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...and my cup size is none of your damn business

this story, about a man who got a female coworker to trade email accounts with him for two weeks to see if he could see a difference in customer reactions, has been making the rounds on social media and beyond in the last week or so. earlier today, i posted it on my personal facebook page about it, and realised that i had a lot more that i wanted to share than made sense for a facebook post. so i've come here to rant.

a couple of things to start:

1. i've had some really good job experiences in my life. i'm both lucky and unlucky that the best of them came early on, but even in more recent years, i worked at a couple of places that treated workers, all workers, with respect. that respect can be expressed in different ways, but believe me, you know it when it's there. so i want to make it clear that #notallworkplaces fit the pattern i'm about to describe.

2. i am really, really, really grateful to martin r. schneider, who thought up and did this experiment, not just because he's called attention to something commonplace that causes major problems, but because his experiment has reassured me and made me feel a little more confident in my own evaluations. [also "schneidremarks" as a twitter handle just reaffirms my conviction that this is a great man.]

and now the bad news...

the results of this experiment are exactly what i would have expected them to be, based on my experience. that's because they line up with the vast majority of my workplace experiences over the last fifteen or twenty years. the only difference is that most of my work didn't involve dealing with clients, but coworkers.

if you've seen conversion, you might recall that there's a scene where a company boss shrugs off criticism for showing a hardcore porn video in front of a female coworker by saying "who gives a shit, it's probably her sister or something". that, my friends, is a verbatim quote of something that was said to/ about me. [the difference being that it was said on speaker phone, about an email that had accidentally made its way to my account.] what i didn't choose to get into in the film was that the person who made the joke persisted [humourously, of course] in asking what i thought of the email. did i feel horrified and violated? no. did i feel uncomfortable? yes, definitely. i felt like my future was being judged on whether or not i came up with an acceptable answer, one that set everyone's mind at ease. but what i remember most was that i reassured myself that "this is just how things are in a male-dominated office." [the ironic thing about that was, it wasn't a male-dominated office. well over half the people working there were women.  that just didn't register as much with me because the vast majority of the department heads were men.]

in point of fact, i like the freedom to make a good bawdy or off-colour joke. one of the department directors at that same company made them all the time and he and i had this ongoing, unspoken competition to one-up each other. we made more than one jaw drop in our time there and the fact is that i consider this to have been one of my most positive working relationships, ever. looking back on it, i realise that that's because, firstly, i always felt on equal footing. we weren't- he significantly outranked me in the office hierarchy- but i knew that i could say whatever horrific shit came to mind and it would never be counted against me. secondly, and more importantly, when the joking stopped, this guy was incredibly respectful, valued my work and had my back. he was like that with anyone in the office who was willing to work hard.

much more insidious were the characters who acted as if everything was fine, but would just magically "forget" to do things that i'd [fairly] asked of them. or who blamed delays on me, because they hadn't been clear on what i was asking of them [without ever telling me that]. or the ones who would point to me as the source of delays because i hadn't done something they hadn't asked of me, and that i would have had no way of knowing had to be done. or the ones who would simply push off tasks they didn't like, huffing and puffing all the way, and raising their voices to be as intimidating as possible, onto women who were at a much lower position in the company, and who didn't dare question them, even if it made no sense that those tasks should fall to them. [as an example of that last phenomenon, i worked in one place where it was left to one young woman in an entry-level position to ensure that the work done by another entire department for another entire department was being completed on a timely basis. so if things fell through, although she had no authority to force them to do anything, the blame laid with her.]

in the last twenty years, at various workplaces, i have known of at least half a dozen cases where a male worker was accused of sexually or physically assaulting a female coworker. in one of those cases, where there were multiple complainants and when the man had been employed by the company for less than six months, the man was fired. in two of the cases, the woman was fired. only one of the men in these cases even denied the charges, although some disputed the context. in at least two-thirds of the cases, the complaint was made against a direct supervisor. if an employee is accused of theft, chances are that they'll be let go immediately. criticize the company itself and you're out the door. if you're lucky, you'll get more than the legally required severance just to shut you up. accuse a coworker of assault? here's a few [i swear, almost verbatim] of the comments i remember hearing:

