I’m tired of being a woman in a world dominated by men.
June 7, 2018 8:02 AM   Subscribe

I’m looking for coping mechanisms!

I'm a woman in my late 20s in the US. And just as the title says, I’m tired of being seen as my gender. I feel similar to this ask and this ask, but I haven't seen a solution in the answers. I feel like everyday I’m faced with examples of how being female limits me and I’m tired. Even though I know how lucky I am to be who I am in this time and place. To even have access to the opportunities I have, I know I’m so privileged, both as a woman and as a person. I’m smart and capable but... I just wish I were a man sometimes.

The problem is that I’m self-sabotaging myself because I’m done with the balancing act. I know exactly how to navigate social and professional situations tainted by gender—for example, how to tactfully direct a conversation so that you are seen as respectful while asserting yourself—and I'm good at it. For a long time, I was friendly but not too friendly; I was competent with the right amount of deference. But I just don’t care anymore. If you are going to be upset that I’m too blunt, fine. I’m not responsible for managing how you feel. If I interrupt you, whatever. If I talk over you, I honestly don’t care. And of course, it’s only men who inspire these reactions! But it’s not the most effective way for me to cope. It makes me angry and it makes the men I’m interacting with upset. I’m not imagining the sexism but I also accept that my coping mechanisms are ineffective. I sometimes over-index on being assertive, opinionated, domineering, and I don't even enjoy being those things. I've received comments from men that I am too aggressive and often from the men whom I’m closest to. I have never gotten any comments from women. I suspect it's a side effect of how I've adapted: I use a more assertive style with men, sometimes too much so, and they are more likely to be offended.

I've also been called too feminine and have seen too much of that side of sexism too, but a few examples of what I mean about being too assertive:
- A man is offended by how aggressive I come off in a meeting and says he is upset because I am too abrasive and forceful. I apologize and tell him I will be more careful.
- A man asks me if I’m annoyed because of my tone, and I tell him no, this is how I talk.
- A man is upset by how terse and abrupt I was in a conversation. I was both, but I was angry he would make a comment like that. I apologize but say that it is not my responsibility to manage his preferences.

The problem is that the men in these situations are my friends and coworkers. Obviously this is not helpful for my relationships! Sometimes they are right and sometimes I am right, but I still need a better way to cope. Even after I assert myself, I’m upset and angry I had to. That they made the comment, even if it's legitimate. That this is what I have to deal with because I'm a woman. I know that my reactions are tied into the sexism from both men and women in my past, which I haven't gotten into the details of but sadly is more or less the usual.

How can I build more productive relationships with the men in my life when I resent them? Whether it's tips for managing my feelings, a change of attitude, or adapting a better conversational style, I want to hear it!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (44 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I have struggled with these feelings for a long time and eventually realized that I am genderqueer and have social dysphoria. A lot of times (especially within cis society) you only hear about body dysphoria and the trans spectrum; however, social dysphoria absolutely exists and can exist in a non-binary or non-cis person who has no bodily dysphoria.

My coping mechanism has been to come out and start claiming male spaces more as my own. I also have a drastically lowered tolerance for people who won't make space for people they don't perceive as gender conforming--which is maybe a good thing even if you're not on the trans spectrum, because this stuff is sexist bullshit. Apologizing and tamping down my resentment does not help, or at least has not helped me. It's like swallowing poison.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:15 AM on June 7 [4 favorites]

My number one advice is find yourself some women allies. I was lucky enough to have attended a women's college, and so have a built-in support system in a vast, smart online community as well as in-person people I can call on when I'm feeling this way. I also have a bunch of incredible women friends who just get it. You don't need to shoulder all of this on your own, and you're not responsible for building a relationship solely on the terms of the other person. Having women who can hear these instances and empathize is an enormous help. Even better when they've experienced it themselves and have advice to shoot your way about how they managed it. It's also 100% ok to occasionally pull back a little for some self-care. More than ok. Necessary.
posted by goggie at 8:20 AM on June 7 [10 favorites]

Also, just, consider that you are not the problem here. Consider that your anger is not the problem. Consider that the emotional responses of these men is one of having their privilege taken away from them. Dig into the research about men interrupting women, if you haven't already. An eye opening moment for me was when a trans friend on T told me that men started making conversational space for him when he had a deeper voice--no more interruptions, no more overtalking. The patriarchy will make the grief and rage that cis men feel the problem of women because then the women might stop, but I don't think it's really your problem and I don't think you have anything to apologize for. Your anger here can be a tool. It can help spur change.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:36 AM on June 7 [56 favorites]

+1 on the women allies. Especially smart feminist women a decade or two or five older than you.

From my experience (I'm 47 now) the late 20s-early 30s was a peak period for feeling this kind of frustration and rage. It's a period where a lot of pressures around career/ relationships/children/ etc. tend to be really intense. Factor in the general sh*tshow that is 2018....rage and frustration is completely understandable.

But seriously, if you can find a way to hang out with some older ladies who have come through some of what you feel and have emerged on the other side as brilliant and funny givers of way fewer f*cks....do that.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:38 AM on June 7 [20 favorites]

I will agree with those above saying that the emotional and psychological requisite to be able to consistently carry out whatever level of push-back you decide you want to carry out is regular access to a community that will validate you for doing that. I would honestly say, just in my recent experience of learning to present my self more authentically, that in many ways I needed that safe space to have room to actually work out which compromises with the world's shittiness I can make without feeling like I'm engaging in a betrayal of my core self.

