Sexism? What Sexism? I Don't See Any Sexism Here...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010
I work in a male dominated field. This has been the case my whole life, and since I came of age in the environment of a pre-Tailhook U.S. Navy culture*, I have to say that my perception of sexism is a bit skewed.

In a lot of cases, I just don't notice sexism. I just don't. You'd think that coming of age in and working in male dominated fields my whole life would have made me more aware of sexism in the workplace, but it doesn't. Often I'm treated in a way that can easily be construed as sexist, and I attribute the behavior to other factors (like the person in question is just a generic jerk, rather than a sexist jerk). This has happened often enough, and the occasions have been pointed out to me by men often enough, that I think I see a trend.

It's not that I don't see or react to overt acts of sexism. When someone implies that my ladybrain is unsuited to the engineering tasks I've been assigned, I'm quick to note that they deserve a whack in the face with the Shovel of Doom™. When someone says that the reason women aren't in more leadership positions within an industry is because women just "don't have what it takes," I'm first in line to punch them in the throat. It's the more subtle forms of sexism that seem to elude me, such as the fact that I always seem to be the team member who's assigned administrative tasks, or the fact that it's never assumed that I might be the technical subject matter expert in a meeting (and I almost always am). It didn't even occur to me until THIS YEAR to find out if there were any women in leadership positions in my division (there aren't) or to determine what the percentage of engineering roles in my division are filled by women (8%).
 
I've been trying to determine what causes this situational blindness, and I think it's a case of what's normal to me. Just as laying awake at night for hours on end was my old "normal" for sleep, and I learned how to cope with an inadequate sleep schedule, I think I've never really had prolonged access to a work place or industry that was without significant amounts of sexism. Since that's the only thing I've ever been exposed to, it's "normal" to me, and I don't attribute marginalization to sexism.

This isn't okay.

Aside from the fact that I'm not seeing reality for what it is (cognitive dissonance FTW!), it means that I'm not accurately judging the behavior of other people in my professional life. It means that I don't have a true understanding of the men with whom I work, and how they look at the world. It makes my own judgment of interpersonal relationships suspect.

But I don't know how to fix this blind spot. I don't want to run around accusing generic asshats of being sexist asshats without sufficient observational proof to justify such an opinion. On the other hand, I'm not really interested in letting them get away with it anymore.



______
*209 years of Naval tradition unhindered by progress, basically.

14 comments:

Mrs. Bitch said...

Hey Janiece

I have also worked at several jobs where I was either the only female (truck driver), or one of two or three women in a group of 30 or more men (DNR, Dow).

I think even when you do notice the overt or subtle sexism, it's a matter of choosing your fights. I backhanded a guy once (back in the good old days before I would have been sued for assault) for resting his hand on my leg in the breakroom. I've taken guys aside and gotten in their faces and scared the living shit out of them by threatening to go to management if they didn't back the fuck off. I've always fought my own battles, but it DOES wear on you after a while.

If anyone is dismissing you or your ideas as inconsequential, they are most likely being a sexist douche.

Crap, I don't think this was helpful at all.

Steve Buchheit said...

Being a generic asshat and being a sexist asshat are not mutually exclusive conditions. In fact, in the male population, the conditions tend to be found together in statistical clumping.

John the Scientist said...

Janiece, that the "subtle" problem manifests itself in unsubtle ways is indicated by that 8% figure.

I'm pretty much against quotas mandated by the government, but when you look at the firms that said "hey, we hired a bunch of women" back in the late 80s, and then looked at the number of those women who made it to management positions by the late 90s, you found that not every firm had dealt with the issue.

The number of women executives DOES matter, for two reasons. One, in order to get to that level, those women had to be given a fair shake at promotion all the way up the ladder. Thus, that number indicated the health of the organization as a whole. Two, organizational physchologists ahve shown you need about 20% women managers in order to give women the feeling that they can vent freely, and have enough men wioth women bosses and peers to begin to develop an organizational culture where the subtle stuff becomes a CLM.

8% is so far below that threshold, you might as well say your company is in the 1970s or 80s.

Janiece said...

John, I don't disagree with your assessment, but to be clear, the 8% figure only applies the engineering team within my division - a group of less than 40 individuals. The leadership figure (i.e., no women) only applies to my division, a group of less than 90 individuals. Honestly, I don't know if those numbers are indicative of the entire organization, or just my little corner of it. Until very recently, I was oblivious and didn't care enough to find out.

The Mechanicky Gal said...

I backhanded a guy once (back in the good old days before I would have been sued for assault) for resting his hand on my leg in the breakroom.
Sniff, a Bitch after my own heart!
I have nothing to add that is of any value, except to agree with you. It's just that I can call them Stupid Douchebags and get away with it.
it still doesn't make it right.

John the Scientist said...

Janiece, you should check it out. Until our little discussion at the other place, I had not bothered to look up the numbers at my company, because I took it for granted that 40 - 50% of leadership was gonig to be female - that's been my experience.

The other issue, though is the objection Eric brought up - if women are only represented in HQ, HQ numbers will lie about the org as a whole. On the other hand, he's dead wrong that it's irrelevant, because ahving that culture at HQ is a prerequisite for the culture spreading to the rest of the org. Necessary, but not sufficient, but necessary, nonetheless.

Eric said...

