Last week, in honor of Ellen Pao’s lost discrimination case that hinged too heavily on instances of notoriously tough-to-prove soft sexism, we asked you to tell us about the soft sexism in your lives—those moments big and small that dot the landscape of your working and personal existence that feel barbed, yet amorphous. You did. Oh, how you did.
I got emails from readers who had dated musicians and could relate to being called Yoko Ono when they dared express an opinion. Another woman was tired of the constant comments about how “young” she looks, a coded way of diminishing her credibility. Another woman wrote in about being peppered with condescending questions implying she couldn’t handle the position she had willingly applied for:
Earlier this year, when I gave my notice to the large PR firm I worked at in order to take a more senior management position with another, smaller firm, the two (male) owners of the firm tried to talk me out of it by asking the following:
“Taking on a management position like that means long hours away from your family. Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Have you talked to your husband and your daughters about this? How do they feel about it?”
At the time, I glossed over the questions and just stayed true to my decision to leave. But later on that night as I was driving home, it hit me. Would they have asked those questions to a male employee? Would they attempt to “guilt” a male employee about working longer hours and being away from his wife and kids?
I doubt it.
Once it hit me, I was pretty enraged about it. If that was their tactic for trying to make me stay, it backfired horribly. I couldn’t wait to get out of there!
Commenters poured in with example after example of the subtle ways in which they or women they know are worn down, condescended to, and marginalized in the workplace with menial tasks, and what’s worse, told explicitly or otherwise over and over and over and over in workplace, personal, or academic settings to tone it down so everyone could handle them better.
Buckle up, this one sucks.
I work for a big utility company in a technical position, and I am one of 6 women in a group of over 30 people. The majority of the company’s 23,000 employees are male, and the overwhelming majority of women in the company work in administrative support, clerical, or other non-technical roles. The culture can be extremely male-oriented. The company is very diverse in all other aspects, but the bottom line is that the field we are in is male dominated.
The subtle shit that happens to me is stuff like being asked to cut and serve cake during group parties or being asked to help set up or clean up events. The men in my group are NEVER asked to do this. I refuse whenever possible, or else recruit a guy to help me. I absolutely never do things like make cookies or bring in treats for the group, unless it’s part of a potluck that everybody is contributing to. I am not a den mother, an admin assistant, or a maid, and I don’t want to be seen or treated like one.
I work at a small company with just 2 female employees. Routinely I am told that the toilet paper has run out....
Before this job and grad school, I was an intern architect at a small architecture firm, and the only woman. I sat right in front of the door, so I looked like the receptionist, and I was also required to handle the phones because my “voice sounds nice.” NEVER AGAIN
My boss actually called me a “den mother”. I’m the GM of a consulting company. I get asked about cookies and Christmas cards all the time. I also found out a year into the job that I was getting paid less than a male subordinate and was given a raise to just barely more than him in exchange for having my profit sharing options taken away, but that’s more brazen, in your face sexism. The den mother shit actually pisses me off more because it’s harder to call people out on and it’s so fucking patronizing
I work maintenance for a post-secondary school. Our entire department is made up of males (including me) except my co-worker at my campus and one other at another campus. I feel horrible for them because it’s an old boys club and they get treated like crap but within the confines of a professional organization (so mostly soft sexism). Examples (all using my co-worker as I know very little about the other):
• We’re unionised. She applied for a job at another campus. It was literally the exact same job she was already doing, just at a different location. According to our contract, if union people apply and they are qualified, then most seniority wins. She was the only internal applicant with qualifications who applied. They hired from outside the union. She grieved it (and would have won) but a spot opened at my campus and she came here instead.
• People at my campus treat her like my helper, not my partner. We have the exact same jobs, get paid exactly the same, yet all information filters through me. From students/teachers/other support/contractors/management. People will walk in the back, ask if I’m there, be told I’m on vacation and will say “oh, okay” and walk out. They will wait a week to tell me something is broken/needs to be done instead of just telling her. Hell, if I walk into the shop and she’s talking to someone about a job, they’ll stop talking to her and just restart the entire conversation with me.
• She’s always asked to do the paper work/organizing/light cleaning/etc by the higher ups.
