As an Afro-American woman, I have spent the majority of my life in white, female dominated spaces (such as ballet schools, art history programs, museum offices, and retail). In the discussion of women at work, the wage gap, inter-sectional feminism, diversity in the arts, etc, female dominated professions should not be overlooked. If anything, they need to be critiqued by those of us who are participating or have participated in these fields.
Women have always worked in various roles with varying degrees of willingness and this history should not be forgotten in the discussion of women at work. Additionally, many male-dominated professions exist within female-dominated spheres. There might be more male doctors, but his work day is completely surrounded by, and dependent on, female-dominated roles like nurses and administrators. Below are a few of my unapologetic observations, opinions, and suggestions about female-dominated work spaces. Based on my lived experiences with recurring circumstances regarding women at work, I offer critique knowing that it applies to me too!
The female dominated jobs I held were cushy compared to many other professions that women can have today and they were called ‘pink collar’ for this reason. I was fortunate enough to make a living siting down in an air-conditioned building all day long for most of my career. While I consider myself to be bright, physically strong, and adventurous, I happened to choose a career path that is not actually dangerous or hard and I try to be grateful everyday! Below are my reflections about my lived experiences with women at work in the industries listed above.
These points will be further illustrated in the upcoming art series Place Mat-Spellbook.
*Please do not steal these ideas for your diversity seminars and blog posts without credited me.
Feel free to email me and invite me to speak at panels, lectures, or conferences about the topic.
Pleasant, Rae. Newsletter: Women at Work. Dallas, TX: Pleasant Folk LLC, June 2019. www.pleasantfolk.com/newsletter/hardlessons
1. The Pant Suit with Shoulder Pads
Wearing a pant suit, wearing dark colors, speaking with a lower voice, wearing less make-up, minimal socializing at work, blunt communication, high expectations, etc. are not signs that a woman is imitating masculinity to succeed at work…they are signs of a professional choice or the natural habits of that particular person. I personally believe women should dress modestly in the workplace and put the baby voice aside (unless you have a legitimate vocal cord issue). There are some women who are bullied, judged, misunderstood, or ostracized by other women in the office because they exhibit traits typical of professional behavior and it is misinterpreted as trying to be a man. I think women in office settings need to stop negatively stereotyping ‘the pant suit’ image or mentality. I look to the female pilots, police chiefs, doctors, and army generals who wear their ‘pants’ with pride.
2. Women vs. Girls
Sometimes women are stereotyped with traits typical of an immature girl, so the concept of woman and girl become unfairly tied. All women are not girls and a girl is not a woman. ‘Girls’, or immaturity in a woman at work, are a huge blow to the strides that history has made for women at work and in the world. I noticed that extremely childish behavior at work led to failure every time. In turn, their shortcomings were repaired or coddled by staff with more maturity and knowledge. Shopping at work, forgetfulness, flakiness, baby talk (or other affectations), flamboyant outfits, frequent crying, dependency, and ignorance tended to be the traits of women who acted like girls. They consistently failed at tasks and could not learn from them or grow. Phrases like ‘I don’t know, I forgot, I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t do this, I don’t want to do this, I don’t like this, I don’t get it’ or the general ‘save me’ mentality were so frequent in the workplace it shocked me.
Case Study: Imagine being in a meeting and hearing a woman who is supervising a project and making over $10,000 more than you, giggling while saying ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. Lower level staff would have to carry all the weight and get zero credit. This was a real situation over and over at every job I’ve held. It is inexcusable in my eyes. The dumbest person in the room should not be the loudest or the highest paid. Executives love girls at work because it justifies their power in directing them or saving them.
4. Forgetfulness Does not Excuse your Responsibility
People have ADMITTED to me that they ‘play dumb’ when they want to get out of a task. ‘I can’t remember’, ‘I don’t remember’, or ‘I forgot’ is the phrase I hear most often from women who have failed at a task or disrespected me. In fact, forgetting my name or who I am seems like a tactic to bully me by acting as if I am invisible or unimportant. Ironically, I am typically the only Black person in most places I have worked or one of very few. How hard is it to remember one name? Get a notepad and a calendar to help you remember. Otherwise, your consistent forgetfulness will start to look like a manipulative act of ‘playing dumb’ which is dumb in itself. When I was at work, you never saw me without a notepad and people remarked on my memory quite often…but it was turned into a negative. I was called scary or guru for remembering details instead of intelligent and professional which is racially charged in my opinion.