  • it was probably just a relationship that went bad, and now she's pissed
  • she's really high-strung
  • you never really know about these things
  • you can tell she'd be a lot of trouble
  • she came to the company rather than the police, so what does that tell you?
  • why would she have kept quiet about this so long and just mentioned it when she got questioned about her performance? [that was one of the cases where the direct supervisor was the accused.]
  • you really think that he's going to fuck up his marriage for that?
  • it was just weird the way she brought it up

not once, in any of these cases, have i ever heard people dismiss the man's point of view. the comments that i've heard were:

  • he should have known better
  • you could tell that she was bad news/ a troublemaker
  • he was probably just drunk and being stupid
does there seem to be a comment missing there? not once have i ever heard a man unequivocally condemned for assaulting a coworker. not. once.

have i been absolutely certain that the woman was 100% right in all of these cases? no. but i'd say 80% of the time, yes, often because i was privy to "insider information". [i'll even go so far as to say that, within that 80%, there were some cases where i liked the man accused better than i liked his accuser. yeah, that shit happens.]

i've personally been assaulted twice in my working life, and i've reported neither of them. in one case, it was because i felt like the whole incident was sort of ridiculous, and to report it would likely do more harm than good. in the second case, the person was someone with whom i'd had repeated problems, and it happened in full view of a number of others, including my direct supervisor, all of whom seemed to think it was normal. [fondling or groping a woman is not normal, in case you needed that clarified for you.] i didn't report it, because i didn't feel there was a chance that anyone would take it seriously.

there have been a lot of other incidents that i'd qualify as "sleazy". as a woman with curvy proportions, i've had to respond to many, many, many questions and shrug off many, many, many, many, many jokes about the size of my breasts. and yeah, i've found most of them incredibly offensive, not least because it seems to have been assumed that i should be good humoured about them. after all, i'm busty. how could i not expect that to be a source of jokes? [let me take this moment to refer you back to my earlier point about my coworker and i constantly making coarse jokes at each other. it may come as a surprise, but, in my experience, women and members of all other minorities actually have incredibly sharp intuition when it comes to seeing the difference between camaraderie and creepiness in the workplace.]

but here's the thing: full-on assault is comparatively rare. that's not to say it doesn't happen regularly, but that it is rare compared to the bullshit that a lot of us put up with every day. if you're a woman, chances are that the linked story above sounded familiar. because the vast majority of us have had to deal with people who, for no discernable reason, needed to be convinced that we were capable of doing our job before we could get on with the business of doing it. it's very likely the most frustrating thing for many women in the workplace is the sense that they have to defend every point they make, whereas a man doing the same job has their competence assumed. which is why it likely came as no surprise to the majority of working women that the email-swapping experiment turned out the way it did, even though it did come as a surprise to the man who started it. we know it's the case that women have to persuade everyone that they're not idiots on a continuous basis. men assume that if we're getting questioned more, it's because we're not as good at our jobs, not as good at getting all the details nailed down. which just makes sense, since they're often paid more for doing the same work. sure that must be because they're better at it?

in more than fifteen years of working in marketing and public relations, i have never once had the experience of having my abilities accepted as a consequence of my experience. my experience can get me in the door, and no further. if i want to be able to persuade an employer or a client to a course of action, i need to be able to cite a hundred thousand examples in support of my argument, and even then, if a few of the employees question my proposals, i need to be open to changing literally everything i've come up with. on the flip side, i've never once had a man present a marketing plan to me with any backup beyond his "gut feeling". i sincerely wish i were joking about that. in one case, i had an advertising agency guy show up with his [female] assistant. she showed us a couple of successful campaigns that had used the same concept that they were proposing. his response was literally to push aside her examples and say that they weren't important, because he had experience and he knew the campaign proposal was "fucking great". and by the way, it was. but if i went in and told a client that they had to go ahead with something i proposed because of that, i'd be lucky if i ever heard from them again.

