We Need to Talk About Women

Let’s stop pretending it’s all Kumbaya

Image Credit: jozefmicic // Adobe Stock

We trade stories about men holding us back like baseball cards. We talk about the boy’s club, and how, in certain circles, we’re still denied access to entry. There exists no golden parachutes or keys to the corporate kingdom. Our nods are collective and knowing. We pass around articles about America’s obsession with long hours, the cult of overwork, and the evils of capitalism as the cause of our demise. We are Schrödinger’s cat in a box: simultaneously prospering and flailing before the gas is extinguished. The first female CEO of X company! The first female creative director of Y agency! Look at these three Silicon Valley unicorns — all owned by women! Judge fails to sentence a rapist because he had no prior record. Women of color still make a fraction of the white male dollar. 53% of white women in this country voted for an incompetent misogynist because of money, “Christian values,” racism, I hate Hillary, etc.

It seems as if in the gold rush to snap up all the real estate in firsts, we’ve become blinded by their gloss and sheen. We take our scraps because it’s the best we can get, and compartmentalize the still-real sexism practiced openly every day for all the peanut-crunching crowd to see.

But it’s when we open the box and peer inside, do we realize that at this moment, we are only one of these things — prosperous or flailing. Or possibly we prefer to spend our whole lives outside the shut box, oscillating between two states of unknowing, never sure where we stand or the cause for it all.

Do we talk about the one thing we never talk about? The one thing we really don’t want to talk about? Because when we talk about this one thing, we’re hushed. We’re finally making progress— don’t make a fuss; don’t cause a scene. It’s reminding me of when I was a girl whose face was a river, and a photographer was telling me to smile pretty for the camera. So I smiled pretty for the camera because that’s what we’ve been reared to do.

Here’s what we don’t say —sometimes, the call is coming from inside the house. Women can be complicit in their silences and the insidious ways they reinforce sexist norms. But it’s bad form to talk about it, to even bring it up because you’ll get shot down as quickly as you’ve ascended. A woman writes an essay about the generalizations women make regarding women in leadership. Five years ago, she surfaced similar concerns about the views espoused in Lean In and was silenced by members of a popular all-women email list.

Don’t make a fuss; don’t cause a scene.

I love women; I partner with women. I believe in building a table alongside them when we can’t get a seat at one. I’m a woman and a proud Gen-X feminist, but I would be lying if I believed that we’re all in this together. That some of us don’t uphold and propagate sexism and misogyny. And the panacea isn’t a deluge of photographs of us holding hands, running up that ladder and shattering glass while wearing Glossier lip balm. Instead, it’s about being honest about the fact that our relationships are complicated, fraught with intergenerational baggage, shifting cultural norms, and the cocaine party that is social media, where everyone screams at their screens but rarely connects.

We are not as Kumbaya as the media (or women sporting blinders) would have us be. And that box we’re trapped in can feel like a pressure cooker.

I once consulted at an agency where my role was to lead the strategy for a seven-figure account. The client leadership shifted, which signaled incumbent agency housekeeping, but this particular agency wasn’t losing this critical piece of business. Five alarm fires blared. Everyone dropped what they were doing to salvage the account, which was sort of like throwing life preservers at the drowning passengers of the Titanic. But we persisted — a team mainly composed of smart women and one man, a temporary social media director holding court while the VP was on maternity leave.

Did I mention that the new leadership liked their scotches and old boy’s talk? And that the temporary social media director was a bow-tie-wearing scotch drinker? We’re not reading a suspense thriller. This story goes where you expect it to go.

The night before the meeting, the agency’s holding company sponsored a splashy dinner complete with corporate credit cards and bottles of overpriced vintage. Only two people per agency (this client had multitudes under the holding company umbrella) were permitted to attend, and the woman who had been leading the business since its inception stepped aside to let the temporary social media director attend alongside the agency president because he was a man. A man who would give a preamble of the presentation our team created as if our words were his own. A presentation he barely looked at. A presentation to which he didn’t contribute. But he was a man and business was business, and maybe these were the kind of sacrifices we had to make to keep our jobs and pay our bills.

The next day, I stood in front of the client for 45-minutes, one of the many smart women presenters. The client was pleased, the relationship was partially salvaged, and everyone treated themselves to a round of applause. And then the dust cleared. The woman leading the business was curtained, and the temporary social media director stood at the account helm. He held secret chats with the women agency leaders, charming them with his acerbic wit. His job had morphed into presenting my work and ideas as his own. But wasn’t this a good thing, he reasoned, us being consultants now secured by a long-time project? No longer would I have to deal with the client — he would take care of the messy parts. All I would need to do is the work. He would be Christian de Neuvillette to my Cyrano, a bow-tie-wearing mouthpiece.

After enduring a handful of conference calls where he presented my work as his own, I complained. Others complained he was pilfering from the pool of their ideas, presenting himself as the sole smart person on the business. I ended my engagement, using the word “sexist” in an email to HR and account leaders — all women. No one cared. No one responded. Why bother with the one disposable freelancer when a multi-million-dollar business was salvaged, fronted by a man because a man at the helm supposedly gave the client comfort.

A year later, I heard that the bow-tie-wearing temporary social media director had been fired.

I’ve heard women labeled as “difficult,” “bitchy,” “bossy,” “outspoken,” and “loud,” by other women. I’ve witnessed mean girl behavior played out like a staged performance. I read articles about a famous actress talking about ingrained misogyny as the reason for doubting another woman’s competence. I’ve seen women gang up on other women and gossip and malign behind their backs. It’s perilous if we don’t conform and play nice with the girls lest we meet their ire and the power they’re able to wield.

I was an equity partner in an agency and women balked more at my bad behavior than the men to whom they granted a free pass. I was supposed to be maternal, a team player, a baker of cookies — not the woman who was direct, bold, assertive, and fair. Who cared that I was acting like my male peers — I was supposed to be the nice one. The men they forgave and revered while I was the woman whose momentary lapse of bad behavior they would never forget.

All I wanted was fairness. If you’re going to strike me down, bring my male counterparts with me.

Why is it easier to talk about the women who voted for Trump, but not the women who step over our bodies on the way to the coffee machine or the boardroom? Is it the degrees of sexism we’re willing to bear? We’ll riot for rape and assault (and even that’s questionable when you hear women whisper that she was asking for it), but we’ll give a pass on workplace politicking? That we’ll accept a little sexism if it’s for the great financial good? That as soon as I say the word “sexist,” some women will automatically sigh and roll their eyes.

Why can’t we talk more about ingrained female misogyny in the workplace? We’re vocal about all the other ways in which the world is intent on boxing us in. We’re vociferous about all the factors outside of our house that breed our ruin except for what and who is in the house. Maybe we don’t want the world to focus on any cracks in the fault, our disrepair? Maybe we get further faster if the world perceives that we are stronger together? I don’t know. But I want to ask the questions and have the real discussions because we deserve more than the firsts and the scraps.

We need to talk about the remodeling and repairs that need to be done, not close our eyes to the damage that persists.

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