• She was the one to originally train me when I started at the school doing a different kind of physical job. Eventually, I took over for her in that job, as she moved to another shift. When she worked afternoons, the boss would come in everyday and start going “make sure you do this, and this, and this”. Basically treat her like she had no idea what she was doing. When I started on her shift? He’d stop in maybe once a week, ask if everything was good, I’d say yes, and he leave.
This. This is the bullshit that gets me.
• No one knows how to fix the copier, can you get it La.C? I’m just reading the motherfucking diagram you fucking assholes, you get it.
• Who knows how to send a fax? Ask La.C.
• So and so is retiring, La.C. will take up the collection.
• We need donuts for this bus trip (that is not even my mother fucking program) can you stop on the way in Saturday morning and get them.
• I have a man who will come by and drop papers off at my desk. He never leaves a note, never tells me what they are or what he needs done with them. Just leaves them in my seat. I turn around and put them in the fucking trash.
YUP. I work in transportation and man, it’s all so subtle. Customers greet me with ‘hey gorgeous’. I get asked to water plants I have no ownership of. I develop a good relationship with a customer and ‘they have a crush on me’. I had a male coworker call me Sweetie once.
Ugh, unfortunately the most sexism I’ve experienced was in the home. My parents, hippies though they are, never asked my brothers to help with anything other than dishes, and even then they didn’t have to do them after middle school. It was me and my sister’s job to do all the housework, even well into college: if I came home for the holidays, I had to mop the floors on Christmas day while my brothers played video games (even though they’re both in their 30s). Since I enjoy cooking, I cook, but since my brothers were never taught how to do it properly, I have to set the table as well, and then end up doing all the dishes because my brothers never offer to. I love my family and have done my best to not react to this treatment, but it makes me seethe just thinking about it. To put this into perspective, I’m 29, so it’s not like I was raised in the ‘50s or something. I really think my parents are blind to how sexist they are, but all my friends and in-laws have commented on how differently the boys and girls are treated in my family. I suspect my family isn’t the only family like this, though.
My admin assistant job included cleaning up nail clippings (who tf cuts their nails into their desk drawer and collects them!?) and scrubbing out cubicles. All the admins were women. It was a huge company. The techbros assumed I had no education and talked down to me a lot. Because I worked for their bosses, they expected me to do admin work for them too. They used to kind of snap at me- definitely treated admins differenly than other coworkers.
I am always asked to set up for meetings and clean up after people even though it’s not my job. The men in my office NEVER have to do any of this, just us women.
Also, twice my boss has asked me to prepare his food on a plate for him and to microwave his soup. I didn’t serve him the plate and in the microwave incident I told him kind of jokingly “I’m going to warm it up for you because I’m in a great mood but for next time, literally all you have to do is press these two buttons.” Of course, not everyone is in the position to refuse their boss/sass him.
In one place I worked (as an instructor) I kept getting asked to help/be in charge of seasonal decorations. Ummmmmm. No. Oddly, the men never got asked to decorate the office with a “kicky spring theme.”
When I started working at my job, the coffee maker was by the copier and lots of colleagues would ask why I didn’t start a new pot of coffee since I was at the copier. I was second in command of the finance department and yet I was still expected to make coffee when someone else had clearly emptied it because I am female and within proximity of the machine. I gave the same response every time someone snarked or thought they were clever about it: “I do not drink coffee and am not responsible for that machine. Find the person who emptied the pot and walked off.” Still took a year to stop being asked to make the coffee.
The first example to come to mind:
On my first comprehensive exam, after being put through a ringer about edits on an exam type for which edits are not customary (and for which colleagues who do significantly less complicated and theoretical work were not expected to submit edits), I was finally passed after my oral defense. When it came time to critique my performance in the oral defense, I was told:
“You seem too sure of your answers. It’s not that your answers were wrong, it’s that they came to you too quickly. People want to see you take a moment to think about things. You seem overly sure of yourself.”
I suggested that this was maybe because I had thought in advance of what questions might be asked and prepared answers for myself so I would be ready. Nodding, my professor replied:
“See, it’s not that the answers were wrong, you just seemed overly confident about them.”
