Workplace Discrimination…From Women?

By Anonymous for Empathize This:


I recently left a job which, to an outsider, looked like a sure thing. I was about to get promoted, my colleagues liked working with me, and I was good at it. It was one of those office environments run by young female managers — normally something that would make my feminist senses tingle with approval. But something happens when young women make it a few rungs up the ladder in a male-dominated industry (this one happened to be engineering; ask any female engineering student and she’ll tell you just how many Y Chromosomes still control the field). These managers were only a little older than myself. They had done well, and were keenly aware that there were no women in the organization occupying seats higher than theirs. The girls’ table was full.

These managers responded particularly well (even a little flirty) to the male staff, and to the lowest-ranked of the female staff. They ignored the women who functioned on the same level as the male staff. For the most part I didn’t worry about it — I spoke up when I had a good idea, or when I thought something could be done better, but for the most part I kept my head down and burned through my own work. But apparently this small amount of voice proved to be a problem. I was accused of “stepping on the manager’s toes” and not “respecting the rules as they stand.” I never once intended to be rude, and I found myself apologizing profusely for these errors, even when I wasn’t quite sure what offense they had specifically caused.

Lots of workplaces, unfortunately, work that way. Here’s where I realized that my experience might be gender-related: during one mid-year review, the first of these managers had nothing negative to say about my work, but added, “You’re really smart, but you need to make sure that you’re not coming off too smart. You don’t want to offend anyone. You should try to be nicer.”

I remember being flummoxed. I was more or less prepared for this assault coming from a man, but instead it was being thrown at me by a female manager. At the time I remember shrugging it off, thinking, “Ok, she just needed to throw something critical in there to feel like she did a proper review.” And that’s probably actually true. But why that particular criticism? The more I thought about it — and the more I was penalized despite being professional, competent and quick with my work — I realized that “be nicer” was really a command to be less than I was. In fact, this general invective was the underlying problem of my entire experience in this particular workplace: I was not supposed to have an opinion. Even as I saw male colleagues having much more fruitful idea-based exchanges with management, my role was not to engage that way. If I were to be a “nicer” young woman putting in administrative time, I was less of a threat. The fact that these managers were women didn’t mean I was safe from gender-based criticism. “Niceness” is still something firmly in the realm of the feminine, and no amount of competence seems to be able to protect entry-level women from this first and foremost of cardinal sins: an opinion.

Originally published on Empathize This.