, his eyes down.
I’d never needed to stand up for myself in the workplace before, but if I wasn’t going to then, it was clear no one would. With a red face, I calmly told him that the work, all of it, was indeed mine. I desperately even went so far as to suggest that he ask the other copywriter to corroborate my work. The other copywriter offered nothing. Again, chin down, eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. Later he attempted to “apologize” for the entire situation encouraging me to not take it to heart. “That’s just the way he is with women.” I tried not to take personally, except the attacks began to become more personal.
On another day, the CEO took it upon himself to tell me that I looked better in dresses. That I should take some of my salary he let me know I was lucky to get and try to go to one of those “cute retro shops” and find something that made him feel a little more comfortable working around me. It also wouldn’t kill me to smile a bit more, would it? Surely, I could fit a smile into my budget?
Here’s the thing about standing up for yourself – once you do it, you’ll never not do it again. Again, my face red and my voice feeling thin, I overcame my nerves and I told him he was wrong to make comments on the way I dressed. Button-downs and jeans worked well for the other employees and they would work just fine for me. He responded by storming off and gifting me with the silent treatment for a few weeks.
Shortly after I refused to comply with his previous requests, he began to publicly humiliate me in the office, calling on my coworkers to join in as he judged not just my work, but my appearance and my character. I began having nightmares about being at work. Every morning I felt ill, sick to my stomach at the thought of another day within those walls. I began sending out my resume and attending networking events, but no one bit and I grew weary.
I lasted five months at that agency before resigning during another morning’s dressing down. I’d finally had enough and as scared as I was of the unknown – of being unemployed, of struggling in a tough market without any professional support, of having only enough money in my bank account to cover the next month’s bills – I couldn’t stand to diminish myself one minute longer.
Before I made it out the door he said that if I ever disparaged his name or besmirched his company by offering the truth of my experience there, he’d pursue litigation. “Nobody will ever believe you,” he said, “Don’t even try it. And if you do try, I’ll see to it that you never get a job in this town again.”
If you’re asking yourself why I stayed for five months, you’ve never been broke.
It took almost a year before I found a new, full-time copywriting position. In the meantime, I worked in a food trailer, cleaned people’s houses, picked up low paying writing work on a per-project basis and struggled to make ends meet. Occasionally the nightmares reoccur and I am returned to that office, the humiliation horrifying enough to wake me.
I wish that would’ve been the last time I experienced sexism on the job, but unfortunately, it’s a casual hazard of any trade for every woman.
There is a certain detached quality that some women in workplaces develop marked by a direct no bullshit attitude, a reticence to share anything about her personal life and a polite, but not necessarily open demeanor. I’ve heard this called “icy” or “bitchy” or “unapproachable.”
We develop thickened skin because it’s the easiest and most efficient way to avoid uncomfortable situations in male-dominated environments where we’re unsure of whom we can trust to not only stand up for us, but respect us. It’s a way of being that will later be held against us by passing us over for promotions or worse, firing us for “not being a good cultural fit.” They don’t understand that we pass on chances to divulge our personalities because we’re trying to do our job with minimal risk of humiliation and discomfort.
This isn’t to say all men in the workplace are bad apples. I’m not even insinuating that a couple ruin the bunch. In fact, I’ve worked with some incredibly talented and thoughtful men. Men who’ve inspired me with their kindness, understanding and openness to a female point of view. Men who have listened when I’ve made them aware of sexist behavior or practices, have apologized and even changed.
And as much as I hate to say it, making some men aware of certain behavior has become part of our job. It’s not above anybody’s pay grade to inform the unenlightened and it has to be done in order for it to stop. Speaking up to the offhand sexist remarks about the way we look, the requests to be nice or the plea to set up the kitchen for the company lunch is not whining or weakness. Our voices are not shrill and our opinions are not fueled by unchecked emotion.
We are not note-takers, kitchen cleaners, coffee makers, appointment takers or personal day planners. We are coworkers. We are thought leaders, we are creative thinkers, we are writers and artists, we are expert accountants and considerate department heads, we are the primary breadwinners who support our families the same way men support theirs and ultimately, without question, we deserve the respect, compensation and accolades they reserve for each.
We are here—and we merit better. When we stand up for ourselves, we declare our self-worth. Once we do that, we’ll never accept anything less than we deserve.