No, John, I'm not "wrong". To be wrong, I would have had to make an assertion. As opposed to raising a question. Indeed, the mode in which I raised the question conceded you could even be correct. To wit:

Granted, it seems a reasonable inference that a corporation with a more favorable environment towards female executives would be more favorable to females overall, but ultimately that's really only a testable hypothesis. In other words, I'm not saying the inference is wrong, merely that I think taking it as granted is jumping to a conclusion. One can certainly imagine a large corporation in which the realities of the home office do not reflect the realities of the field offices or plants.

Speaking of wrong: you are, because in your last comment here you do exactly what I suggest you not: "a[c]hving that culture at HQ is a prerequisite for the culture spreading to the rest of the org. Necessary, but not sufficient, but necessary, nonetheless" is a conclusion that would need to be tested, in my opinion, and you continue to take it for granted. A top-down hierarchical model might be necessary and not sufficient, it might be sufficient, or it might be neither and have no causal relationship to the company culture (an unlikely premise, it's true, but the whole point is that I don't know and frankly neither do you).

I'm not sure I could have been any clearer. If you think the source of our disagreement is that you say x and I say not-x, we're not even having the same conversation; I'm willing to consider x and/or not-x as viable possibilities but one of the things you'll need to convince me of is that x/not-x is even pertinent in the first place.

Eric said...

Fixed a "c" without fixing an "ie" but everyone knows what we're talking about and I'm not reposting the comment. Not picking, just saying I realize I missed it, mea culpa, etc.

Not that it matters: the major point is I'm especially resentful when someone picks a fight or alters an existing engagement by assigning me a position and disagreeing with it, especially when I didn't take a position to start with.

Eric said...

Did blogger just eat my first response to John while leaving the second sans context? I'm going to be really pissed if that happened. Janiece, would you mind checking the spam folder and seeing if it somehow ended up there, because I thought it had posted....

Juan Federico said...

It's late here, but I can never sleep when I'm on call even though I should just go ahead and sleep. I cope with what's given as it comes if I am called out on a job but, sleeping is something that I cannot do while feeling that my phone will ring. Ergo, I am always on the verge of being awake while I have the Callout duty. This month I've been on all month, I come off call Tomorrow at 8AM. Wednesday night through next Friday, I will sleep well, but this is what I consider normal for me in this career path. So over to this conversation that you've started...
I've the pleasure to know you on and off the job. Janiece you handle yourself just fine. I've seen your work and I know your ethics. So, do the people 'that count' at our company, well mostly, there's always an asshole with a petty streak.
I seem to remember that you too, have been forced to resort to the same stuff that Mrs. Bitch has done in the past. Sometimes I think that You are just going to go on finding shit to keep you up at night. Let it go, you're just fine.

Christ it's late, I better go get my nap in...g'nite guys. ;)

Janiece said...

Eric, that appears to be the case.

For the peanut gallery: Here is Eric's initial response to John the Scientist:

No, John, I'm not "wrong". To be wrong, I would have had to make an assertion. As opposed to raising a question. Indeed, the mode in which I raised the question conceded you could even be correct. To wit:

Granted, it seems a reasonable inference that a corporation with a more favorable environment towards female executives would be more favorable to females overall, but ultimately that's really only a testable hypothesis. In other words, I'm not saying the inference is wrong, merely that I think taking it as granted is jumping to a conclusion. One can certainly imagine a large corporation in which the realities of the home office do not reflect the realities of the field offices or plants.

Speaking of wrong: you are, because in your last comment here you do exactly what I suggest you not: "a[c]hving that culture at HQ is a prerequisite for the culture spreading to the rest of the org. Necessary, but not sufficient, but necessary, nonetheless" is a conclusion that would need to be tested, in my opinion, and you continue to take it for granted. A top-down hierarchical model might be necessary and not sufficient, it might be sufficient, or it might be neither and have no causal relationship to the company culture (an unlikely premise, it's true, but the whole point is that I don't know and frankly neither do you).

I'm not sure I could have been any clearer. If you think the source of our disagreement is that you say x and I say not-x, we're not even having the same conversation; I'm willing to consider x and/or not-x as viable possibilities but one of the things you'll need to convince me of is that x/not-x is even pertinent in the first place.

Janiece said...

Juan, I'm not concerned about the blatant crapola that Mrs. Bitch referred to. I can handle myself in those circumstances just fine. It's the more subtle forms of sexism that I sometimes fail to see (and act upon). It's not really keeping me up, per se - it's just an area where I need need to improve.

Juan Federico said...

LOL! oh Janiece! You crack me up. Thank you, I needed that laugh this morning. :)
Love you,
Juan Federico

WendyB_09 said...

On more than one career I've ended up doing things that are more traditionally men's work. More than once the whole job team was a crew of women doing a man's job. Didn't matter if it was unloading trucks, hauling beer kegs through an arena or installing a computer network, we could beat any men's crew hands down.

Bosses loved it. When it would occasionally be pointed out to them they had an all-female department, the response was universally - I'll put my lady's team up against any of your men's teams any day and I know who will come out on top. We rocked! Trust me, nothing shows up the guys more than watching a woman that can do their job better/faster than they can...

Now, that's not to say we wouldn't get harrassed by the guys from time to time. But we knew how to deal with it without alerting management or the police. (honey, if I can sling a full beer keg across the loading bay, what do you think I can do to you??)

However, some sexist pigs will never change. Sigh.