Picking My Battles

Outside of exit interviews, I’ve gone to HR exactly three times in my career. The first was to provide some background on an issue a colleague was having. The second was because my boss at the time would not allow me to look for open internal positions, and I wanted clarification on company policy. The third was last month, after I took a mandatory in-house safety seminar.

The seminar itself was surprisingly useful (yes, sometimes corporate training really does what’s advertised), but the presentation was…problematic. Sexist to the point that it made me deeply uncomfortable. Not come-on sexist: trivializing sexist. The speaker’s asides made me feel alternately singled-out and stared at, and marginalized and rendered invisible. I wasn’t the only woman in the room – there were five of us out of twenty-five, including the speaker – but I felt isolated and dismissed.

As a general rule, I’m pretty thick-skinned about sexist remarks. I’ve worked in software since 1988, and before that I spent two years at a venture capital firm. What hasn’t been said directly to me I have overheard, including numerous variations on the “come on, it’s only a joke” justification. In a lot of ways I’ve been lucky. I can’t say being female hasn’t hurt my career, but neither have I been subjected to some of the egregious bullying that’s been publicized more recently.

Some of this is calculated obtuseness on my part. At the venture capital firm, I learned quickly that the best defense against off-color jokes and clumsy come-ons was an air of puzzlement. A man who was aggressively hitting on me had two choices if I didn’t get it: one, to be explicit, and risk explicit rejection; or two, go along with my assumption that he hadn’t meant anything like that at all. The face-saving option was the most popular.

So a lot of sexist crap just kind of blows past me, because it’s noise level; and in fairness, most of the people I have worked with over the years have not had any problems at all with me being female. Yes, there have been some, and yes, sometimes they were in positions of power and made my life difficult; but they have been the exceptions.

But even knowing this about myself, I second-guessed my response to this seminar. I was being hypersensitive, surely. Maybe the other women in the room weren’t bothered. The training was otherwise useful, and far more entertaining than mandatory corporate training had a right to be; who was I to jump on a few odd remarks here and there? It’s not like the guy was being malicious. Come on, couldn’t I just let it go?

I might have. I’m sort of ashamed of that, but I might have. What it came down to for me, though, was this: this was mandatory training. I did not have a choice about sitting through these eight hours. I was tested on what I had learned, and expected to pass. (I did. Like I said, it was a good seminar.) This was part of my job, part of what I was obligated to do for the company.

Don’t I have a right, when performing a task required by my employer, to perform that task without being singled-out and trivialized for my sex?

I spent a weekend thinking about exactly what I wanted to say. I was worried about retaliation, about being branded a trouble-maker. After all, despite the fact that I often like my work, I don’t do it for pleasure. I had far more to lose than I had to gain. If it had been just me, I might have, indeed, just let it go.

My daughter is a product of her environment, both at home and out in the world with her friends. She loves Doctor Who and Star Trek, but is suspicious of Star Wars as a “boy thing.” (This is puzzling to her mother, who saw the original 1977 film 14 times in the movie theater, including re-releases.) She loves math and science and dresses and pink, and when I tell her certain facts, like how wives were once possessions like houses, and that there are still places in the world where this is true, she is outraged more because the world is illogical than because it is unfair.

I don’t want her ever to have to sit through this seminar I sat through. I don’t want her to ever be sitting in a room, paying attention to what she is being taught, and be slapped in the face by the fact that she is considered an outsider, unimportant, an oddity simply for existing. They were small insults, and impersonal ones; but it was unpleasant, and I had no choice. I can deal with it – I did deal with it. And maybe speaking up about it isn’t going to change a damn thing, but at least I can look at my daughter and tell her I didn’t put up with it, didn’t smile and nod and pretend it was all right. I stood up and said “I object.”

I don’t truly expect anything to change. It’s difficult, with these more subtle situations: I wasn’t excluded from the training, I wasn’t discriminated against in the testing, nobody hit on me or pushed any kind of unwelcome social interaction. If something does change – if the speaker chooses his words more carefully in the future, if another woman takes the same seminar and has none of the experiences I had – that’s a major win, as far as I’m concerned.

But on a personal level, what is most important to me is that I said something. I didn’t just say “Oh, well, it’s not important/too amorphous/unintentional, so I’ll let it go.” If I let it go, I’m part of the problem. I’m part of the society that says it’s OK to shove someone aside who is doing the same job, has the same professional skills, undergoes the same risk, just because of sex, or gender, or race, or orientation.

But I didn’t let it go. It’s a small thing, but I didn’t let it go. Somewhere in my professional record, maybe someone did, in fact, write trouble-maker. So be it. On this teeny, tiny point, I stood my ground and did the right thing.