On Saturday I went to a day conference on women’s leadership. It was mostly directed towards female student leaders, but the speakers for the day sounded really interesting, so I decided to crash the party (it also gave my inner union nerd an opportunity to see a newly built student center). The conference was focused on “finding your voice” as a woman. The keynote speaker talked through many different pieces about finding your voice including personality type and the use of humor to break down barriers. She discussed not allowing your empathy and willingness to think about every one else first, to silence your own opinion. Everything she was saying made sense. I began thinking about times that I have actually done that. Times when I just agreed to avoid conflict or simply remained silent because the room as a whole was moving in a different direction. My natural tendency to introverted habits may contribute to this, but I came up with several examples of when I could not or would not find my voice. The speaker went on to talk about career paths and work styles, all of which allowed me to do some self-reflection. I really appreciated her humor, candor, and understanding of the roadblocks women face in the work force.
But then we started the Q and A portion of her time. Several young women asked the speaker questions, myself included, to which she provided excellent advice and insights. Then the conversation came around to networking and a young woman stood up and asked the question “how as a young female professional do I network with older men in my field without it being misinterpreted?” The question itself is slightly concerning, but the speaker’s answer was even more so. Now before I explain how she answered the question and express my anger about that answer, I want to say that I completely understand why the speaker said what she said. That being said, I am still frustrated by her answer.
At first, she jokingly answered “don’t dress like a stripper, not that you would, but you know, don’t do that.” The room laughed at her off the cuff answer. But then, more seriously, she answered “Don’t get drunk with your male co-workers. Don’t put yourself in danger.” She went on to explain that it is probably best to meet in their office and to make it known to your co-workers that you are seeking the mentorship of your boss, so that people are aware of your intentions.
This made me mad, not at the speaker, but at society. I also immediately thought of Legally Blonde.
What made me mad is the fact that we still need to tell young women this; that they need to “not put themselves in danger.” How are will still living in a world where people still think that a woman can only get ahead if she sleeps her way to the top, or that she is only meant to fill a quota and satisfy the human resources office. Why is this still okay? Why is this fraternal “old boys club” mentality still running rampant in our major companies in the United States of America?!?!? As campus conversations and the media focus on sexual assault and rape culture in this country, I hope that the answer that the speaker gave will soon become moot. I would hope that soon our conversations will move away from women not “putting themselves in danger” and more towards “impress them with your knowledge and wit and discuss pathways for success.”
While the speaker told a few stories of times where she was in a few extremely sexist situations, a young man at our table was muttering in disbelief. I overheard utterances of “no way!,” “that happens?,” “who really says that?” While his naivety made me laugh slightly, it also gave me hope. It was clear to me that he is in a place of privilege where he isn’t even aware that this happens. During a break after the speaker, I talked with him a bit about what was said and he couldn’t believe there are men that behave that way. This made me think he would never participate in behavior like what was being talked about; he also wants to become a victim’s advocate when he graduates so I’m not all that surprised at his response. If a majority of men in this next generation also think and work this way, then perhaps we are making progress. Maybe, just maybe, the next generation will no longer be subject to sexist remarks and behaviors in the workplace, or anyplace for that matter.
Things like bystander trainings, the “It’s On US” campaign and the “No More” campaign make me hope that the culture is changing. That hopefully someday soon women will feel free to be and do whatever they enjoy without penalty or discrimination. That professions and hobbies will no longer be described by a gender dominance. And, I know some of you might be thinking “yeah, but it’s a big jump from a off-color sexist comment to sexual assault.” Well, no, not really. They really aren’t that far apart and both are part of the ingrained societal concept the men are dominant to women.
I say all of this without being an expert and without ever formally studying any of this. My statements are based purely from observations and personal experiences. My frustrations with the conversation this weekend derive purely from the fact that it is 2014 and women gained the right to vote in 1920. Why are we still dealing with this? Nonetheless, my frustration only fuels my fight. Until we change the conversation and no longer need the hashtag #yesallwomen, I will continue to educate the next generations of citizens from my little corner of the world.