2. Avoid Gossip
Try not to talk to people from work about people at work while you are at work. Your workplace is a team and everyone there deserves an environment of trust and respect. I once worked for a major museum and most of the time this gossip would happen within ear-shot and eye-shot of me or some other target. I could walk into a break room or turn a corner and hear people talking trash. Other times, people would approach me to talk trash about others. I was called stereotypical things like unfriendly or intimidating by the same people that I greeted every morning. Many times, people would imitate fake Ebonics when repeating things I said in an attempt to make me seem more aggressive (again, within ear-shot of me!). I was constantly told comments by other people that someone else made about me. This kind of gossip can ruin relationships and careers, so please stop.
There were times that coworkers presented themselves to me as ‘allies’ and I confided in them my problems with glass ceilings or racism at the museum. They brushed me off as a gossip (despite the fact they gossiped all the time about petty things). I realized a solution could not be brainstormed with these false allies, so I turned my attention to HR for problem solving which was unfruitful. Turns out…museums have a horrible diversity problem (duh!) and my allies were just frenemies in disguise.
Always document what has been said about you and by whom. If it is legal in your state, record these conversations. Respectfully ask these people to stop (verbally or in writing) or turn in your documentation into HR. Sending a frank email has always worked for me. Leaving museums all together worked even better!
3. Avoid Lying
I will never understand why adults, especially women, continue to lie so often in the workplace. My nail in the coffin with the workforce was that everyday someone was lying to me about something or lying ON me to my face in front of other people. Usually the lies were to cover for failures which happened far too often. This is completely disrespectful and quite frank…this is deranged. If you have a lying problem, please seek professional help because there is not much I can do for you here.
5. Demands of Friendship, Cliques, and Exclusion
First and foremost understand that a job is a place of business. No one should be talking excessively at work unless it is work-related. If you see a quiet woman at work or there is a woman who is not talking to you specifically…get over it. They may have been told by their manager NOT to socialize at work. They may not like you personally and choose interact with you only when it is work-related. They might also just be naturally reserved and that’s ok too. With all of the gossip and lies that happen at work, people have the right to protect their personal business. In other words, not every woman needs to be ‘saved’ by your friendship, so leave them alone. Please remember, you cannot command or demand someone into friendship or dictate how that friendship will play out.
Lunch breaks, happy hours, and office parties are either personal unpaid time, paid breaks, or optional. In other words, no one is obligated to socialize in these situations. But, if you choose to socialize at work and form friendships, these are your best outlets to do so with like minded people. If there are friendship groups that naturally form at work, understand that no one else is obligated to the rules of your social circle. Keep the dynamics of your clique out of work-related tasks and enjoy your friendship group during personal time like lunch breaks, happy hours, office parties, or outside of work hours. Engaging in cliquish behavior during work-related tasks is either disruptive to those around you who are actually trying to work, or it can make people feel excluded professionally.
Do not use work or work-related tasks to retaliate against personal feelings or rejections of friendship. Being excluded from a friendship group, disliking another woman, falling out of friendship, or the like is absolutely no reason to sabotage another woman at work. What happens outside of work stays outside of work. What happens during personal unpaid time, paid breaks, or optional events at work should not penetrate work-related tasks. Learn to compartmentalize your life and your job.
Case Study: There was a very large woman at a museum where I worked who would bake cookies just for me every week because she was obsessed with the idea of my friendship. She gossiped to colleagues about my personal matters to gain insight which is how she learned that I liked cookies. She tried sabotaging me many times when I rebuffed her advances. This person ended up in a class of mine when I went back to university and her obsession continued. She would try to start arguments with me in class or turn around in her chair to stare at me. I finally sent her an email to back all the way off and it worked.
4. Kill the Red Eyed Monster (Jealousy)
So many of my work place issues rose out of other women being jealous. Whether it was personal or professional, I ignited a bizarre psychology in many people and it was not my fault. People would be jealous of things they never tried, places they had never been, and tasks they hadn’t worked hard to complete. Complacent, lazy, or privileged people would bolt out of their chair to catch up to my accomplishments or take them from me out of jealousy. It was suffocating because jealousy bred conniving behavior. Many people were subconsciously distraught at the idea of a Black woman, pretty woman, skinny woman, or younger woman ‘winning’ and displaying intelligence. Carve out your own niche at work and stick to your own job description and this will eliminate your feelings of jealousy.
Please stop demonizing beauty OR thinness. You are not a victim because someone is prettier than you. They haven’t done anything to you and blaming ‘society’ for your malicious behavior towards them is cowardly. I have been told several times by other women how much they hate someone at work…because they are pretty. I do not share this train of deluded thought. Stop making pretty women or thin women the objects of your obsession or rage.
5. Passive Aggressive Fights for Power
All of the points being made are the ingredients to passive aggressive behavior and fights for power. Although there is so much more that can be said, this is all that needs to be said.
