Just under a year into my first startup job, we hired our third male employee, and I found myself, a woman in my mid-20s, in a small office with my boss — our president, and a man in his early 40s — and two dudes in their early 20s. Guess where this is going.
The new guy was in sales, and he was younger than I was, less experienced in his field than I was in mine, and generally less experienced as a human being — not as smart, not as mature, and not as hardworking as I.
During a team meeting his third week in the office, he suggested that he and I should tag-team his sales calls: He would call our clients while I took notes. I responded that we should absolutely not do that and made it clear, in case this had somehow not been articulated to our new coworker, that within our company, I was in fact not the secretary or the office administrator, but the marketing associate, and that I had my own work to do.
He was not discouraged.
In inter-office conversations with my boss, this new coworker would consistently say, “I had Emily Rose do X,” or “I had Emily Rose do Y.” Each time I would insert myself to say: Nope, you didn’t “have Emily Rose” do anything. You asked Emily Rose for help with something, and she agreed of her own volition. I repeatedly made it clear he was not in a position to “have me” do things.
After a bunch of similar exchanges, my boss took me aside and asked me to stop “baiting” the new guy. I tried to control myself. As respectfully as I could, I asked for clarification and examples of said “baiting.” My boss laughed sheepishly and admitted that ok, yes, the new guy was definitely the problem, but since I was the more mature employee, it was my responsibility not to make him feel bad for the things he said.
Never mind that he made me feel bad.
Never mind that he regularly said things like, “That touchdown was the tits!” before laughing awkwardly and saying, “Oh, sorry, Emily Rose. I guess you don’t like that,” and casting me not only as the odd person out, but also as the lone impediment to any harmless male fun.
Never mind that he constantly talked over me and that my boss now did the same. That he interrupted my presentations — presentations I had spent a lot of time on — to joke with my boss and that my boss went right along with it, ignoring my work.
Things were going downhill fast. The new guy had shifted the dynamic in a big way. Not because my boss hadn’t been sexist before and had now become one, but because the new guy was normalizing all of my boss’s previously silent prejudices by enacting them openly himself.
I cried when I went home from work. I decided I didn’t deserve this — not only had I been there longer and was entitled to feel comfortable in my own office, but I was a human being, for God’s sake! I had a right to feel welcome and comfortable and respected no matter how long I’d been there!
I resolved to request a meeting with my boss and lay the issue out before him.
And he was very apologetic.
The thing was, though…
He didn’t want to say anything to my coworker about his behavior because it might embarrass him.
Never mind that early in this same coworker’s tenure, my boss had forced him to publicly apologize to our team after he took off early to go golfing one Friday instead of finishing his sales calls for the week. That offense was apparently worth embarrassing my coworker because it affected the company bottom line. This series of offenses toward me, however, was apparently not worth embarrassing the poor guy, no matter how badly he had made me feel.
What my boss would do, however, was change his own behavior and lead by example.
I didn’t love this “solution,” but I was young, and it was my first experience confronting a boss about anything, let alone his own sexist behavior and that of another employee. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, nor did I want to seem overly sensitive or “make trouble” or any of the things many women feel in these situations. So I “agreed”—at least it was something and maybe it would help a little, right?
It was nothing, so it didn’t help at all. My boss did not change his behavior; instead, his behavior worsened.
He dismissed out of hand or even went so far as to ridicule every creative marketing idea I had, which was bad enough in itself. But what’s worse, we worked in a very small office, and my coworker could hear every one of these conversations, so he began appropriating these ideas, proposing them as his own.
And what do you know?
My ideas sounded way better to my boss when they came out of my male coworker’s mouth. And neither man involved could understand why I was upset about this. Why wasn’t I happy that we were moving forward with these ideas after all? Wasn’t that what I had wanted from the start?
The last straw came when after yet another of my ideas had been stolen, my boss had found my indignation funny, and the problem coworker had offered me a high five, characterizing this blatant injustice as “teamwork” and remarking how much more progress we could make as a company if I just always passed my ideas on to him for him to then get them approved.
I demanded a second meeting with our boss. He couldn’t even fathom what this emergency meeting might be about, and when I communicated just how insulted I was, he suggested that my perception might be skewed. If I had offered multiple examples of his preferring my male coworker, he explained, he might be able to see where I was coming from, but as things stood, this was just an isolated incident…
So I enumerate the many examples.
He still did not see where I was coming from.
We did not come to a resolution.
My coworker was never spoken to. My boss came to the office less and less, and I stopped proposing ideas period or having opinions at meetings. I divested myself emotionally from my work and took advantage of the new coworking space we’d moved to to separate myself physically from my boss and problem colleague. I wore headphones to discourage conversation.
Most importantly, I got a job somewhere else.
I’d come to this company eager to learn, excited to contribute, and with a strong work ethic. By the time I’d given my two weeks notice, I had experienced what many women—and what systematically oppressed groups of people in general—experience in the workplace and elsewhere: The assumption that I was less than, and that it was my job to either make up for it by proving myself time and time again, or to subject to it quietly so the people responsible wouldn’t have to reflect on the injustice of their own actions.
The day I left, that company lost a smart, dedicated team member. And though in my time there I lost a lot of my faith in people and in men specifically, I also gained a faith in myself that I’d never had.
Whenever I despair at having no power to change the system, and I share this story as evidence, what I see in the faces of the women around me is the reassurance that they aren’t alone, the shared exhaustion of the struggle, and the empathy and support they offer. So I’m sharing it again, not as evidence that we’re powerless, but as a reminder that much of the time, we do have power over ourselves, that we don’t have to be ashamed of what we’re going through, that most other women know what we’re up against and will help us through it.
Reach out. Stand up. Keep telling these stories. Fight.
Emily Rose is a storyteller at heart, a Kentuckian living in Brooklyn. Also an NYU/Tisch grad, she produced an EP, performed Shakespeare, recorded voice-overs, and taught music to kids before becoming a marketer in the start-up world. Follow her at @the_gremily, and do let her know if you'd like to publish her children's story.