Have you ever headed to the conference room for a meeting with a loudspeaker in hand — not to join a women’s march but in preparation to be heard over your male boss’s voice? Or at least looked around for a megaphone in your bag as his endless monologue gets louder and louder? Holding forth on why he is right and implying you are intellectually crippled. I asked my work friends once if I should hand them a mic (right in front of our boss) so they could get a word in, while he blabbed on. It wasn’t even disrespectful because our orator paid no attention to us then either.
Some men love their own voices. Ergo, their own thoughts. It applies to many women I know as well — I continue to act as a sounding board for them — but for the purpose of this entry, I am focusing on the inexplicable problem, The Feminine Mystique, at the workplace. (Unlike Friedan, I ain’t writing a book on this; and unlike her I have this magazine publishing my legit crowdsourced findings). It’s not the personality trait of having verbal diarrhoea but the dynamics it produces among colleagues, specifically women.
It is no more a problem without a name.
The all-pervasive sound of the male voice
Bropropriating, mansplaining, hepeating. As awful as these newfangled terms sound, the corresponding behaviour is even more jarring. Mansplaining has stuck, like the rampant behaviour it describes (a man explaining, say, your period to you). Bropropriating (taking credit for an idea a woman has given) or hepeating (translating ‘women language’ into the more widely recognised ‘manly language’) only spiked on social media briefly a year or two ago.
I doubt the root of this problem needs explanation. Such sexism has been implied and imperceptibly always at work across cultures and we have been conditioned to not notice it. Despite having the same educational background (or even superior) as your male counterparts, or the same training or professional capacity, some counterparts will make you feel that there is room for improvement in your case. If a woman has passed the same training as men to become an experienced aircraft pilot, people may still not trust her capabilities and demand to be disembarked before take-off. It’s one of those things.
This distinction is an occurrence so common for women in workplaces where men assume positions of power that the said women are unable to even recall all such slights. “It happens so much,” they say, “that honestly I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint only a single example of it.” You need to keep your sanity and forget, they add.
But if you are literally outnumbered — say being the only one with high estrogen levels among 11 colleagues running on testosterone — things might not be so easy to forget. Take the case of my friend who has vast experience in corporate communications but was new to a particular sector of it — health. Her reporting manager and peers presumed that as a woman — possibly the most unimaginative creature before them — she does not know anything about planned parenthood or women empowerment as she hadn’t worked in the field before. Their condescending treatment of her work was so relentless and overbearing that she was forced to quit her job without having another opportunity in hand. To keep herself sane.
This distinction is an occurrence so common for women in workplaces where men assume positions of power that the said women are unable to even recall all such slights.
Sometimes as a woman you are sidelined in subtler ways. Maybe you pitched an idea to your team that they are enthusiastic about, but seeing the balance tip in your (a woman’s) favour, your boss has a brainwave (right then incidentally) that sucks out the creativity of your pitch and is imposed upon you and the rest of the staff.
Whereas when a project you pitched is executed and results in success, somehow it is recalled by the same manager as something “we” did. He’s there to take the credit and render you nameless in the democratic use of the possessive pronoun.
Other times you might feel a strange indignation at an elderly HR official calling you ‘beta’ when you’ve only just met him. Unknowingly, he patronises you by “patiently” explaining why you can’t be handed cheques before you open a bank account with the designated branch the company banks with. He repeats the same sentence over and over again until it sinks into your infirm brain. Silly you to plead a solution of common sense. First of all, don’t question the system. Secondly, for Pete’s sake, don’t be a woman questioning the logic of the system.
Speaking of speaking slow, I haven’t met women who talk in low cadences, punctuating their speech with dramatic pauses to reel in their captive audiences. Only men have the art and flair to pull that off. (And to a round of silent applause, too.) The born raconteurs enunciate each word, dropping them each like a rosary bead in the pin-drop silence that grips their listeners. Sometimes the caesuras are taken with such relish that you have imagined three alternate endings to the narrative by the time it resumes. It’s a fun game. And it gives the voice of the man its entitled place.
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 1st, 2018
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