My company had four great interns last summer. Bright, ambitious and talented, they took initiative as well as they took direction, and worked independently as well as they worked together. The unicorn crop of interns. They also happened to be four young women. So when I went on our company’s social media to introduce them to the world, I dashed off this post:
“Meet our new interns! We expect a lot from these beautiful young ladies this summer.”
My finger was micrometers from the mouse click when it hit me: why do I feel the need to describe them as “beautiful”? They certainly are, but of all the attributes that I could have called attention to, why pick the one that has zero bearing on their professional ability?
Had they been four male interns, mentioning their appearance wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. Yet with women, noticing and commending beauty before all other qualities is second nature. It starts when we are little girls and every conversation with a grown-up begins with them telling you you’re pretty. It continues with our adolescent friends, who offer confidence-boosting affirmations of how good we look in every posted photo. And it persists in adulthood, even for a career toting, equal partner having, girl power celebrating feminist like myself.
Which got me thinking: do I do anything else that subtly (or not so subtly) undermines the equal treatment of women?
After taking a hard look at my behavior, here are a few of the bad habits that I caught.
1. I call men “men” and women “girls.”
This partly stems from my own discomfort with being called a “woman.” Through my twenties and even thirties, I felt like the word “woman” described a female who was older, or wiser, or sexier, or otherwise other, than me. The more approachable and light-hearted “girl” felt much more accurate. I know it sounds crazy. But I’ve had many conversations with women (or so-called girls) who felt the same way. As though it were better to be diminished than taken too seriously.
2. I shy away from connecting with men professionally.
If I meet a woman who is interesting, inspiring or just plain awesome, I have no qualms about reaching out and inviting her for coffee and a one-on-one conversation. I’ve never done that with a man. Don't worry, Sheryl Sandberg— I'm perfectly comfortable taking my place at the table in a formal business setting. But ask a man out for coffee and a chat? It just feels weird to me. Even though I have been asked out myself by men in this capacity, and that didn't feel weird. And even though I'm doing myself a disservice by failing to cultivate those relationships with half the working population.
3. I’ve paid women less for doing the same job as a man.
My company hires freelance writers and designers for some projects. When I’m vetting candidates and find a few I like, I’ll ask for their rates. Women consistently ask for less.
If I talk to a man and a woman with comparable talent and experience, I can bank on the woman offering a rate 25% to even 50% lower than the man. Many will quote a rate then immediately drop it down before I’ve said a word. And some have no idea what their rate is, so they ask me what I think it should be. Since my responsibility is to secure the best talent while keeping the job as profitable as possible, I’ll quote the low end of what I know the budget can accommodate. By contrast, men always have a rate ready, and it’s always 30-40% above budget, so I have to negotiate them down just to get to the high end. In either case, once the candidate accepts the deal, that becomes their rate for every project moving forward with us. And women who had no rate to begin with have now learned what they’re worth — and it's at the low end of the scale.
I was raised by the strongest woman I've ever met, alongside the second strongest. I work on a team that's 80% women who are 100% awesome at what they do. I have a tight-knit group of girlfriends who impress and inspire me on a daily basis. I consider myself a champion of bad-ass women everywhere—I've even written poems about it. But still. Day by day, I was doing things that held back the women around me instead of helping them. It was a tough realization. But one I'm glad I had while there is still plenty of time in my professional life left to make some changes.
This article was supposed to end here. Then Harvey Weinstein happened.
Suddenly my social media feed was flooded by one #metoo after another. I read story after story about women who've been sexually harrassed and assaulted. While the details differed, there were a few common threads. One that got me really thinking was this: the perpetrator who had convinced himself that his actions were welcomed, even wanted.
The words "rape culture" come up a lot in these articles. It sounds like something perpetrated by frat boys, rappers and dirty old lechers. But as I watched the #metoos pile up (without, thankfully, having to add my own), I had to ask myself: if the problem is this pervasive, is it possible that I'm contributing to it too?
The truth is, I harbor many personal beliefs that run counter to the things I've been reading lately about what it means to be a woman and a feminist. For instance:
1. I don’t mind catcalling.
I frequently debated this issue with a former co-worker, who would brace with tension everytime a hoot or whistle floated our way as we were walking to the office. She called it an "act of sexual aggression." I would say I looked at it as an "act of appreciation."
2. I don't hate it when strange men tell me to smile.
It doesn't make me feel like they are trying to suppress me with their patriarchal ideas of womanhood. It makes me feel like they are concerned about my happiness. Which makes me, more often than not, smile.
3. I don't believe that "no always means no" is as simple as it sounds.
I can't remember what comedian says, "No doesn't mean no. It means try harder." It gets a huge laugh, not because the audience is packed with rapists, but because many consenting adults have been in sexual situations in which a little bit of resistance is part of the game. I had one girlfriend who described it as "the preamble — those few minutes of saying 'stop' so they think you're not that kind of girl." Women are taught to play hard to get. We're taught to make men "work for it." This isn't to say that this kind of dynamic is necessarily healthy or equal — but it is to say that when having conversations about consent, we need to look at the way social conditioning impacts it, on both sides.
I'm ready to recognize — and change — my behaviors that contribute to unequal treatement of women in the workplace. But when it comes to my personal beliefs about how men and women relate in general, that's going to be a lot tougher. They're much deeper and much more dependent on context. And frankly, I'm not convinced that I'm wrong about any of them.
I share all of this knowing full well that I've probably got some backlash coming my way. But I'm not looking for validation. I'm looking to continue this conversation about what constitutes harrassment, what constitutes oppression, what constitutes violation. Because it isn't as simple as we're trying to make it.
Diane Levine is the Associate Creative Director of the award-winning branding and marketing agency Think Creative. She specializes in writing, branding, marketing and inspiring people to believe in their own awesomeness so they can find more joy at work and in life (she writes more on those topics on her personal blog, Operation Goosebumps). She is a mom of two, a wife of one, and a collector of many pairs of high heels.
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