6. How to Avoid Being Perceived as Racist
I am not here to speak for all races. I speak on behalf of myself as a Black woman and the sum total of the direct experiences I’ve had which is my only obligation. Person of color is a term I use only to describe those of African descent in every hue. Stop teasing the people of color at work. Stop excluding people of color from professional situations they are entitled to participate in based on their title and education. Stop robbing them of their contributions by falsely claiming them as your own. Stop cherry picking a ‘favorite’ and excluding or teasing the remaining people of color. Try harder to memorize the names and faces of staff of color. Stop speaking in an accent completely different than your own for amusement. Stop asking invasive questions at work about personal grooming habits. Do not make assumptions about the background or upbringing of people of color. Stop acting shocked when a Black person speaks and dresses well or says something smart. Stop pandering to destitute people of color on social media with savior antics while disrespecting upwardly mobile, independent Black people in real life. Being well traveled does not excuse racially charged, rude comments. Do not touch other people without their permission and do not stand too close when talking. I cannot tell you how many times a white woman in power has tried to stand centimeters from my body or lean over my desk or touch me while saying the rudest things…it is an intimidation tactic. Even if you do not intend the above actions to be racist, it paints a negative picture of you and the company. Try to be more conscious of this and stop.
7. Don’t be so Delicate about Emails
An email is a record of information and any lawyer worth their salt will tell you to put things in writing. Emails are an effective way to RESOLVE or DOCUMENT all of the issues listed above. Stop demonizing the sender of emails and stirring up unnecessary drama. Instead, focus on the information presented to you and continue to do your job. I cannot tell you how many times I have been called into an office by a woman in power and berated about the ‘tone’ of an email or my audacity to send one at all. No man at work has ever complained about an email I have sent. These messages were usually written to resolve the lies and forgetfulness of another person or they were completely normal and I was being controlled. I have noticed that only liars hate things in writing ;) They want to keep everything verbal and continue spinning a web of deceit and confusion, so writing is their kryptonite.
8. Every Woman is Different
We do not all come to work for the same reasons. I have met women that admit they do not need the money they are just amusing themselves during the day by getting a job. Some women have their survival needs met by a partner or trust fund and admit to using their wages or salary for leisure. I have even met women who were hired or kept on the payroll due to love affairs or family connections. Some women are mothers and/or wives, others are single and/or child-free, while others are caring for aging parents. DO NOT assume you are busier, more tired, or more special than someone else! In other words, you don’t know anyone else’s story, so stop assuming and simply respect everyone equally. I was a single, child-free woman without a trust fund or alimony check and lots of student loans from a large family. I lived off of what I earned at work and needed multiple jobs to survive. The looming responsibility of caring for aging parents kept me a nervous wreck for my entire adult life. Being bullied, sabotaged, unappreciated, unfairly punished, or pushed out of work (and university) by other women meant my safety was being threatened. I have had to rebuild my life from scratch several times or rely on my retired parents for survival. I finally realized I needed to start my own business and save myself for good.
9. Stop Shopping at Work and Stop Having your Shopping Packages sent to Work
Just get a PO Box. If you have enough money to shop excessively, you have enough money to pay for a PO Box. Also, it clearly means you are not working if you are shopping all day! It’s an insult to those around you who make less money to flaunt your excess wealth AND time at work.
10. Avoid Crying at Work
Excuse yourself to the nearest bathroom as quickly as possible. Again…there are policewomen, fire fighters, army vets, social workers, and surgeons who will see more horror and sadness on the job than an office worker ever will. Nothing that happens at an office will be worth more tears over what these women face, so try to compose yourself and be grateful. If an issue is worth your tears, ask yourself what happened to get things to such a boiling point and correct it or resign. There have been plenty of women in power who have tried their hardest to break me down and make me cry at school, university, or work. These were immature, toxic women and my strength in simply holding back tears frightened their authority. The one time I can remember crying at work in a closed door meeting, was a job I quit shortly after. It wasn’t worth a single tear and they missed me once I was long gone!
11. Stop Villainizing Criticism
I have witnessed and personally experienced the process of turning customers or colleagues who ‘complain’ into villains. Stop doing this. Document this criticism and learn from it! Everything I have ever complained about in the arts just so happened to become a national movement. Patrons of a museum who write on social media about a controversial piece of art are attacked by the institution or laughed at in the hallways of the office. Take a spin at the GAP if you need to learn how to solicit, digest, and learn from customer critique. You come across as a brat if you cannot handle criticism! I was a dance major in university, so I was raised with harsh critique from the time I was a third grader. It blows my mind how women who work as arts administrators or professors cannot handle criticism from patrons of their museum or students. They are your livelihood, so show some respect to the people who justify your career by learning from their feedback.