I immediately felt like this was sexist. But I knew it was sexist when I shared it with a mixed gender group of colleagues and before I could even share my suspicions, all unanimously agreed that a male student would never have received the same criticism.
My 15-year-old niece got a talking-to from her high school guidance counselor for the exact same thing. She’s “too confident in her answers,” and it upsets her male teachers. Because…they’re overly emotional, insecure crybabies, I guess?
Dude, that shit happens to my sister all the time! She’s an intelligent, loud, confident person. The other day her boss pulled her aside and gave her some “constructive criticism” about how in meetings she comes off as too knowledgeable and it intimidates people. (I was like, “You should take that as a compliment!” She was like, “I take that as: I need to find a new job.”) Incidentally, her boss is a woman; we internalize those attitudes too.
Meanwhile, I’m a lot meeker than she is and preface a lot of my opinions with things like, “I think...” or “In my opinion...” or “I’m not sure about this, but...” People always tell me I present my ideas in a way that makes them easy to dismiss and overlook, and I need to be more confident and assertive. You can’t win.
I’ve had a similar experience - I was giving a mock argument in front of a panel of female attorneys and one said to me during critical feedback that she didn’t like me because I was too skinny, too pretty, and my voice was too high which made me seem like a “female stereotype.” I held it together but very much went home and cried. I never would have expected that from another female and no way would a male get the same type of criticism.
I was an mid-level employe and went through weeks of testing for a sr. management training program. I aced it. At the final meeting, I was told I rated #1 in all of the tests. But they weren’t “going to accept you into the program at this time because you are too smart.” It wasn’t even couched, or further defined, even though I pressed for explanation from the HR rep. She only succeeded in getting red in the face, flustered and mumbling and fumbling the rest of the meeting. I had a new (better) job at a great company within 3 weeks. When I gave my 2 weeks notice, they were “shocked”. Asshats.
(Sexism, soft or overt, has never been absent from my life.)
I interviewed with a great medical school that had a campus in a rural/conservative area because I was interested in working with underserved populations, and was rejected. When I did the follow-up phone call to find out why, I was told I had “Great scores, great experience, but your responses to the questions were too intellectual, too much brain and not enough heart. We wanted to see more emotional engagement with the topic.”
Basically, a bunch of old white dudes wanted to see me tear up about how much I want to help people because I’m a young woman. Everyone I’ve talked too since agrees that a male candidate would NEVER be penalized for being “too intellectual” unless he came off as a complete sociopath. Assholes.
When You Dare to Express Opinions on a Hobby/ Sport/ Thing That’s Typically Thought of as Primarily “For Men”:
I love baseball, and since I have lady parts, I’ve spent my whole life having men try to diminish my opinions or my passion. I called a sports talk radio show once to answer a trivia question and had the (male) host ask, “Did your boyfriend give you the answer?” I wore a shirt for one of my favorite players while shopping at a Staples and had the (male) cashier make a comment under his breath that I only rooted for said player because the athlete happened to be cute. I’ve had opposing (male) fans heckle me at the ballpark (and then subsequently get publicly schooled by me).
But the most recent instance that pissed me off the very most was at a work-related cocktail hour, the day after Clayton Kershaw’s amazing no-hitter last season. I am from L.A. and a Dodgers fan, but I live in a different team’s territory right now. As such, I was the only person at the table who had actually watched the game live in TV. Everyone else had heard about it after the fact and watched the highlights. So I was sharing details about what made the game so special, and before I could finish any of my sentences, one dude in particular would interrupt me and try to take over the convo. I made a comment about how Kershaw’s game was one of the best pitched games in history, and he immediately belittled my comment with a sarcastic, “Haha, yeah right. Who is even saying that besides you?” I rattled off columnist and media outlet names. I gave him statistics. When I made a comment about how crazy that it was a game with no hits OR walks AND with 15 ks, he rolled his eyes and said, “So...a no-hitter. Lots of people have had them.” No, you dick. Not JUST a no-hitter. No hits *or* walks clearly puts this particular no-hitter in a different level, just a hair’s breadth away from a perfect game. And those strikeouts...good Lord, how do you even argue against that? He kept spouting anecdotes, I gave facts. I calmly explained my points, he laughed mid-sentence.