I don't unfortunately have any specific advice on what that community looks like in your case but I think finding people who you trust to reliably have your back in this is a good step 0.
posted by PMdixon at 8:45 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

I always want to be able to record conversations and look at the replay, but that's maybe influenced by the fact that I've been watching a lot of hockey games recently.

I got this book from the library and thought it did a nice job of sugar-coating the research so that men miiiiiiight listen to it. (It's subtitled "What Men Need to Know... About Working Together.) I am not presently employed, so that may mean I can't assess how practical this is. It just might be a nice story. It does summarize research about bias very well.

If you can teach young women the skills you have, we might be able to sneak more women into positions of power before the patriarchy gets wise.
posted by puddledork at 9:10 AM on June 7

I get it. All women feel this way from time to time. I think you are probably awesome and I would like you to stop apologizing when men get their feels hurt that you were "too aggressive." I think building productive relationships with men, at work especially, is having them realize you aren't going to conform to the behavior they want from a woman.

I hope the whole damn world of men realizes we aren't going to deal with this bullshit anymore.
posted by agregoli at 9:13 AM on June 7 [16 favorites]

1) You don't have to apologize. You are upset and you handle it without asking for apologies, it's also fine for men to be upset and deal with that feeling on their own. Part of this is you setting boundaries about how you will tolerate being treated and how much emotional work you will do in these relationships, and there will be an adjustment period. They'll probably get used to it once they realize it's the new normal.

2) Spend less time with dude friends who police your tone. Even if you *are* being super-abrasive, the friendly response is "hey it seems like you're upset, what's up" or just assuming you're busy/stressed for unrelated reasons, not "take up less space, you're making me feel bad."
posted by momus_window at 9:14 AM on June 7 [27 favorites]

- A man is upset by how terse and abrupt I was in a conversation. I was both, but I was angry he would make a comment like that. I apologize but say that it is not my responsibility to manage his preferences.

I wish I had known to explain what you explained at your age. I am past my 50s and just got a buzz cut (for maybe the third time in my life) because I am exhausted by a lifetime of attempts to cater to the male gaze.

I got into trouble as a manager once for telling a report that I was angry because he had taken direction from someone who was not his supervisor and done something I did not want done and did not discuss any of it beforehand. I didn't yell at him and I didn't growl or make odd notices. I just said I was angry and why and apparently that was not tactful or appropriate. My boss was running around yelling at people and being an actual asshole all the time but that was okay, he was acting out instead of using his words which was somehow preferable. ?!?

Build your support system for sure. Don't respond to email or a text immediately if you are in any way emotional. It is always better to cool down first.

Apart from that, I don't know what to say except that I find you brave and refreshing and I wish you a fabulous career with lots of success, lots of money, and even better, lots of satisfaction.

Despite my incredible white privilege, I have had to suck up a lot as a gal. Am really hoping that mostly stops some day for all gals of all sorts and all colours. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:22 AM on June 7 [12 favorites]

Also, yes please, stop apologising unless you actually have done something wrong. Additional choices include:

1. Thank you for sharing that. (A meaningless statement, but may sound soothing if not said sarcastically.)
2. Duly noted. (Ditto.)
3. Interesting. I did not know that.
4. This is just how I sound. After a while, you probably won't notice.
posted by Bella Donna at 9:27 AM on June 7 [23 favorites]

I am in the exact same boat. Getting burned out. :(

I will say that I’m around a lot of assertive women in my workplace and they seem to do best when they hold their line. No point in apologizing or softening things unless you absolutely have to. If you’re generally a nice person who is assertive about her opinions then frankly there’s no way out of the trap. The best you can do is find a better workplace/friends.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:42 AM on June 7 [7 favorites]

get yourself out of "social and professional situations tainted by gender" and into un-gender-tainted social and professional situations. The social i'll leave aside for the moment, but the professional situations... sounds like you must constantly assert yourself. There are professions where that's not necessary. So, maybe... career change?
posted by at at 9:44 AM on June 7

"I'm sorry you feel that way" combined with increasing distance from the source of the remarks. Rinse and repeat.
posted by strelitzia at 9:52 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

^ absolutely. It's THEIR responsibility to manage how they feel about your work comments/direction/whatever.
posted by agregoli at 9:54 AM on June 7 [1 favorite]

This is very much not a course of action that would suit everyone (and depends on your work environment to a hefty degree) but I have found that the more I work to educate people the more resilient I feel. And yet another disclaimer before I go on - it is not your/our job to do this work. But doing it actually helps me feel better, so I'm mentioning it in case it would for you.

What this looks like for me, is that about a half-dozen times over the past year or soI have given short presentations (20-30 minutes) to various people in my company (graduates, my local team, my remote team) about subjects which connect to feminist themes and/or "soft" skills (for which read, those that don't tend to be valued by men), including Emotional Labour and Ask vs Guess (can you guess where I get a lot of inspiration from?!). Doing this not only means I can try to educate people in general, particularly men, but it also means I am giving other women the vocabulary to articulate their experience. In a sense, I feel like I am recruiting more soldiers to the "do not apologise" squadron. I feel like, the more women who feel like they have the words to describe why a situation is unfair or unsatisfactory, the sooner we will not have to put up with quite so much of This Patriarchal Bullshit.

Anyway, ymm very much v, but this has helped me so I thought it was worth adding to this thread!

