“Listen, we have to move our meeting,” my male coworker said to me in a huff.
“Ok,” I said, mildly annoyed.
Honestly, this is pretty typical at our workplace, as it is most places. Things come up. Stuff gets moved. But this was right at the end of our day; and of course, he expected me to find a new time for a meeting HE had just cancelled.
So, I waited for a moment then asked sassily, “Well, are you gonna move it?” It was on a shared calendar, either one of us could move it easily.
“What did you say?” he asked, in that angry tone that I knew spelled trouble for both of us.
OK—so typically I’d just diffuse this situation—look at everyone’s calendars and reschedule this meeting, right? It’s a small inconvenience, and I’m a woman—it’s what we do. But, I’d also had a REALLY long week, and at this particular moment I wasn’t in the mood. So, I struck back.
“What do you mean, ‘what?’,” I said. “You just expect me to move meetings for you like I’m your secretary?”
Here’s where it gets interesting, because this co-worker was not one to back down from a good honest fight. So, when I saw his nostrils flare, I knew a major retort was coming.
“Look, bro (he actually calls me bro). I don’t know what your problem is, but this isn’t my fault. Either move the meeting or don’t, but I won’t be there because my whole week just got blown up.”
“Fine — I’ll move it,” I snapped, so pissed I wanted to throw something sharp at him.
“Fine,” he shot back, looking like a bull that had just had a red handkerchief waved in front of his face.
And that was that. Until the next day, when we both came to work expecting the other one to apologize and quickly realized that neither one of us thought we had done anything wrong.
I felt like he was disrespecting me by treating me like his secretary. He felt like I had gone for his jugular over a situation that was 100% out of his control. Let’s be honest, we were both right and both wrong – but neither of us were going to admit that.
After some time had passed, and we were able to joke about it, we had a breakthrough.
He was in the middle of making a joke about how he’d only asked me to move “that effing meeting” because I was the one who had set it up in the first place, when I interrupted him.
I didn’t disagree with him – I simply asked if he’d ever considered why I was the one who had been tasked with setting up that meeting in the first place. Or, for that matter, why it was always up to me—or the other women on our team—to schedule the meetings, take the notes and order the lunches and clean up the shared workspace?
If he were truly as “woke” as he claimed to be, why couldn’t he see how his behavior was reinforcing the gender stereotypes he claimed to find so absurd?
I readied myself for his next comeback. It’s rare that you confront a man with his privilege and end up better off for it. But his eyes suddenly shifted downward and something fundamental had changed in his demeanor.
I continued, cautiously, admitting to him that I might be part of the problem, because I default to just taking care of things—like most women do. It’s in our nature, right? But the daily slights add up, and if we don’t speak up when we’ve had enough, how will anything ever change?
Truthfully, I didn’t expect much to change. But in the weeks that followed, to my surprise, things actually started getting better.
When we have a team meal and break away for post-lunch meetings, I often return to my desk to find that my coworker has already bagged up our trash and cleaned up our shared space.
And when someone tosses out scheduling a meeting or taking notes or order ordering lunch to the group, my colleague doesn’t exactly rise up and curse the patriarchy, but he does offer to help shoulder the burden. And that sends a pretty significant message to anybody who’s paying attention.
The disagreement my co-worker and I had may have seemed small (and started off heated), but it allowed us to have an honest conversation. One that allowed us to walk away with a renewed respect for one another.
The whole situation has reminded me of some valuable lessons about gender politics.
Speaking up – even if it may seem minor – will be how to combat gender bias.
But it isn’t always as simple as patriarchal jerk vs feminist hero. There are shades of grey. Sometimes it’s the people you thought were your ally who disappoint you. But that doesn’t mean you have to lump them in with your enemies.
Making a good faith effort to see the world from another’s point of view will only help to move the conversation in the right direction.