I can’t remember all the details of that evening because I was internally raging, and I’ve since tried to block most of it from my memory in order to continue to work with this douchebag. Thankfully, he changed jobs recently. Thinking maybe I was overreacting, I asked a mutual friend who had worked with previously what her thoughts were on him (without explaining my issues first, so I’d have an uninfluenced answer) and her immediate reply was, “Oh my god, he’s SUCH A MANSPLAINER.” Yep. I knew I wasn’t imagining it.
I’ve been into sports my entire life. (Less into baseball than you.) But I can’t tell you how many times people haven’t believed me. My dad (who taught me to love sports) once told me that I should pretend to know less about sports. That it intimidated men. If you’re intimidated by that, it isn’t my problem. I told him as much.
Anyway, I’m sitting in the stands of my college alma mater at a football game. I’d purchased the ticket on the street and I’m sitting in the midst of people that I don’t know. I’ve been talking about the players and game for an entire half. It is a tight game and the other team is on offense. I watch them line up and say “Oh ****, they are going to run a reverse.” (I’d watched the other team all season too and of course, they ran the reverse.) The guys I’m talking to look at me and say “You really do know a lot about football.” No kidding.
I edit a beer magazine so me and the SO go to beer bars and breweries quite a lot. Every single time the bartender will strike the conversation up with my SO about beer styles, trends, etc. and he’ll have to gesture over to me with while saying “I dunno, I don’t know much about beer. She’s the editor of xxyy magazine. She’s the one you should be talking to.” Followed by the bartender usually awkwardly saying something like “Oh! Wow! Good for you!”
Like GinAndTonic, I work in a predominately male workplace (producer at a software company). My boss spends almost 3x more time with his male reports than he does with me (his only female report). He will approach the men to talk about sports, life, family, kids, whatever, and also work talk. It all blends together. The problem I’m facing is that he never will come to my office to talk to me like he does with the men. I always have to go to his office to talk to him. This puts me at a disadvantage compared to the men I work with. It also means less facetime with my boss. I’ve received several negative reviews for not keeping him as “up to date” on my projects as I need to. However, I frequently try to approach him during the day only to find him in meetings (or conversations) with the men. I get whatever time is leftover, after he has finished talking to and meeting with the men, and only if I seek it out.
The fact that my boss will not socialize with me (even though I have tried many times, and we actually have a lot in common) has made my job much harder than my male coworkers in similar positions. My job is to communicate, and he makes it difficult for me to communicate with him in person.
When you meet people for the first time and they shake everyone in the group’s hand but yours because you are the only woman. Legit they drop the last man’s hand, look at me and then smile and nod. OHHOHOHOHOFUCK THAT I just stick my hand out obnoxiously and wait until they get uncomfortable and have to shake it. And I usually have a firmer handshake than some of those limp cod-ass motherfuckers, too.
Whew, someone throw a blanket around me.
But let’s try to end on a somewhat hopeful note: A few men emailed directly to say they were reading patiently and with open eyes to really try to educate themselves and understand these experiences in an effort to not perpetuate them. Some were managers. That is heartening. One, “ JujyMonkey,” commented directly, even offering an apology:
Wow. Ladies, I’ve read GNT’s posts as well as the rest over the course of the day. I honestly want to apologize to you all. I’m a guy and I don’t <think> I’ve done bullshit like you’ve described, but I’m sure that I’ve been guilty of at least some of some dumb thoughtlessness even if unintentionally . I’m 45 now and slightly smarter as an old; in part it’s been from being on this page for several years. I strive to be better and I’m genuinely sorry for all the nonsense a lot of you deal with on a regular basis.
Can we task him with telling all the men the world over what he’s learned? No? Too much?
Maybe us gals can find a way to celebrate this terrible universal experience.
We should all get some kind of badge or battle scar that we can wear the first time we’re told that everyone would love us so much more if we were just a little weaker. I swear it’s the only experience that unites all women everywhere. We should turn it into a legit rite of passage.
Great idea! Maybe we could throw a big party for all the women of the world. You know, something with a kicky spring theme? We sure as fuck know who to ask to bring the decorations and cut the cake.
Top photo via AMC.
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)