I was brought up with the idea that I could do anything. Thinking about sexism at work or anywhere never even crossed my mind. During my adolescence, girl power was at its peak. I grew up on the “I can kick anyone’s butt” strength of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the “being smart is cool” persona of Rory Gilmore and the “I don’t care what you think of me” attitude of the Spice Girls. Thinking about sexism at work or anywhere never even crossed my mind.
Even more influential was my family, primarily made up of strong women and feminist men. Chores and household duties weren’t divided up by gender – they just got done. Naively, I believed that my gender didn’t matter.
More importantly, I only thought of sexism at work as something black and white. You’d know it when you see it because it would be obvious. But that’s not the case most of the time.
My first job out of college was ideal. It was fun, I learned a ton and I worked with and for strong, powerful women who supported and mentored me. But after a few years, I knew it was time for a new change and challenge.
The next company I worked for was bigger, had more industry prestige, and I was excited for the new possibilities a bigger place could bring. But as soon as I started, something just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I shrugged it off as it was much more corporate and much larger than I was used to.
Looking back, my gut was trying to tell me something. There were many reasons (outside of sexism) that I left.
Here are a few of the signs of sexism at work I should have been more aware of:
Sign 1: There were little to no supportive women in leadership
When I started, there were more women in leadership than when I left. Unfortunately, many women who were in leadership positions ended up being forced out or leaving. The women who did stay had one thing in common; they acted like one of the boys. Supporting and mentoring women wasn’t acted on or even encouraged.
Sign 2: “Boys will be boys” permeated the culture
“Bro lunches,” which included senior leaders, happened quite frequently. When the time came to do sexual harassment training, it was laughed off like a joke. As was all of the crude talk that would be used to describe women or even other men. It made me uncomfortable, but I went along with it, even participated in it as not to seem out of the norm.
Sign 3: Little to no critical feedback (and certainly no promotions)
In the first year I worked there, under a supportive woman who ended up leaving, I received consistent performance reviews, a raise and even a promotion. And after she left, I barely received a performance review. Even when I asked for critical feedback, I was typically told that I was doing great, but no real direction on how to improve or get to the next level.
Well, except for being told I needed to smile more because I wasn’t approachable. That I was too emotional because I would fight for my ideas and get frustrated when I clearly wasn’t being listened to or when my project was clearly an afterthought.
At the same time, I was watching men, who weren’t doing the level of work I was doing, get promoted while I was told there was no business case.
The death by a thousand cuts (or why you’re not crazy)
Had you asked me while I was there if I felt like this company was sexist, I would have said no way. It seems silly to me now. But at the time, I didn’t want to believe it in the sexism at work.
Because it was very subtle. So subtle that I actually thought I was crazy for even thinking it. For a long time, I thought, “Of course it’s just me. I didn’t do enough. The opportunity just wasn’t there.”
But the longer I was out of it and the more I read and talked to other women who have experienced the same thing, the more I realized how much that unconscious bias played into the culture and into every decision that was made. It wasn’t the only reason things happened, but it played a role, even if it was small.
In her book “Feminist Fight Club” Jessica Bennett calls this form of sexism, “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” because when you look at these experiences individually, they don’t feel significant – just like a small, inconsequential cut – but once you experience that over and over again, it can be fatal to your career before you even realize it.
To be clear, I liked a lot of the people I worked with, especially my male boss. We got along well, and I enjoyed working with him. I don’t think anyone’s actions were intentional. I truly believe it was unconscious bias at work.
I write this anonymously because it doesn’t matter who I am or which I company I worked for. My experience isn’t unique. It’s actually pretty typical. You may even read it and think, “That doesn’t sound that bad.”
But it shouldn’t be typical. It shouldn’t be something most women face. We shouldn’t only care about blatant sexism. Once we identify how sexism permeates our workplace, that’s when we can truly change it.