One Day I Will Rule the World

World Domination, Babies and Middle Eastern Dance

May 3, 2012


A long time ago I wrote a post exploring the issues around women leaving the workforce. WordPress somehow lost that post and I was too disappointed to try to recreate it, but today seems like a good day.

Since leaving my job, one of the things I’ve struggled with is self-definition. People ask how things are and I most often respond, “well, I find it really hard to summarize. I’m not doing or working on any singular thing. Some days I freelance like crazy. Some days Hannah takes up all my attention. Some days I work on programming my own projects. Some days I spend on errands or baking. Some days I work on creative projects. Some days I just say ‘bugger it all’ and sit by the back window with coffee’.” (That last bit is a joke, I don’t think I’ve actually done that yet, but I probably should.)

Someone asked me how being a stay-at-home-mom was going – and then immediately corrected herself, “er, work-from-home…. er, freelancer.” I don’t know if she worried I’d be offended because of accuracy or because one of those things has more status – but either way I wasn’t offended. I don’t know accurately how to define myself and “status” is waaaay too complicated an issue to unpack over such a brief exchange.

Then recently when a group of ex-coworkers discussed getting together with a bunch of other people who had recently left the Menagerie, someone said something about the people who “like you, left just to go home instead of to another job.” And there were four people on that list. And they were all women.

These things twinge at my feminist sensibilities and I still haven’t figured out how to make sense of them. I’ve read articles about how women outnumber men in post-secondary education, but are still outnumbered in the prestigious, male-dominated fields that their post-secondary educations prepare them for. The conclusions drawn by these rather shallow explorations are usually about how women drop out of the workforce as soon as they have a husband to support them, or maybe they stay until they have children but don’t come back after the children.

Sometimes there’s an implication of, “see? Ladies say they want equality, but at the first sign of difficulty, they go scurrying home (where they’ll probably be happier anyway).”

I think explorations of this phenomenon are missing the following:

a) It is definitely more socially acceptable for women to go home. Just because women do it, doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who want to. There’s every reason to believe that there are men who are equally miserable, but that they are socialized to tough out bad work situations until they can find the next position.

b) when men do quit a job without having the next one lined up, that’s not generally called, “going home to be a dad” or “opting out of the workforce”. That’s just choosing to tough out a period of unemployment over toughing out an intolerable workplace.

c) Do we even have to conjecture that in male-dominated fields workplaces are prone to be more toxic to women, thus driving them out of the workforce? Workplace abuse and harassment in male-dominated fields has been well-documented. Not to mention the effect simple gender inequities can have on workplace satisfaction when women begin to suspect that no matter what their contribution, it will never be valued as much as a man’s.

With regards to the way that workplaces can be more toxic to women, the media has definitely fully explored the idea that it’s driven by resentment toward the intruding women, but I think sometimes it’s not that clear-cut.

Firstly, most offices are tiny hierarchical mirrors of the privilege that exists in the world outside the office building. The more structured the company, the more this is true. The more you stratify your organization, the more you invite the dynamic where higher-ups feel like they get to move their subordinates around like pawns on a chess-board, the more each level has no option for personal power except to exert power on those below them.

In environments like this, people who have learned that they are natural winners in social status games will play the status games exactly the way they’ve been trained to all their lives, and will rise to the top.

There’s something else too, about who it’s politically acceptable to bully or dismiss. Most of your male coworkers will definitely not cop to being part of a force that excludes or drives women out, not even to themselves. They’ll point to the women who have succeeded in their organization and whom they don’t resent, and they’ll point to women they don’t target as proof that they don’t antagonize “women”, just people who deserve antagonizing.

The bizarre implication is that because the workplace culture allowed a couple of women to succeed, that proves it’s possible for women to succeed. Therefore if the rest aren’t succeeding that’s because they don’t merit it. (It escapes them, somehow, that believing that if only 1 in 100 women succeed then 99% of women don’t deserve to succeed is still sexism.)

The reality of workplace success is that in regular offices, political and interpersonal issues are par for the course but that if you are the member of a  disadvantaged group, you’ll get the worst of the politics.

In any human group, every day someone will step on someone else’s toes. Every time you delegate something, for example, there is the potential for someone to accept or resent your assumption that you have the right to delegate to them. And every time you don’t delegate something, there’s the potential for someone to read that as appropriate, or to read it as a refusal to trust others with a task. It’s just what human societies are. We collaborate and interact based on unspoken assumptions (which sometimes agree and sometimes don’t) about what hierarchical moves are appropriate. People acquire power by first assuming they have the right to it and secondly, weilding it in a way that doesn’t alienate other people from the idea that they have a right to it.

