The following contains descriptions of sexism and mention of sexual assault.
In case you missed it, there was a twitter thread that went viral last week when a man described how he discovered that the reason his wife and coworker was slower at dealing with clients was because clients treated her like shit because of her gender (and if you’re a man, you definitely, definitely need to read it).
It was an effective story because, not only was it well told, it was told from the man’s point of view, which of course makes it more notable and more believable than if the woman had told the story. Suddenly we have this perfect, irrefutable example of workplace sexism. (I’m not saying that he should not have written it; only that less people would have read it if a woman had).
For me the difficult part was how shocked this man seemed to be about what had happened. I wasn’t shocked. I don’t deal with asshole clients in my job every day like this woman did (I work in the nonprofit sector, which, while not perfect, does have the advantage of generally being filled with people with better intentions and less entitlement), but years of experience in many different jobs, both paid and volunteer, has taught me that confident young men are assumed to know what they are talking about until proven otherwise, but confident young women are assumed to not know what we are talking about until we prove ourselves.
We are constantly questioned, belittled, or simply ignored altogether. It leaves us fighting to be heard or to be recognized for our work, while our male peers are assumed to be great just because they are confident. I have seen so many young men praised for their awesomeness even before they have had time to prove themselves. If you want to know why so many more men end up in leadership positions, I think you need look no further.
This is not based on how a few individuals act; it’s a collective thing, and it is not limited to just men or just to a certain generation or to the workplace. When I get to know a man, I can usually tell whether he is the type who will believe what I tell him or not, or take my ideas seriously or not. Or even pay attention when I have something to say.
And I’ve also met women who aggrandize the men around them, who give them more credit than they deserve before they’ve proven themselves one way or the other. Often while ignoring the women around them who sometimes get no credit at all.
And this subtle, grinding fight is horrible. In my ten years in the workforce (not to mention 16 years in the school system and a life of volunteer leadership), I have learned, almost unconsciously, that I have to fight for people to listen to what I have to say or take my ideas seriously. It’s bad enough that I often find myself feeling surprised when someone in a position of power does take me seriously on the first try (which happens more as I’ve become more established in my career and my reputation, but it’s still hard to trust it sometimes).
I remember a disagreement I had a few years back with a close friend — a man, and ostensibly a feminist one. He argued with me about the definition of the term “internalized” when referring to forms of oppression. I was right, and he was wrong, and I know that because I can look up the term’s definition.
But what I remember of the argument was the feeling that I was fighting a brick wall, that he would never listen to me even though we were talking about feminist theory which he knew I had studied in university and he had not. I think I eventually gave up and told him not to talk to me about it anymore, and I wish I had just looked it up. When I think about this, I still get this crushing feeling of frustration in my chest.
So don’t blame me if I’m not shocked that a woman somewhere is having trouble with her clients because they don’t believe she knows what she’s talking about.
“Believe women” has become a rallying cry of feminists fighting for accountability for men who commit sexual assault, because women are so often not taken seriously when they report it. But the point about how little our society takes women seriously extends beyond the realm of sexual assault. When our knowledge threatens someone else’s comfort or ego or power, we are treated like we don’t know anything.
And it’s fucking exhausting.