i've managed literally hundreds of products and dozens of marketing campaigns, and the people i deal with generally know that. but that doesn't change a single thing. if i make a suggestion based on my experience, i can rest assured that the discussion ends with me explaining not just my past work, but thirty years of how advertising, marketing and public relations have developed. my usual resort at this point is just to find an article written by a man. tragically, i'm not joking. that moves things forward faster than anything i can actually say. one time, i tried specifically to mimic what my male peers did, when we were all required to make presentations on plans for the upcoming year. i was told that i had an attitude and given a warning that i needed to be more congenial. [fyi, this was the same job where i was assaulted in view of my supervisor. the good news is that he told me after that happened that my attitude had greatly improved.]

so, i can hear some of you saying, why bitch about it now? why didn't you complain at the time? as it happens, on a few occasions, i have complained. i've complained that certain people just weren't responding on a timely basis, or completing assignments correctly, or being clear enough on what they needed from me to complete a job, or that they were simply being rude and difficult and causing needless delays. i haven't brought it up a lot, but that's because, when i have, the response hasn't been great.

for one thing, not once has someone i spoke to [all of them men in this case] ever accepted what i said as being a true or fair judgment. you could argue that a boss shouldn't immediately assume that a complainant is right, but there's a big gap between accepting what they say wholeheartedly and dedicating the entire discussion to why the person making the complaint is likely being too sensitive. or that she's "overreacting" to the realities of office life. everyone gets questioned from time to time, after all. [the fact that "from time to time" is generally "every time" for women gets lost in the discussion.] indeed, the words "overreacting" and "emotional" have been the keynotes of every reaction speech i've ever received when i've called attention to unfair or disrespectful behaviour in the workplace. and, yes, i have been asked if my reaction was possibly caused by premenstrual syndrome. these incidents have generally happened as the person i spoke to was laughing in my face. this includes one time when i complained about the sexist behaviour of a coworker, one of the ones who was accused of sexual assault. my complaint took place before i knew about the charge, but within a couple of weeks of when it was made, and when the people to whom i complained knew about it.

i give them credit for one nugget of honesty: this behaviour is completely normal.

it is normal that, when we hear a woman complain that customers or coworkers are being difficult, we assume that the fault lies with her. it is normal that, when others question a woman's work, they are on equal ground with her, while those who question a man's work are approach from a position of inferior knowledge. it is normal that we approach a woman from the point of view that she is a bimbo office clerk, whereas a man has a job because he is qualified. it is normal to question anything a woman says and to accept a man's word at face value. i don't think that my experiences are unique or even exceptional. this is just normal, day-to-day behaviour. [here's another depressing thought: the places that i've been told are the best at eliminating this kind of behaviour are the large, faceless monoliths. smaller businesses are often far more forgiving of someone being "a little bit" sexist, racist or homophobic.]

as thrilled as i am that someone did this little experiment in email, the thing that stands out to me in that article [and that i know has stood out to others] is that, when martin schneider took the results to his boss, the boss still shook it off. as it turns out, it's not even enough when a man takes our side, solid evidence in hand. that's how resistant people are to believing that sexism still exists. as far as many, especially those in power, are concerned, sexism is something that was solved in the seventies, and anyone who mentions it now is just "emotional". or, as one coworker reacted to a complaint about his behaviour towards a group of female employees, "if they can't handle it, perhaps they should go get a job in a library somewhere". [i want to make this clear, in case some of you don't believe me: i didn't hear about that. i saw it, in writing. and, fyi, not someone i would have classified as one of the more difficult people to work with in that particular place.]

the "emotional" message resonates because we assume that every person, man, woman, black, white, gay, straight, experiences the same toughness from coworkers and clients. but that's where the email experiment comes in; women [without taking into account any other factors] are not treated in the same way as men. even if you dismiss debates about inequality of pay for the same work, a woman on the exact same footing as a man can expect to receive disrespect or even abuse that a male counterpart never would.

i'd love to see more studies like this. i'd love to see hundreds of them, from all sorts of companies, small to large, i'd like to see exchanges between coworkers, as well as exchanges with clients. hell, i'd love to be in charge of logging all the responses and coming up with an analysis. the only problem is that i don't know if i could convince people of my findings.   


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