I was just reading this article on women in science and it had an interesting quote at the end from Eileen Pollack.
“American men can’t seem to appreciate a woman as a woman and as a scientist; it’s one or the other.”
I would extend that comment to say that, in my personal experience, men will either view a woman as someone to potentially sleep with or as a work colleague, but not as both simultaneously.
When I first started out in my professional career I used to have hair to my waist. Long, thick, flowing, blonde. Noticeable hair.
I usually wore it in a braid or a bun, so it wasn’t “on display.” But, every once in a while I would feel like wearing it down.
I quickly learned that this was a bad idea.
Because men who were listening to what I had to say on Monday were dismissive of the exact same comment on Wednesday. And the only difference between what I said on Monday and what I said on Wednesday was that I had worn my hair down on Tuesday.
These weren’t even men that had an overt sexual interest in me either.
It really was like there was a switch in men’s minds and they could either see me as a sexual person or they could see me as a work colleague, but they couldn’t do both at once.
And the effect seemed to last about two weeks.
I figured I had a choice. I could be sexy or I could be a work colleague.
I chose to be the work colleague. Another woman who started at the same job at the exact same time chose to be the sex object. (Or perhaps she didn’t choose to be that, she just happened to hook-up with a couple of co-workers and that pretty much cemented her status.)
This woman was as intelligent and capable as I was. But, in terms of career progression, I moved ahead much faster than she did.
Part of that was because of who our mentors were, but I also think part of it was because of that categorization men make in their minds. They dismissed her because they didn’t see her as a work peer.
How do I know this wasn’t all in my head? That I wasn’t just perceiving things that weren’t there?
One night we were all out at the bar celebrating a co-worker’s birthday. One of my male co-workers who was notorious for hitting on women (he’d hit on a friend’s wife just a few months before) got very drunk. The drunken comments he made to me were about the fact that my recent promotion had put me on his level even though he had five more years of experience. Shortly after that he cornered a female co-worker of ours and tried to grope her.
Now, perhaps, even in his drunken stupor he was smart enough to know that if he’d tried to grope me I would’ve taken his hand off. But I think it was more that he thought of me as competition and pretty much forgot the fact that I was a woman. A fact I was grateful for.
I think this is something young women need to consider when starting out their careers. (Especially in male-dominated fields.) It’s nice to think you can have it all. That you can be sexy and gorgeous and intelligent and accomplished and everything else. But, the fact of the matter is, when a man is thinking about bending you over the boardroom table, he isn’t listening to what you have to say about that new corporate initiative.
It’s a very fine line that women have to walk. It helps to be attractive and put together. It doesn’t help to be sexy or sexual. And finding that balance is a challenge. Especially because sometimes that line moves on you unexpectedly. One off-color comment, one flip of the hair, and you’re dealing with the fallout for weeks.
For men I would say that if you find yourself dismissing a woman’s ideas at work that you should step back. Try to separate what she’s saying from who she is. Maybe look at the idea when you’re not around the woman who originated it. Maybe have people submit ideas to you anonymously. Or review them without knowing who made which suggestion.
And for women, know that, even in this day and age, there are consequences to how you present yourself in the workplace. It isn’t fair, but it’s life.