Watch people when they’re offended by someone. If there’s nothing objectionable about the offender other than their behaviour, they’ll often get a pass. Especially if the offender is well-liked or already powerful. It’s not worth going up against an entire power structure just to be offended by something. But if there’s anything unrelated but objectionable about that person, these things will be joined and built into something.

If someone said something erroneous about a situation and was black? Someone acted like they had a right to information but was female? Someone showed up late to a meeting and is fat? Those actions all have the potential to irritate someone. But if you’re young, male, middle-class, confident and white, they’ll work harder to get over it. Not even necessarily because they’re racist, but because their own sense of self-preservation and social hierarchy tells them clearly that if they go around bitching about that time the well-liked young executive was late to a meeting that one time, they risk looking very petty. Going up against that guy in a hierarchy gamble could lose them status, so they’ll find a way to shrug it off or they’ll stew quietly until they see a chink in that person’s social armour.

But, if you can connect someone’s harmless mistake or irritating actions to an overt thing that you can associate morale failings with, “fat dude late to meeting = lazy all the time”, “lady demanding information from higher-ups = self-important”, “black man making a mistake = poor education”. In these situations people have the pleasure of indulging their indignance and propelling themselves up the ladder by having something to bond with other well-liked ladder climbers in condemning.

Members of targetable groups can succeed, it just requires being so likeable that the jerks who take offense and hold grudges won’t take the chance that the social order would side with you against them.

From a personal point of view, there’s one more factor in women being more easily or more frequently targeted in workplaces, which is that an extremely structured and political workplace can be especially toxic to survivors of privilege-based violence. Whether we’re talking domestic violence, sexual violence, gay-bashing, racial violence, etc. If your workplace hierarchy uses gender or race or whatever to remind you of your place, you can imagine its impact if you’ve ever had that factor used to justify violence against you.

One of the worst periods at work for me was about a year after I’d been promoted to a management position. It was brought to my attention that two junior male malcontents, when called on their poor attitude and asked to identify their problems with the company, put together a list of grievances of which four out of six items were about me and my unfitness for my position.

At the time I felt mostly unsurprised and really, really stupid that I hadn’t seen it coming. Although I had worked very hard on putting together a case for the need for my position, outlining everything I thought I could accomplish in that position, and I had worked hard to prove myself with everyone that I was working with, I had never actually worked with those two and so, what they saw was “someone promoted above them where they had never agreed to the social concensus that she merited that power”.

As I say, it was unsurprising. And one of the outcomes was that I was asked to do more programming as part of my position, so it could be demonstrated to the department in general that I was actually knowledgeable about programming. And at the time, I didn’t argue because I love programming. And also, one of the long-term outcomes is that I’m actually quite friendly with one of those young men now, and while I’m not sure he’ll ever regard anyone’s brain as equal to his own, I think he does respect my abilities now.

However, at the time the result for me was that awful stomach-dropping-out feeling, from having assumed that I could just do my work as a professional and be judged based on my work safe from gender politics in my tightly knit, progressive workplace. But from the complaints as they were conveyed to me, I was given to understand that my gender mattered a lot more than my work and that I couldn’t know who else among my coworkers might be resenting me for being female and being promoted above them. And I couldn’t know how deeply that anger would run or whether I was safe because at another time in my life being pointed out as the girl and an outsider had made me the target of a devastating attack. The trauma of that attack informs a lot of my behaviour in a lot of situations, so you can imagine that I felt extra stupid that I had ever dared to assume I was safe from that dynamic at work. At the same time, we moved offices and I went from sitting with my back to a wall to sitting with my back to a room full of men that I suddenly didn’t know if I trusted.

Six months later I was able to secure a desk with a wall at my back, which didn’t erase the fear but let me relax a tiny bit. Still, those six months were godawful. I couldn’t concentrate at work, I jumped at every movement out of the corner of my eye. I spent every interaction trying hard to read the signs of hostility that I hadn’t even thought to look for before. It was bad enough that I asked for permission to purchase (with my own money) a room divider for a third wall on my desk, which was denied because it would spoil the office esthetic. I considered whether getting a doctor’s note and diagnosis of PTSD would legally require them to help me fix my desk situation, but it seemed like a very bad time to out myself as having any weaknesses that could be ascribed to my gender.

That episode wasn’t what caused me to leave my job – I did get through it. And eventually I think I did earn the professional faith of most of my fellow developers – at least judging from how many of them would bring their problems to me for brainstorming help or ask for debugging and troubleshooting assistance. However, it required a couple of years of always being on my toes about proving myself and going back to programming instead of proving the merits of the management I had set out to accomplish. A more confident or less “trauma-historied” woman would probably have been able to deal with it a lot more head-on and in a way that kept and consolidated her status, rather than scrambling for safety.

That woman would probably be an example of one who merits success. But I’m honestly not sure what that makes me.

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