PS. if anyone wants my slides, hit me up!
posted by greenish at 9:56 AM on June 7 [29 favorites]

1. Thank you for sharing that. (A meaningless statement, but may sound soothing if not said sarcastically.)
2. Duly noted. (Ditto.)
3. Interesting. I did not know that.
4. This is just how I sound. After a while, you probably won't notice.

And the nuclear weapon of passive-aggressive bizspeak dismissal:

5. I hear what you're saying and I'll take that on board.

No thanks. No apologies. No acknowledgement whatsoever of emotional state. Just BEEP BOOP I AM A BEIGE ROBOT YOUR CASE NUMBER IS #17898926 translated into human-like words. It's brilliant. It works.
posted by flabdablet at 10:08 AM on June 7 [38 favorites]

Can you change your external environment? I've worked in organizations that have 2/3 or more of the staff and management team as women for the past decade, and I don't experience this kind of stuff day to day. It may affect my long term career direction, but I definitely am not close to hitting the glass ceiling yet. It is refreshing. And get this -- twice, incompetent men were let go instead of expecting their female staff to prop them up. It's a bummer they were hired, of course; it's a learning process! But still. From what I hear, that's less than common. Could you change organizations? Maybe having to deal with less bullshit overall will make it easier to find the middle ground you want.
posted by salvia at 10:10 AM on June 7 [8 favorites]

Read Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett. It focuses on common work situations, but the attitudes and power dynamics apply to personal relationships as well. It's a manual for being a woman at work. It's funny, sharp, and very readable.
posted by missmary6 at 10:12 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]

The advice above is solid. What has also helped me is embracing something that I like to call the spirit of "lol no."

"Maybe if you weren't-"


"Well men don't like when-"


"It's a woman's jo-"



If you add the refusal to own anyone else's condition, it becomes kind of a superpower: the sheer force with which you reject the norms men try to impose either makes them stfu or trip over themselves when you swat them off. Not a superpower I invoke often these days, because the spirit of "lol no" is so deeply settled in my bones as to cause genuine indifference to men's opinions. But a great thing to have in your back pocket.

Oh and - if they get angry/indignant/whatever at you for not immediately thanking them for correcting you, let them get all frothy at the mouth. Don't take it personally. It only highlights how unattractive they are when they get all emotional.
posted by Ashen at 10:13 AM on June 7 [10 favorites]

I’m 30 years old and despite having a boyfriend I live on Crone Island and it’s great. All of my close friends are women (and the men I do interact with are great). I work at a non profit health care org and ALL of my colleagues are women. I’m about to start grad school and I believe my department will be over 90% women.

Crone Island is the place to be.
posted by raccoon409 at 10:27 AM on June 7 [15 favorites]

Even after I assert myself, I’m upset and angry I had to. That they made the comment, even if it's legitimate.

For what it's worth, not a single one of the comments you quoted as examples strikes me as in any way legitimate.

I'm a 56 year old man, I've sometimes been both rude and aggressive in meetings, and not once has anybody ever called me on it in anything like the way you describe.

Comments like that are simply uncalled for. If I'd been put in a position of feeling required to apologize in response to anything like them - especially if this were happening on the regular - I'd be chronically upset and angry as well.
posted by flabdablet at 10:38 AM on June 7 [17 favorites]

I just listened to the LaDonna episode of This American Life and I came here not to give you any advice, but just to tell you that I'm sick of being a woman too.

Growing up as little girls we were told that we could be anything that we wanted to be and we were of equal worth to men ... and when you find out that's just not true, it's really JARRING and incredibly sad. And I'm with you sister!
posted by JenThePro at 10:49 AM on June 7 [9 favorites]

Thank you for asking this. I recently asked a question about managing work stress, and cannot express enough how much I empathize with you. A huge part of my stress is that my own manager is what a privileged male upper management type would consider the 'ideal' female employee - passive, placating, and not able to defend her (or any of her reports') priorities for fear of confrontation. This puts a heavy burden on me in supporting my team when necessary.

I, on the other hand, tend to be more assertive. I've lost count of how many times my assertiveness has been described as a negative. Comments like, "yes, make them fear you", or "boy, you really went in there with a machete", "I could just see fumes coming off that email." Even in describing myself as assertive in this comment, I feel the need to put in a disclaimer that I scrutinize my emails for any sort of emotion or phrases that could be considered rude; just in case anyone in here wonders whether I'm actually being assertive, or whether I really am a rude bitch. There's one male in particular, a couple levels my senior, who constantly pushes back on what I say, questions my judgement, and has encouraged his team to do the same. When my male VP gives him the same information I did, he accepts it without resistance. The worst part is that my immediate manager encourages me to "find solutions", rather than backing my assertions.

I empathize, I really do. My way of managing my feelings has been to remind myself that the extent of my relationship with the males at work is to ensure that what I need from them to do my own job gets done. My close friendships at work are with women - other women who face the same challenges I do, and who are able to validate my feelings. That definitively excludes my manager, who seemingly doesn't understand, or isn't affected by, gender stereotypes and double standards at work. There are male coworkers who demonstrably respect my opinions and efforts and solicit my feedback, and those are the ones I try to limit my interactions with. So, in short, I've adopted an avoidance strategy for my own mental health, and thankfully, am still able to be productive. This may not have long-term viability, so I'll be following this thread for other suggestions!
posted by Everydayville at 12:42 PM on June 7 [7 favorites]

There is no simple answer. There is no action or set of actions you can take that results in men treating you with the same respect that they offer to other men. Part of what helps me cope, is knowing that there is no "right answer" to deal with patronizing assholes, and being aware of my choices, as opposed to focusing on how I wish they would react to my choices.

