My friends and I and the sexism we can’t quite prove

Ellen Pao’s performance feedbacks at the venture-capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers disapproved of her “sharp elbows.” These comments prevented her from being promoted, while male colleagues who received similar criticism were still able to step up the ladder. Was Pao really hurting relationships with clients or was her assertiveness deemed excessive just because she was a woman? This type of question was at the center of the gender discrimination suit Pao lost against her former employer, and are also key of Annie Lowrey’s argument that subtle sexism can’t be proved.

In an article published this week, Lowrey recalls the countless times in which strangers ask her husband about his job, while they ask her about her dogs. “It is a form of soft discrimination that I fear might be all too familiar to all too many women — and often I find it hard to explain to my male friends and colleagues,” she claims.

One of the ways to fight sexism that doesn’t actually come from conscious discriminatory beliefs is to signal when it occurs, and thus continue the conversation that Pao’s case started. Following that idea, I emailed a bunch of friends asking them to share their experiences. Here are the stories of sexism my friends and I can’t quite prove:

“I was talking to my boss about an important meeting I had the day after, and he gave me advice on how to power dress. I thought he wouldn’t have spent the same time talking about ties to a male colleague, but maybe he was just being realistic by acknowledging that was going to matter?”

“At my previous job, we worked with an external provider to create a website. We had made it clear in our exchanges that I was their contact person and the one in charge of the project, but every single time we met in our office, the provider addressed my two male colleagues instead of me. I had to use my comments to make it clear that I was leading, and only after a few of those, the provider began addressing me”

“When my group of gents and gals jokes about who will get married/divorced/babies first, and gents are never even considered”

“This may not come from people around me, but I feel like I need to be so much more factual than my male counterparts at office meetings to prove myself. They can afford big words and embellishment in their stories and they will be trusted, but I feel like I am demanded more facts”

“Every time a waiter gives the check to the man, even if I’m paying”

“It is so so so so hard to be treated equally at an all men meeting. They don’t say or do anything obviously sexist, and I don’t think they are misogynists. But they all belong with each other and have common interests, and I need to make a big effort to earn their respect. Besides the gender difference, I am also quite younger, so I never know which of the two is the source of the pain”

Did people treat these women differently because of their gender, or because of their personalities? If it was indeed sexism, we can’t quite prove it, but there is still something wrong with a culture that makes so many women feel powerless, frequently wondering whether they are being treated differently.


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