I recently had cause to ask Google: “How to stop from crying in meetings.” Never mind how this usually well-adjusted, NTEN Award-winning professional with scads of experience and a healthy ego found herself bawling and typing this search phrase on a trans-bay bus; because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that most of us have been in this situation – especially those of us who have vaginas.
Dr Google’s advice for me was a collection of distraction techniques – focus on your breathing, look out the window, dig your nails into your palm – but then it hit on something really profound: Are you tempted to cry because you are actually angry?
You see, women are socialized out of anger at a very young age. Harsh words are unladylike, criticism is oft considered bitchiness and anger is dismissed as hysterics. Women already knew this anecdotally but a mock jury-deliberation study last year confirmed the extent of our double standards. When a man gets angry, both men and women are more likely to agree with what he has to say. When a woman does it, the opposite happens.
So what do we do with our anger? We channel it into tears or tantrums, fear … or wine. We fester and seethe. Maybe we start to undermine and manipulate – these are, after all, behaviors expected of women.
I spent the first decade of my career in newsrooms, which are places not known for gender equality. And it was tough, especially as I gained more authority over the old, white men who thought they had the place sewn up. But I rose through the editor and management ranks because there were well-established expectations of behavior and performance, and anger played a key role. When a reporter made the same damn mistake after you’d spoken to them about it, you would circle the error in red pen and leave it on their keyboard. When a copy editor took too long on deadline, you’d yell across the room for them to “drop it” so you could assign it to a sub-editor who was faster. And I won’t repeat here the streams of invective that were commonplace on an average day at an average crime desk. While this environment was surely harmful to some, it did recognize the role of anger and directness, even from a woman.
Things are different for me now. Like everything in America, sexism is shrouded in politeness. Directness is seen as tactlessness and criticism is something only your boss is allowed to give. Sexism is less obvious and therefore harder to fight.
What sexism? Well, there’s the 21c pay gap, for starters. That may sound like nothing but it’s a huge chunk of change when extrapolated over an average career. While a recent definitive study by Cornell University says part of the gap – about 8c of it – is due to factors like less access to education, lack of bargaining power and choices like taking time out to raise a family, but that’s still a 13c discrepancy due to sexism. And there are flow-on effects when you earn less than your partner – for example, it makes more sense for your career to take a back seat if there is conflict of direction; and if you decide to have a family, the parent who earns less will usually take the bulk of child-rearing – meaning careers continue to degrade.
And weenie-based favoritism is real. A 2012 randomized study sent job applications for a lab manager position – all identical except that half had a female name and half had a male name. Not only were the male applicants considered more competent but they were offered more mentoring opportunities. In the rarer places where women were recommended for hire, they were offered lower pay. How much lower? Check this out.
What happens when a woman starts her career earning nearly $5k less than an identically qualified man? She spends the rest of it playing catch up. So campaigners have realized that the time to smash gender inequality is when young workers are just starting out. Gap Inc is currently running a campaign #CloseThePayGap, which seeks to activate young people, particularly women, through an interactive social campaign that asks them to demonstrate the pay gap by wearing 21% less of their clothes and post pictures on social media. For example: you might have a missing sleeve or only one boot. It is a smart campaign, and not the least because it means people are cutting up Gap clothes for their photo shoot and then going out to buy more of them.
What about nonprofits? Surely they know better, right? At the risk of sounding like a Men’s Rights Activist: “Well, actually…” Kristen Joiner in the Stanford Social Innovation Review explains that sexism drives the very dynamics of nonprofits and their place in our business world.
While 86 per cent of Fortune 500 company executives are men, seven out of ten nonprofit workers are women, Joiner says. The corporate sector – built on a male model – is allowed to direct the funding and operating structures of the (female-model) nonprofits they support. Meanwhile, the glory for “doing good” through money goes to the men, while the tough job of helping people – much like the task of vacuuming – falls to women to do.
Traditional gender norms subscribe to the idea that men should be providers, in control, tough, and independent. On the flip side, women are dependent, submissive, nurturing, and soft. Like the provider of old, heading off to the office for a day of work, the private sector is focused on money and profit. The nonprofit sector, as the nurturing caretaker, is charged with caring for the young, the sick, the elderly, and the poor.
It’s upsetting, sure. But it should also make you angry. Maybe that’s the anger I need to stop myself crying in my meeting. Maybe it is what we all need to smash this gross injustice.