Your choices are:
1) Learn the endless balancing act of just the *right* combination of deference and assertion, so you can get your points across without being considered threatening, and just accept that there's always gonna be that one guy who thinks you're not servile enough, and also that other guy who thinks you need to just "stand up for yourself more," or

2) Opt for the Crone Island approach to men's bullshit, and be as blunt and aggressive as your heart inspires you to be; learn to mitigate that to avoid being harsh to the people whose opinions you actually care about as opposed to the ones who think they're owed your humility--and take the resulting hit to your career and possibly personal life.

Occasionally, the financial and status hit for the second option isn't much, and some women discover that the "bitchy but solid" approach gets them high-status jobs. More often, however, their careers stagnate when they climb to a level that their direct superior is some guy who believes she's not feminine enough, although that's rarely how he'll phrase it.

You don't get to decide how they react. You get to work towards undermining the patriarchy, and you get to decide which of your soul-crushing options is less repugnant to you. (And if you're devoted to undermining the patriarchy, you don't take out your anger on women who picked the other choice. None of them have a "be competent and express myself honestly to be rewarded" option, either.)

Sorry. Sorry sorry. It sucks.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:24 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]

Many people have posted more diplomatic answers, so I’m going to post the thing I want to do in these conversations:

Roll your eyes and tell them to man up and handle their feelings instead of expecting you to always make them comfortable. No one is bending over backwards to make you comfortable, and they need to stop expecting that.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:41 PM on June 7 [9 favorites]

This is entirely a Them problem. I used to also worry and wonder that it could be a Me problem, but as someone significant in my life has recently transitioned to presenting as male instead of female, we have had several of these converstions a week since as he notices the stark difference in both how he was treated before as a She vs. now as a He, and also currently how I am treated vs. how he is treated by men in general.

There's this horrible dynamic that occurs socially when men inteact with women in a domineering, controlling, aggressive and dismissive way,
And women then respond with an equivalent level of assertiveness, confidence and reproach, thereby entirely interrupting, rejecting or resisting their assumed, entitled, dehumanizing power over you socially, because you're a woman and they're a man and that just isn't proper. Gag.

Like you, I also find that this dynamic is entirely absent with other women, and I can just be myself, which is naturally a lot more subdued, without getting bulldozed or having to ramp myself up just to be acknowlged, seen or heard in any way whatsoever. I think anger is a natural feeling that occurs when one feels consistently stripped of those things in interacting with any member of the opposite sex.

I also don't know what the answer or solution is other than, they'll just have to adapt to gender equality, and if not, the younger generations are taking care of that social change just fine on their own, so I at least take comfort in knowing that it's on its way out of being the norm, in one way or another.
posted by OnefortheLast at 2:00 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]

I feel you. I was so annoyed by the male gaze/comments when I started wearing summer clothes that I got a partial pixie cut/buzzcut last weekend which I now regret. I did that because I was so tired of being treated differently. Now men just stare at me everywhere, some impressed and some annoyed.

You can choose your friends (so pick allies), but you're less able to choose your male coworkers. Unfortunately, this female disrespect is sometimes an industry-wide, not a company-wide attitude (see: tech).

I would opt for self-care, reminding myself that in 100 years this will probably change and this is just a problem of our times (although with gender inequality moving backward, it's hard to use that line). A lot of women (see: Ruth Ginsburg) have faced way more direct sexism. There was a time when women weren't allowed to attend colleges or be in certain professions.

I would also find female role models in your industry who have dealt with this problem and be inspired by them or connect with them.
posted by kinoeye at 2:09 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]

I think that changing where/how you work, where you live, and who you spend your time around can be a perfectly viable coping strategy. Consider working for yourself or becoming the boss of your own company. Maybe take a solo vacation where you can do exactly what you want, when you want. If you know how to deal with the bullshit but no longer want to, then change things up until you don't have to deal with (as much of) it anymore.
posted by danceswithlight at 2:25 PM on June 7

I'm forty-six, and I don't have this one solved yet. I go Mr. Spock-level cool and logical when I'm in a conflict with someone, and put a lot of effort into being conspicuously the most reasonable person in the room all the time so that I can cash that in when I need to hold my ground. But (a) this only works at all because I'm naturally that way inclined, I go cold under stress rather than hot, and (b) it doesn't work great, just better than anything else I've figured out. I generally don't get dinged for being too aggressive, and I get my points made, but I have spent a whole lot of time listening to out-of-control men losing their shit about one thing or another, and I have not figured out a way to both be hyperreasonable about everything and shut them down when they're doing that sort of thing.

Boy, do I wish men got the same level of pushback for losing their shit in the workplace that women do for deviating slightly from perfect decorum. It takes up so much time working around them.
posted by LizardBreath at 2:39 PM on June 7 [13 favorites]

There are definitely environments where men and women are positive, supportive, and sexism (blatant or subtle) is apparently nonexistent. You may have to do some work to seek those places out, but they do exist. Throughout college and my adult life I have chosen friends who put the individual first before the category, and I have distanced myself from people that give me bad vibes or behave in ways that I dislike. Over time this has seemed to be extraordinarily effective, because I have not been discriminated against by college peers or friends, and perhaps because of the way my personality has been shaped, I have also not been discriminated against at either of the two companies I have worked at (STEM major, now work in the field I studied). I am a short woman who wears masculine clothing. This might affect my experience--perhaps people just treat me the way I present myself? I am sure I have also been lucky. I have been able to be assertive and fairly carelessly direct and technically-focused and I have not come up against consequences for being myself yet.

