I’m 5’3″, look younger than my 37 years (thank God black don’t crack), have dreads and a nose ring, and I’ve inherited my mother’s frequent smile.
One person, in particular, currently talks to me like I’m not just new to business consulting but new to the planet Earth. This person frequently begins sentences with “You’ll figure this out…” or “You’ll learn this…” like I just got busted out of that glass prison from Superman II and have spent eons floating through space silently screaming alongside Terence Stamp.
I’ve allowed this verbal patting on the head to take place because 1) the person seems not to know any better; and 2) I got bills to pay. But the longer it goes on, the less tolerant I’m becoming. It isn’t just annoying, it subtly diminishes me and allows people to minimize my work and my contributions. And it sends the message that talking this way to a younger female colleague — one, by the way, with more education and journalism experience — is somehow OK. Ultimately, I owe it to myself and to other women to take a stand.
But what’s a girl to do? Other than wearing a button that says, “I’m smarter than I look — ask me how!,” how do I get some R-E-S-P-E-C-T in this and other workplaces dominated by straight white men who look right through me until they need someone to exert some power over?
It’s all part of the larger issue of women in business and the barriers we still face, but for right now, I just want the condescending comments to stop. I’ve been conducting an unscientific survey of some of the smartest women I know about the best ways to nip this situation in the bud. Here’s a sampling of what they’ve said:
1) Don’t take it personally. It’s easier said than done. But such blatant condescension is more about the other person’s insecurities than it is about me or my work. Someone who feels secure in what they’re doing and their place in the workplace doesn’t feel the need to talk to people this way.
2) I got the same advice from two different women expressed two different ways: “Fight gracefully” or “Sometimes you just gotta put your balls on the table.” Why balls? Because I’m in a male-dominated industry, and sometimes I have to speak a language/walk a talk that they understand. I didn’t waltz in the door bragging about my education, experience and background the way a man might have, and I’ve had to learn that modesty just isn’t getting me anywhere. To correct the mistaken impression that I’m Not From Here, I now start sentences with, “Back when I was a reporter for the world’s oldest and largest news organization…” and reminisce about my days covering some of the biggest news stories in the country. It runs counter to my Midwestern upbringing to toot my own horn, but it’s working, slowly but surely. Ultimately, I think all women can benefit from being better advocates for ourselves and reminding the people around us why we rock.
3) Figure out how much skin you want in the game. Superficially, there are things I could change to help solve this problem. I could wear suits every day, swap my dreads for a hairstyle that’s less “ethnic,” ditch my nose ring and be surlier. But I wouldn’t be me. And being me is starting to feel like the most Rebellious thing I do every day. I live to prove people wrong, to dismantle whatever notions they have about people who look like me. The wise women I surveyed are slowly convincing me that I can play this game without the game playing me.
In nose-ringed Rebellion,