A Twitter thread has gotten some attention recently, where my former-coworker / current-best friend, Marty, recounted the day he realised just how bad, and insidious, workplace sexism could be.
After noticing that a client was treating him like crap while his email signature was accidentally set to my name, we came up with an experiment. We switched signatures for a week. Nothing changed, except that our clients read me as male and Marty as female. I had one of the easiest weeks of my professional life. He… didn’t.
But I knew long before this experiment that my life at this company was always going to be harder. I knew this on my second day. Our boss was my age. A wealthy and privileged entrepreneur, he lived his life by the Holy Bible of Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Workweek. Our job was to professionally edit and rewrite customers’ resumes. Marty was still living across the country on my first day of work, with plans to move locally and work from our “office” (my bosses’ apartment) in a few weeks. I asked my boss what Marty was like. He told me, “Oh, he’s a good writer, but he tends to get over emotional about things and let that get in the way of his writing. He’s kind of a girl like that.”
I stared at him, not quite believing what he had said. To me. The only girl he had ever hired. He knew immediately that he had f*cked up. He stuttered, tried to backtrack, un-backtracked, ultimately apologised and acknowledged that it was a wrong thing to say. But that didn’t matter. Message received. I put up my walls, and buckled in to try to survive at this job. This wasn’t my first time at this rodeo.
When I did meet Marty, we clicked. We bonded over being awestruck at the casual and not-so-casual moments of sexism my boss would treat me to over the few years that I worked there. Even his compliments were… fun. After a few weeks, I survived the rigorous training process and another male coworker, hired at the same time, did not. My boss complimented me and himself, saying that “I wasn’t going to consider hiring any females, but I’m glad I did. You should be proud, I had thousands of applications but yours stuck out to me, and made me decide to give hiring a girl a try.” Interesting. “Why weren’t you considering hiring any women?”
“Oh, you know. We’ve always had fun here, and I didn’t want the atmosphere to change.”
I would like the record to show that I have the filthiest mouth in the tri-state area, and one of my pasttimes has always been trying to come up with jokes off-colour enough that I can actually embarrass Marty. I would also like the record to show that I developed a trucker’s mouth and bawdy sense of humour precisely because I’ve always had to act “like a man” to be found funny and be accepted in male spaces.
I kept working there and taking his money, despite the bullsh*t I lived with on the daily. When Marty and my boss would talk over me, I’d just get louder. When they drifted off and stopped paying attention while I was talking, I’d rewrite it in an email and force my words in front of their eyes. When my boss Pinkwashed my writing to make it sound more “feminine”, I snuck in and changed it back. And one day, I lit into Marty, telling him that he had a bad habit of talking over me and ignoring me. To his credit, and probably the reason that we are still friends, is that he listened. He took it to heart. He started using his voice to bring attention to me in meetings. I’ve seen him do the same for other women in mixed settings since. I’m grateful for that.
But I never really felt anything like despair, until our experiment ended after a week, and we decided to go to our boss so that we could tell him exactly what it was like writing while female.
Listen: Kate Ellis: on a campaign trail with a baby under your arm. (Post continues after podcast)
He didn’t believe us. He actually said “There are a thousand reasons why the clients could have reacted differently that way. It could be the work, the performance… you have no way of knowing.” For the first time in two years, I *almost* lost my cool. I wanted to grab him by the arms and shake him, scream in his face until he heard me, stress cry and scream at the sky until the world made sense. But I did not cry. That would be breaking The Rules that had kept me alive in this company for this long.
But I will always wonder. What did my boss have to gain by refusing to believe that sexism exists? Even when the evidence is screaming at him, even when his employee who makes him an awful lot of money is telling him, even when THE BOY on staff is telling him??
I never did figure it out. Instead, I quit and started my own business writing blog posts and web copy as a freelancer. In an office of one, I can finally put my walls down.
This post was first published on Medium and has been republished here with full permission.