When I find myself wishing I were a man for whatever reason, instead of abstractly imagining myself as me except male, I ask myself if there's any specific man that I'd like to become. And generally the answer is always no, because there's always something in other people's lives that I have no desire to deal with or there are people or things in my life that I highly enjoy and there's aspects of my experience that I value that would be wiped out if I transformed into another person entirely. It is easy to think "if I were a man I'd be so much stronger physically" and forget that specific, individual men have their own share of suffering doled out by life. Not only that, but they have a whole different set of general problems--sexual rejection, low inherent worth as seen by society, needing to constantly perform masculinity, being seen as naturally more aggressive or likely to be criminals, stifling emotions, and guilt for their sex.

For another datapoint, my girlfriend is in computer science and she also has not experienced any burnout-inducing sexism from her classmates or colleagues (so far). She is also very assertive, can be stubborn, and keeps her boundaries very firmly. Contrary to me, she is quite femme and at times is more of an introvert than I am. I believe that there's something in her strong personality that ends up repelling people who are unpleasant. It may also help that she is genuinely very good at what she does and her intelligence lets her navigate social situations with acumen. I have definitely heard of people calling women bitchy for being assertive from experiences on the internet, but neither I nor my girlfriend have had that experience personally. Perhaps it's also a location-based thing--we both live in California.

It is hard to tell whether what you are experiencing is sexism or whether you're actually a bit too intense for the people in your environment. I want to reassure you that there are environments out there where being direct and blunt is appreciated, and where there is no constant irritation from men being sexist. There are loads of reasonable men and women in this world. Dangerously, if you let yourself get into the mindset that every time a negative interaction occurs with a man, that it is a result of sexism, you will only keep finding more of it everywhere you look. Perhaps it would help to reframe it as "he was offended because he is particularly sensitive today," or "he was worried if I was upset and just wanted to make sure I wasn't, because someone else in his life was upset lately and he didn't pick up on it," or "he didn't get enough sleep and is now uncharitably interpreting my behavior." You cannot control other people, but you can control your response to them. And lastly, I do think things are changing for the better over time in this domain. There might be a few pendulum swings back before we get better, but if I got to pick out of all the time periods and locations on Earth, I would only ever choose today here!

Best of luck!
posted by Iron Carbide at 2:49 PM on June 7

Dangerously, if you let yourself get into the mindset that every time a negative interaction occurs with a man, that it is a result of sexism, you will only keep finding more of it everywhere you look.

This is really not a dangerous mindset, and societal pressure to gloss over sexism as just someone else's "bad day" or whatever is part of the insidiously unfairly distributed emotional labor demanded of women, to be endlessly pleasant and endlessly forgiving. There really and truly is not a place in the world untouched by sexism, given that we live in a patriarchy. My inside of my brain isn't even a place untouched by sexism, given that I was raised in a patriarchy. As others have said, I think the recognition that there's no winning, only oppressive accommodation, becomes starker as one gets older and less willing to play the game. Even if you can't reach a physical Crone Island, hitting the mindset of "I'm not willing to place men's desires over my needs" can be a helpful place to live.
posted by lazuli at 3:13 PM on June 7 [38 favorites]

Iron Carbide, I don’t know to what extent your girlfriend is in the workforce (since you mentioned classmates and colleagues) but for me there was a PRONOUNCED difference between how I was treated as a female student and how I’m treated as a female tech employee. As a student, an occasional odd remark or two, and male classmates tended to ignore me but I got good grades and professors liked me. In the workplace, where things are far more political and less about how to do everything “right,” I find things more savage. The older I get, the more obvious it becomes.

There are certain industry-specific ways to mitigate it but they mostly involve chipping away at your sense of self.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:42 PM on June 7 [8 favorites]

