I keep backspacing over my thoughts regarding #YesAllWomen when it comes to Facebook and my Twitter feed. I know that I want to say something, but I’m not sure if what I could say would matter, or if it would get me in trouble with my dayjob, or if I would lose listeners or followers or clients.
Someone referred to the #YesAllWomen hashtag as an ‘incident that weekend.’ Did that person really understand what it was about? Probably not. Did that comment bother me?
Very much so.
Did I tell that person?
Why the hell not?
Because I didn’t know how to explain to someone that the ‘incident’ of three powerful words made me realize that there are too many of us who chalk up everyday sexism as something that goes along with being a woman.
I’m bothered that it’s taken me this long to get these thoughts into words, and I wonder if that’s a function of the gender that I express or the behaviors that I’ve learned and that others have reinforced over my thirty-five years. Looking back, I know that I have experienced a lot of passive-aggressive sexism, from middle school onwards. In the parochial school I attended from fifth to eighth grade, boys were allowed to be boys and make horrible comments about my breasts while I sat in the classroom. In high school, I reported an algebra teacher for showing a Playmate Information Sheet as a transparency when he used the bust, waist, and hip sizes of the model to announce his favorite number set. When I spoke to the director of the program, the incident was brushed off as a new teacher just “being a guy” and that I should forget about it. When I didn’t forget about it and my parents brought it to the attention of the principal, I earned a public apology from the teacher and a reputation among my classmates for not having any sense of humor.
I ignored a lot of passive-aggressive sexism in college because I was in a major with very few female students, and I wanted to do well. I was lucky to have grad student TAs who were strong women and who held everyone equally accountable during labs. When I graduated and moved to D’Iberville, Mississippi, I endured some of the most horrific passive-aggressive sexism at the planning yard for the shipyard in Pascagoula.
“Don’t wear skirts to work; they won’t let you in the shipyard because the guys will stare at your legs.”
“She’s my secretary! No, just joking, she’s a junior naval architect.”
“Don’t speak up, older guys don’t like hearing from a sassy girl. Just put in your time…”
“Are you married? Want to… oh, engaged. But he’s not living here, is he?”
There were worse. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who valued my work ethic and wanted to keep me on the team, so much so that he wrote up the researcher who told the Undersecretary of the Navy that I was just a secretary after I ran calculations to make sure a damaged ship wouldn’t be further stressed so it could be towed out of the Persian Gulf for repairs.
I gave up on engineering after those fifty-three weeks, and naval architecture became just another chapter in my book… and I went into academia.
Since I’m still working at the university, I do worry about detailing the number of events that have happened that are examples of passive-aggressive sexism. I’ve had mostly male supervisors, and many of their comments were made out of ignorance. I’ve had older male professors touch my arm or shoulder in a paternalistic way, and one is expected to smile and move forward. I have had male faculty shut me down in meetings by talking over me, and I have had male students try to intimidate me with size and volume. I have had people ask me about having more children versus completing my schooling, and I have had male colleagues and administrators downplay my concerns about treatment in meetings and verbage toward me in emails.
I have been scared to walk to my car, and I have arrived early to make sure that I get a parking space underneath the security light.
I feel like I have to work twice as hard to earn my doctorate, because my body of work up until now is not valued and I need to have irrefutable evidence that my work is worthy.
I have lost some of the fire for my dayjob in academia, because a woman who is passionate about her career and doing well is criticized for being emotional and hypersensitive. I document everything, and I use statistics to back up claims about programs because that will place me on equal footing with older male administrators who can go on gut feelings and no hands-on experience.
I have to argue for funding for sexual assault awareness and programs to better inform students, because they are not standard in the program that I run, because it’s not important enough to have a consistent budget.
Now, I stand up to students in the classroom. I don’t allow hateful language when I teach, because I’m allowed to work in a safe environment. I don’t let comments pass, because my students – all of my students – deserve a safe and respectful learning environment. When I hear female students questioning their male professors’ actions and words, I tell them to trust their instincts and speak to someone in authority.
I am not perfect; speaking up scares me. Saying that something isn’t right in spite of the fear of reprisal can be the most terrifying thing. And yet… if I don’t speak up, I can’t work to change what happens around me.
#YesAllWomen, because fear shouldn’t be the driving factor in our decisions.