“I expected something different from a bunch of liberals.”
I remember the conversation well. The year was 1980, and I was standing in a supermarket checkout line commiserating with a friend about the way the men at work treated us. I had been toiling away at a local public interest law organization, working with a bunch of liberals, trying to save the world while earning a pittance, putting in very long hours doing everything from making coffee and typing memos to analyzing legal issues. I had finally worked up the courage to ask my boss (male) to let me have some of the secretarial time that was in the grant funds that supported our program; he used those funds for his own secretary. He told me that there was not enough money in the budget for another clerk/typist. “Besides,” he said, gazing at me benignly, “you type faster than anyone else in the office anyway.”
Case closed. This was the same boss who warned me sternly that I could lose my job for advising another woman on the staff that she should demand a salary equal to what the men were earning for the same work — and our organization was devoted to legal rights! Other men on the staff took me aside and counseled me that I really should not be quite so vocal in staff meetings. My growing dismay with the unhappy climate for gender equality in this supposedly liberal bastion led me to take a job in another organization known for its equally liberal views — only to learn the hard way that dominant males, no matter their political party, seem to be hard-wired for putting-down smart, assertive women.
When I got passed over for a promotion in that organization — my boss said he needed a “graybeard” to do the job, then he begged me to stay on because the new guy “doesn’t know half as much as you know about how to do this work” — my female co-workers begged me to sue. I didn’t get mad, I got even. The graybeard was soon gone, and I got the job — for two-thirds of his salary. That was victory back-in-the-day. I am sure that my staunchly Democratic boss was proud of the fact that he promoted my career.
Such memories, now more amusing than painful, came flooding back to me when I read about Ron Suskind’s book on the Obama White House that’s coming out today. The book, aptly entitled “Confidence Men,” includes allegations that the early days of the Obama White House were very frustrating for women on the team. Indeed, one former staffer goes so far as to use the phrase “hostile work environment” for women, a phrase that will cause numerous legal hearts to beat a little faster with lust for potential litigation.
Some people seem shocked by these revelations. To them I say, “Grow up!” Given my own now-long experience in the workplace, I am neither shocked nor surprised that such a progressive Democratic team would have its own problems with gender equity at work. Sexism knows no party; discrimination is an equal opportunity offender.
While overt sex discrimination at work might be a relic of the steno pool days, more intransigent forms of social, psychological and cultural gender discrimination persist at all levels, in all job categories. Even as a university president I encounter forms of sex discrimination that are infuriating. I sit at many tables where I am the only or one of very few women in the room. I put up with the brother presidents who feel the need to jump in on my lines every time I speak up at a meeting; one brother president once went so far as to tell me that he felt like a bear seeing a fish jump out of the water every time I spoke up as a way to explain away the fact that he snapped at me every time I opened my mouth. Sometimes they just stand around in tight circles discussing the relative performance of their respective football teams; I elbow my way into the circles but have little to say, having no football team. Some of my sister presidents have studied the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) rules as a way of holding the conversation; I find myself thinking that’s just like Harriett expressing interest in Ozzie’s day at the office.
I’ve learned that, for the most part, I just need to let the little slights go on by, saving my firepower for genuine discrimination or opportunities to educate both men and women about the behaviors that continue to repress women’s potential.
The higher we go up the ladder, the closer we get to the glass ceiling. I’m now sufficiently high up to peer through the glass to that wondrous old boys’ club on the other side. Yes, some of them are sitting there puffing cigars, and others are playing golf at exclusive clubs where women still have to enter through the side door and eat in the ladies grill. Most of it looks pretty boring, frankly. But deals are going down, handshakes sealing huge compensation packages, mergers and acquisitions and settlements and back-scratching along with the tee times and half-court games and bongo drums and brandy snifters. A boy’s life on power steroids. Girls’ noses pressed to the glass, wondering what it would be like to walk through the front door at Augusta, or play basketball with the president, or be taken seriously by Larry Summers at any time at all.
When confronted about their sexist ways, the powerful men of my acquaintance appear hurt, bewildered, and even a tad defensive. Look at all of the progress you’ve made! Why are you women never satisfied??
Because we’re not. We cannot be satisfied until the day comes when gender equity is no longer a necessary and urgent topic for the millions of women who are not as fortunate as those of us who are high enough on the ladder to shrug our shoulders and say that maybe we can live comfortably on our side of the glass ceiling, on that top rung.
The women down on the lower rungs need our help. They need the women in the White House and the president’s houses and the corner offices and the judicial benches and editors’ desks and operating rooms and all of the places of power we now inhabit somewhat sparsely (women are still fewer than 25% in most top-level jobs across various professions) to use our power and position to keep up the fight for equality. We women at the top need to lift as we climb, pushing back that glass ceiling a few more inches every day.
The women in the Obama White House were right to speak their minds to Ron Suskind. While such candor may seem disloyal to the party, they know what experience teaches all of us — that sexism has no party affiliation. Yes, even good liberals can be —-using a good old fashioned phrase — male chauvinists.
The revolution continues…