I also wanted to add that this isn't always necessarily a man vs. woman gender issue. It is more common in that dynamic, and a lot more obvious, so it's far easier to identify, but it's not by any means absent in any other gender combination.
I stated that i don't notice this dynamic in female interactions, in a very literal sense. I don't often notice it, unless I make a very deliberate effort to do so, and I don't often bother with that because in any event, I am not/was not/ socially conditioned to understand it and respond to it "appropriately," I was however socially conditioned to understand and deal with male social conditioning on a regular basis.
So, these issues you describe arent always attributed to women's gender issues, and are actually sometimes attributed to who you are personally. Which is great that you're also questioning and taking into consideration. As in, those kinds people, of any gender, who already have an internalized belief that all persons should be regarded equally and with respect, are often the ones who, conversely, upon surface appearances/presentation, seem to be the most aggressive upon surface appearances/presentation, and are most often the ones to call into question these issues as a result. The less you want or desire control or power over others, the more apt those who do desire such things, are likely to exploit that of you, and the harder you have to work to maintain a neutral or respectful position in any social interactions. This is currently far easier to do with men than with women, so it's also far easier to assume that it's either the most common or the biggest issue at hand, while the opposite is actually true, the easiest social problems are the ones we notice and deal with first.
As a result of male social power being very apparent, female social power kind of adapted to run in the background, and that was necessary for women to continue making any gains towards equality socially.
Typical male social conditioning in terms of power, privilge and dominance is very overt; in your face, direct and upfront. This makes is easier to spot, adress or actively resist it, in a returned overt, in your face, direct and upfront way. And so, you appear aggressive/assertive in reaction.
Typical female social conditioning in terms of power, privilge and dominance, is very covert; subtle, and the indirect displays of it are difficult to indentify, adress or actively resist it . In these cases, you're more likely to internalize the anger you feel in reaction, especially so if you don't have desire, experience or understating of how to navigate the complexities of typical socially conditioned female dynamics.
And so, when any person who is typically of a more neutral, easy going, or accommodating personality type, is presented in all fronts, consistently, constantly, from all genders, power plays against them, both indirectly and directly (while you're internalizing the indirect, and outwardly resisting the direct), while at the same time, it being far more socially acceptable to confront or take a stance against men in these cases than it is against women,(as in, socially, very few observers would actively deny a typically male conditioned power play; they are obvious, but very few would even notice nevermind acknowlge a typical female conditioned power play, thereby further suppressing your ability to assert yourself, and perpetuating the power imbalance agaist your favor, in simple plausible deniability by female agressors and by any onlookers socially)... this can and will appear to both you and others, as a hugely disproportionate reaction in any situation in which you can, or are able to, confront it or assert yourself in any way.
I think it's important for typically conditioned women, who are being bulldozed by typically conditioned men, to understand that very conditioning is also being exploited/bulldozed by domineering/controlling/aggressive women, behind the social curtain, and so your anger in relation to being aware of feeling personal and social injustice, is likely twofold, and likely will appear incredibly disproportionate towards any men who arwnt aware of these things in a social/workplace context, and who then present it themselves, trigger it and are reciepent of It.
posted by OnefortheLast at 3:51 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]

Hiya. 40 year old woman with a navy blue crew cut here. I strongly recommend the book "The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck" by Sarah Knight. STRONGLY recommend.

I've had some interesting results in situations like yours by responding, absolutely deadpan, with "Would you say that to me if I had a penis?" Sometimes I'll cock an eyebrow (no pun intended) if the guy is being especially annoying about it. Then I just sit there, staring at them, letting their thoughts race, letting them stammer out whatever answer they've decided to try mollifying me with. Once they've managed to stutter out something that may or may not be relevant to anything, my typical response is "Huh." and walking away. (Unless, of course, their answer is no, they're only saying this because I have a vagina, because vaginaful people have to be talked to this way, in which case they get a rant and, more often than not, a finger in their face.)

Yes, I know some women have penises and some men have vaginas. I'm generalizing for the sake of simplicity. Also asking the guy if he'd say that to me if I had a penis is a smack in the face with my metaphorical nonpenis just by mentioning the theoretical metaphorical penis.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 6:50 PM on June 7 [4 favorites]

This is such a timely post for me, because I have been really struggling with this issue for the last 15 months or so. I relate to so much of what you say.

I am 45, female, and work as a computer programmer in a department that is solely male other than me. I sometimes find myself *wishing* for some overt old-fashioned ass-grabbing for once, so I can stop feeling crazy and gaslit all the time. Instead, what I have is constant evidence that I am treated differently, for reasons that no one ever verbalizes (to me, anyway). I can pull together sundry comments and observations that suggest that the motivations for treating me unacceptably are probably based on my gender, but I couldn't prove it in a court of law.

I don't have a solution for you. Any potential solutions have their significant downsides. It really seems to be a "pick your poison" proposition: suffer in as much silence as you can stand, or be considered a bitch/complainer/unreasonable harpy if you try to address the sexism. And, contrary to what some people have implied, being seen as those things will negatively affect your career. You can choose that route, but realize you will pay for it, just in a different way than you'll pay for keeping silent/being compliant.

What my actual (non)solution has been in this job is to try my goddamndest to ignore it. I have only ever pushed back specifically on sexism on 2 occasions, and neither of them even got the offender to see the problem, let alone address it. I don't think that my once again trying to tackle this issue would do any good. I'm not in a manager role, and everyone in my department has worked at the same company for double-digit years. They are used to acting and speaking as they do and not ever having it challenged.

My boss's boss, VP of engineering, who could be said to set the tone for our section of the company, is ex-military, and during my very first meeting with him, he talked to us about shooting child soldiers in the face in Africa. He talked about company take-overs as one company "raping" another. He uses "he" and "him" exclusively to refer to employees, customers...basically anyone is by default a he. If someone is good at their job, they are a "stud", so by definition, a female can't be good at her job. Etc. etc.

He's buddies with HR and was introduced by the head of HR as having the highest ethical standards. No, what he has is the highest testosterone.

People's suggestions to find other women who experience the same issues is good advice, that I haven't even consciously thought of doing recently. I feel so alone and like I am drowning. It would take real work in this geographical area to find any such women in person. I am in a podunk town, and the one time I attended a tech meetup locally there were three dozen men... and me. Not really eager for a repeat of that.

In the spirit of showing you more evidence that you're not alone in this, as well as in the spirit of getting this shit off my chest, I'll do the complaining here that I wish I could do at work...

