Photo of me by me.

The Undercover Feminist — at what point is it no longer possible to “play the game.”

Setting the scene

I was modelling at a show for a friend of mine the other week, decked out in ripped stockings, men’s white y-fronts, red doc martins, a denim jacket and a whole lot of feminist attitude.

I was proud to show off my leg hair, to raise my hairy armpits in a feminist salute. Proud of my tattoos, all visible across my arms and legs. Tattoos of women, tattooed by women. Proud of my nose ring, no makeup and messy hair. Proud to be modelling alongside other hairy, body positive tattooed women. It felt great, it felt like me. “I’m a proud liberated feminist women hear me raw!” I thought to myself.

Outside, after the show I was sitting on the ground in front of the venue, still in my y-fronts un-kempt pubic hair spidering out from either side. When I was approached by someone who had been in the audience. They asked me the usual questions about my outfit and tattoos. Then they asked the question I most dread, “so what do you do?” with the added, “are you also an artist?”

This question always makes me squirm. I awkwardly answer, “Well no…not really…. I work in the city, in legal, mostly financial services….” This is customarily met with a bemused look, clearly going by my appearance I don’t fit the stereotype of a London “city worker”. This look inevitably leads to a scrabbled together series of explanations and justifications from me.

“I don’t look like this at work… I have to take out my nose ring, and obviously I cover up my tattoos…” Followed by, “I don’t like what I do. I want to do something more creative, but the money is good and the hours are OK, and I’ve been doing it for so long I’m not sure at this point what else I would do…”

I’m sure the people who ask me this innocent question don’t actually care what I do. They are merely following awkward small talk protocol. They certainly don’t require an embarrassed explanation or justification from me. So what is it about the question that makes me so uncomfortable?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and I have concluded the following: what makes me squirm, is not that I worry that other people will judge me for what I do. My job is very dull and seemingly uncontroversial (I work as a Legal team assistant). It’s that I judge me for what I do. It makes me uncomfortable and embarrassed, and the reasons for this can be summed up as follows:

I am ashamed of what I do, because I’m a feminist, and the corporate world is sexist. This makes me uncomfortable. I worry that by working in such an environment I am complicit in this behaviour and I am betraying feminism.

This statement clearly requires some explanation. Which for ease I will break up into the following parts (this is, in part, a boring statistics bit, but bear with me):

Part 1: A (now seemingly obligatory) definition of feminism

Part 2: My experiences of sexism in the work place

Part 2a: The Monopoly of Men

Part 2b: General sexism

Part 2c: From Assistant to Subservient — Role Specific Sexism

Part 1: A feminist defined

A feminist as I understand it to be, is a man or a women who believes in the social, economical and political equality of the sexes. This means by my own definition as a feminist I am necessarily anti-sexism.

Part 2: sexism in the work place

Part 2a: The Monopoly of Men

The corporate environment is totally dominated by men. These men monopolise almost all of the senior positions.

In most companies I would estimate that around 60% of all women who work in the office do so in non-senior, “facilitating” roles, such as Personal assistants, team assistants or receptionist. I myself am a team assistant (despite having a degree and a post graduate diploma in law).

In the company I currently work for the Board consists exclusively of men. Our Chairman is a man and all of our Non-Executive Directors are men (and white but that’s an issue for another day). Both my personal experience and hard statistics confirm that this is almost exclusively the case in all major companies in the UK.

These companies are thus starting from a position of the monopolisation of one sex, which unsurprisingly leads to the consideration of the dominate sex (men) being held above the less dominate one (women).

(Sexism 1 — Feminism 0)

Part 2b: General sexism

For those of you who have never worked in the City, or perhaps have but have not noticed, it unfortunately remains a very sexist working environment.

If in doubt, here a few examples of the entrenched sexism that I have experienced and continue to experience ever since I started my first office job at 21, Well-meaning and totally clueless.

In virtually every office I have worked in (and I have worked in over 20 offices) there is a dress code. Almost without exception these dress codes are gender bias towards men. Presenting a long list of restrictions and “suggestions” for women’s clothing often giving very little direction to their male counter parts. Female employees are often instructed not to dress in a “provocative manner”, and to make sure not to wear “too much makeup”.

This may not seem like a big deal but actually it demonstrates a much bigger issue in the work place which I will explain by recounting the following experience I had.

A few years ago an anonymous male colleague raised a complaint with my manager about the length on my skirt as it was “making him uncomfortable” (no prizes for guessing he wasn’t freaking out over it being too long…) I was pulled into a room like a naughty child to be chastised. I felt sexualised and humiliated.

This taught me three of the following important lessons about being a women working in that particular office and in many ways the corporate world in general:

Lesson one: I was working with a pervert

Lesson two: This secret pervert had, without my awareness or consent, been sexualising me and staring at my legs. This had made him uncomfortable, and he had concluded that it was far better to anonymously humiliate me in an attempt to force me to wear a different skirt, rather then simply mustering his elusive self-control and not sexualise me at work by averting his gaze from my legs.

Lesson three: The last and most important lesion was this. I learnt that this secret pervert’s comfort was more important than my freedom from being sexualised and humiliated at work. Not only to him, but to my manager and to the company as whole.

It was a difficult and sad lesson to learn.

(Sexism 2 — Feminism 0)

Part 2c: From Assistant to Subservient — Role Specific Sexism

As a female employee, specifically when working as a PA or team assistant, you are expected to take on a subservient role. Although I totally accept that such roles require you to “assist” what is expected often goes far beyond that. You are expected to be both apologetic and submissive.

In one company that I worked for we were actually trained not to stand up for ourselves. If the boss shouted at us and said we did something wrong — even if we didn’t — we were told not to “make excuses” to “take it on the chin” to “apologies anyway”.

Constantly being reminded that our feelings were not considered or respected.

This is so ingrained in the understanding of these roles that many job descriptions list: “resilience” and “an ability to deal with difficult people” as desired traits.

We are required to except to be miss treated.

It’s in the damn job description.

(Sexism 3 –Feminism 0)

So what now?

I feel into working in these sorts of roles, it was never my intention. It was the only job I could get out of university and before I knew it I had been doing it for 9 years! (in-between studying) and now I feel like I’m trapped in an institutionalised anti-feminist black hole of apologies, pencil skirts and fake smiles!

Every time I cover up my tattoos and take out my piercings I feel like I am losing a part of myself and it reminds me that in a lot of ways I am betraying all of my feminist ideals and instincts.

I tell myself that I am “playing the game”, I work these jobs to make money so that I can afford my other more creative pursuits. But it’s starting to feel like a week excuse — silence is compliance right?

So by keeping my mouth shut, by smiling and apologies and dressing to code — between the hours of 9:00–17:30 — am I a complicit anti-feminist, and if I am, what should I do? Should I leave my job? Should I speak up and get fired?

Honestly I just don’t know. But until I find the answer or get fired for shaving my head (I am this close) I must be content to take on the guise of the “the undercover feminist” playing the game, but not really a part of the game… whether this is possible and sustainable, only time will tell.