What slays my soul the most is that some of the men who engage in unacceptable behavior are ones I otherwise respect. I have a male friend who is an outside contractor who totally steamrolled over me in a phone meeting the other day, as though I hadn't even said anything. It's so confusing that a person I know can be very compassionate and reasonable would do something like that. By the time I identified what had just happened, the conversation had moved on. The idea I had brought up wasn't even explored.

I have a coworker who has been very helpful in my learning my current industry, but who as soon as I forget he has this problem, will--SLAM--again remind me that he's a raving sexist: he'll speak admiringly about a woman's body parts out loud with me in the (open floor plan) room, critique a woman's dating profile (including in one case telling a coworker he at 59 could "do better" than a 47-year-old woman), or talk about potential sexually-themed server names (thankfully none of these ever gets chosen) . One of the two times I complained about his sexism was at our offsite Christmas dinner, where I got sick of him constantly discussing who the "smartest man" at X Y Z companies was. Not the smartest person. He was just bewildered at what I was saying, and finally reacted by tossing in "and A is the smartest woman" after the next round of "smartest man". Like she couldn't just be in the "smartest people" category. Point totally missed. There are the smart people, who are men. And then there are women.

It also murders my soul that my boss is apparently oblivious to any issues. Although he doesn't engage in sexist chatter, I don't feel he has my back. He tolerates things that he as a manager could actually have some chance at changing. For example when the sales guys from another part of the building were in our kitchen running their *extremely* foul mouths, he commented that he wished we had a door to that hallway. UmkaythanksthatsreallyhelpfulIlljustsitheretryingtocodewhilelisteningtolouddiscussionsofpenisesandjockstraps.

There is one coworker who has overtly been a shit to me since I started working here. He would literally yell in my face, walk away while I was talking, knee-jerk blame me or my code without engaging in the slightest passing thought about what I was saying or the vague possibility that the issues I was bringing to his attention could be under his purvue (he is a sysadmin).

I finally complained to my boss and he talked to him... the behavior happened some more... he talked to him again... it's still there simmering under the surface ready to break out again. No real consequences. My boss commented to me that they just consider him "a grumpy old man" and are used to him. But I have never observed that grumpy old men yelling or disrespecting anyone else to nearly that level. I've also heard him make comments about a vendor who he feels is a "stupid woman". I don't think he would call a male vendor he didn't like a "stupid man". Their gender wouldn't play into it.

Recently, some numbers I came up with when automating a process were substantially different from some of those that same "smartest man" coworker had come up with when manually doing the same process. My boss asked me to review the numbers and see why they didn't match. I sent out an email with my findings, addressed to both the coworker and my boss, which outlined why the automated numbers were right, and how I think the manually-calculated numbers went wrong. My coworker first obviously *didn't even read* my email, instead sending me an email back outlining the math he used, like I needed to be told what the basic algorithms were. My second attempt yielded another tossed-off reply that showed he hadn't actually thought about what I had to say. For my third try, I included an excruciating level of detail that took me probably half an hour to write. He never did actually acknowledge that my numbers were right, he just said that "if" the manual numbers were wrong, hey, everyone was busy and he'd had to do the numbers by hand so it's understandable that some errors would creep in. My boss did not respond during the entire exchange...or thereafter. Meanwhile, my time was wasted. I had to write three emails instead of the one it should have taken to get the point across. And apparently my boss either sees nothing wrong with that or himself couldn't be bothered to read and digest the answer to the question *he had asked me to research*.

I am convinced that if I were a male, my coworker would have read my email the first time and considered what I had to say. I am somewhat less convinced, but suspect it might be true that if *my* numbers were wrong, I would have heard more about it from him and/or my boss.

There have been other instances where I felt my boss privileged another employee's opinion over mine, for no good reason that I can see. The worst was when he asked a coworker whether we should go with a Google solution for part of a certain project. My coworker had interacted with Google reps ZERO at all, he had just discussed the issue with me. I'd spent several hours researching and speaking with reps. My boss didn't even ask me my opinion, he discussed it with the coworker and relayed the decision they had made later. I don't believe he even considered how that might look or make me feel. Not to mention, relying on secondhand and incomplete information is not the best way to make a decision.

As to the suggestion someone had that women who experience sexism in the workplace should change careers: A career change is a ton of work and often you end up permanently behind on salary. I know, I've transitioned away from and then back to IT. It isn't fair, and I can't think that is a good solution, for the victim to be the one chased out of their chosen career field.

I've only been back in IT for a bit over a year. I don't want to and can't go back to the career field I was in before that. I'm finally building my retirement fund, which I couldn't do in that career. I also couldn't physically hack it anymore.

I do want to find a less sexist work environment, but I need some more time here on my resume, some additional skills, and most importantly, I want to take my sweet time identifying a less toxic atmosphere so I don't jump from the frying pan into the fire. When I do start looking for a new job, I plan to start with sites like InHerSight.

Writing this has been therapeutic. I hope it helped in some way even though I don't have your solution, just to know that others are dealing with the same intractable and hurtful issue.
posted by nirblegee at 7:34 PM on June 7 [13 favorites]

From my experience (I'm 47 now) the late 20s-early 30s was a peak period for feeling this kind of frustration and rage.

I'm 48, and I came in here to say exactly the same thing. So either the late 20's / early 30's really are especially bad for this, or 1998 just sucked.

+1 on hanging out with funny older ladies who give fewer fucks.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:32 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]

I'm 48, and I came in here to say exactly the same thing. So either the late 20's / early 30's really are especially bad for this, or 1998 just sucked.

I'm six years younger and would say 1998 was wonderful but 2004 was awful, so I do concur that it's age based. :)
posted by lazuli at 8:37 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]

I just hit my fifties and can relate to this on so many levels. But, it definitely does get easier once you leave your thirties, if only because you start to care less.

One thing I realized a few years ago is that if you're female, you're pretty much going to face criticism no matter what you do. Dress fashionably and wear makeup? Oh, you either don't do that well enough, or in the right way, or you're exploiting your femininity and that's unfair. Dress for comfort? You're a slob. Focus on your career? You're a selfish bitch who has ideas above her "station." Focus on your family? You're a parasite who lives through your children. Speak your mind? You're domineering. Stay quiet and acquiescent? You're not contributing and taking responsibility for your ideas and maybe you are passive-aggressively working to undermine everyone.

The bottom line is that the only person you will ever be able to please, let alone need to please, is yourself. Focus on doing what is right and what makes you happiest and most comfortable.

On a practical level, I find that having a clear set of goals in mind when I interact with different people really helps me to keep my cool in tough situations. Your anger is not wrong, but it can be used against you as a derail. Focussing on what I need out of each interaction helps me to stay on track.

And yeah, the guys in your examples are jerks. It's okay to loose your cool once in a while. Just forgive yourself and move on (like they do).
posted by rpfields at 8:54 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]

So, maybe... career change?

lol, no.

I have found life much better since I got out from my older Eastern -European sexism-is-a-myth female manager, and onto a team with a woke gay dude manager. Feedback 180 from "you are too aggressive and should ask people for help instead of telling them what to do" to "you know exactly what you are talking about and get straight to the point, it's great and calling it aggressive is sexist bullshit".
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:32 AM on June 8 [3 favorites]

ditto nirblegee - I'm also a woman and a programmer, and I get pretty frustrated when I hear a lot of women talk about wanting to leave the industry. I mean, I understand the feeling, and the need to vent. But this ain't my first rodeo either, and every other industry where you can earn a good salary has a bunch of sexism too.

That said, re jobs - yeah, there's sexism everywhere, but the amount and flavor does vary. I've definitely improved my situation a lot by changing jobs, so don't get bogged down feeling like everything is terrible so why bother looking for somewhere else.

If you memail me, I can tell you some more personal stories on how I handle issues. But it's hard to write about publicly, because we get punished for complaining. Sad but true.

But mostly, I hear you. I've always wished I was a guy, too. I don't think this means I'm trans - my personal sense is, oh well, got born with the body I got, bummer - but there's definitely a bunch of envy here.

I aim for acceptance - life isn't fair, some of us get the short end of the stick in various ways, I'm extremely lucky in other ways, so it goes. I try to tell myself, look, I'm not entitled to all the luck in everything. I'm doing okay financially, I'm in a solid relationship, I have great friends and siblings, too bad I'm a woman and being a woman is so damn hard in this world, fine.

It also helps to remind myself that my coworkers don't have to be my friends. I don't need the emotional validation from them of knowing that they truly understand where I'm coming from. We just need to be able to work well together and get the job done, and then I can get my feathers unruffled elsewhere. I feel like I used to expect more emotional validation from coworkers and it served me really poorly, so now I try to to run to actual friends to vent and get validation so I can be calmer around people who don't have that level of closeness with me.

And with friends, well, I just drop the ones who can't handle my tone. I don't have to be friends with everyone. And I have plenty of male friends who can, who I adore.
posted by 168 at 3:27 AM on June 8

It gets better, and it gets worse. The better part is giving zero fucks. I told 3 of my male colleagues recently, "Good. Glad you think my ideas are great. I've been pitching them to the CEO and VP for five years now, but apparently there's some kind of block where they can't hear female voices. Maybe they'll hear you."

Guess whose ideas are being implemented now. And guess who is not getting the credit, the promotions, or the raises.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 11:21 AM on June 8 [7 favorites]

I give literally no fucks at all any more. Do not apologise when people get their feefees hurt because you have engaged in behaviour acted almost exclusively by their gender.

Sometimes I offer a really dismayed-sounding "Diddums!" but that's the extent of it.

+1 to job change; -1 to career change. Fuck that. Dig up not over.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:08 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

Discovering radical feminism came as close to solving this issue for me as I think is reasonably possible MeMail me if you want some links!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 2:17 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

For processing EMOTIONS (not because your anger is unwarranted but I think it's unhealthy to hold all of it inside):
- Find allies and role models (e.g. Lisa Simpson she's awesome, assertive, keeps it real and a bomb saxaphone player)
- Curate your media diet so you mostly read things that make you feel good

For doing your part in changing the SYSTEM:
- I asked a question on this (check it out) and loved the answers about focusing on being amazing at your job / your career so you have more power and therefore more ability to shape perspectives and even out the playing field
- I like this quote from Tina Fey "don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go “Over! Under! Through!” and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing and don’t care if they like it."

I also like these 2 Q&A on the AskPolly column which close to home for me too haha:
- "I hate men" from a woman who has had a number of negative experience with the father figures in her life, Polly advises the reader to overwrite her belief that men control her happiness, and "forget what men think and be the cranky old bitch you want to see in the world" because cranky old bitches are happy, and living life the fullest, exactly the way they want
- "men are the worst, and I'm married to one" - here Polly encourages the reader to educate and be patient, because men are socialized in a certain way and change takes time
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 9:11 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]

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