Jul 6, 2017

A Tale of Sensitivity, Benevolence, and Dick Pics

"He literally could not remember a single project that any of the women were working on."  "He kept putting his hand on the back of my neck and after I moved it the 2nd time, he said, 'What, were you abused as a child or something?' "  "He pointed out that I hadn't left room in my coffee cup for cream."

I mentioned my feminist book club before.  I like it because it gives me a reason to read, even if that involves taking a break from client projects to do so (which I only really do for my own pleasure when I'm so burned out I can't function anymore) and also because it educates me.  These books are ones that would have made it onto my Goodreads TBR, but not necessarily into my Kindle simply because, left to my own devices, I'll read fluff.

To get back on track, our last meeting was a good one.  After about an hour, we left the book behind and started sharing personal experiences and stories.  It was particularly interesting for me because, while I knew I was sheltered, I think it's very easy to forget to what extent.

I've never received a random dick pic.  When I was pregnant, no random strangers touched my belly.  I've never felt like I was on the receiving end of sexist treatment at work.  With a few exceptions from childhood ("Girls don't play drums"), I wasn't really told what I could or could not do based on my gender.

And we all know how easy it is to fall into the trap of thinking, "Well, if I've never seen it, it can't be that bad."

As I sat and listened to story after story of workplace chauvinism, sexism both benevolent and hostile, and, yes, dick pics, it really hit me.  These women were here, right in front of me.  They work and live in my state.  And all this shit is happening right here.

There were stories of work discounted or discredited, accomplishments minimized or attributed to male coworkers.  One woman's job in a particularly male-dominated field had been filled with random snide remarks like the coffee example above or basing her performance review on the fact that she had appeared "tired" rather than how effective her work had been.

She told us how, after interviewing with the one office with a majority of female employees in that field, a huge proportion of male interviewees would drop out.  She told us of coworkers who thought she was being "too sensitive" because she preferred to have them stand to the side rather than right behind her when she was showing them something on her computer.

In fact, "too sensitive" was the phrase I probably heard repeated the most in these stories.  It was a way for men to brush off the concerns of their female employees and coworkers.  Obviously if they'd just toughen up, everything would be fine.  The problem wasn't the unfair treatment, but their vocalization of it.

The story that sticks out the most in my memory was a "too sensitive" story.  This woman had been placed in charge of investigating why people were so insistent on stealing things from archaeological sites, even risking significant fines to do so.

After going out in the field and talking to a few people about it, her number was circulated and men started sending her pictures of their contraband artifacts.  With their dicks next to it.

As if that wasn't disgusting enough, when she told her supervisor what was going on and that it was making her uncomfortable, he accused her of being "too sensitive."  Then, after she forwarded him some of the pictures she was receiving, he told her she was unprofessional and should handle it without forcing him to have to look at something so unpleasant.

"Too sensitive."  Apparently that's a phrase that applies only to women.

I don't even know which of these stories makes me the angriest.  Having a supervisor openly ignore the fact that you're being sexually harassed.  Coworkers who refuse to not loom over you at your desk even though standing 1 foot away takes literally zero effort.  The fact that benevolent sexism is a thing and that many women are on board with it.

This phrase was new to me, so I'll explain.  Hostile sexism is what it sounds like - men who hate women, think they're lesser creatures, and that they should obey and stay in their place.  Benevolent sexism has another name which we're all familiar with: chivalry.  To be sexist in a benevolent way is to believe that women are gentle, fragile creatures who need special treatment.  Being the recipient of benevolent sexism could even be pleasant if you enjoy being waited on or receiving special perks that the opposite gender doesn't receive.

We talked about the harmful effects of both benevolent and hostile sexism and how they can act in concert.  Women who obey and follow the rules are treated "chivalrously" and given special perks.  Women who want to be equals or step out of line are treated aggressively.

This is a scary system, because it gives women motivation to try to oppress other women.  Women seeking equal treatment will remove the benefits they are receiving from benevolent sexism.  It also explains why any woman would be anti-feminist, or would vote for an openly sexist president.  After all, Trump "loves women."  He just disapproves of women who try to step out of their place and don't they deserve it anyway?

She shouldn't have dressed that way/gotten drunk/walked around in that part of town on her own/been so loud/complained so much/been so sensitive.

After all, it's women who are the problem.  If they'd just stop complaining they'd see that things are much better and there's nothing left that needs a movement.  If they weren't so sensitive, maybe they'd get promoted like the guys and get taken seriously in meetings.

I'm sure I sound a little bitter, because hearing these stories does make me feel that way.  Equal parts bitter, sad, and dispirited.

I don't have a moral to today's post.  Except maybe to listen to other people's stories.  Your personal one-person point of view is only one, teeny, tiny segment of society and we should all know what kind of world we're living in.

Had you heard the phrase "benevolent sexism" before?  Can you think of a time you've been on the receiving end of it?  Have you've ever been told you're "too sensitive" in response to legitimate work concerns?

Jenn signature graphic | Business, Life & Design


  1. I'm like you, sheltered. I went to an all girls school for most of my life. No one would dare say girls couldn't do anything and everything. The only sexism I've experienced is being told straight up (by my fave law school teacher, a woman) not to wear pant suits to court. And she's right, the old male judges hate women in pants. Ridiculous but true. But that's child's play compared to real issues.

  2. Im with stephanie, apart from college I went to all girls schools and now as a lawyer, I dare any man in my office to say something condescending (hint:they wont) but I do know that these things exist. Also the Caribbean has a lot of older school UK law rules too... and so like steph also said, while not prohibited, it is generally considered wiser (depending on the age of the judge) for women to wear skirts to court. Its complete rubbish but well ... yeah.

  3. I feel pretty similarly- granted I got married really young, but I've not really been harassed or anything like that. Maybe some comments in high school but definitely nothing since then. And my two "adult" jobs have both included predominately female co-workers, including my supervisors. I am torn on the benevolent sexism thing...I think it CAN legitimately be a respect thing, which I equate to saying "Sir" or "Ma'am," a lot of people don't like it but I do it as a sign of respect and if asked to stop, I stop. But I start off trying to be as respectful as possible. A lot of people have been taught that it is OK, so I try not to judge immediately that they are being rude. But if they can't accept that someone else feels differently, then that is when it becomes a problem. For instance, my husband will open doors for me and that's nice. But I am just never going to wait on him to open my car door. He used to offer, because he was told it's what he was SUPPOSED to do as a "nice guy." The women-on-women comment I totally agree with, I feel like I was always told as a kid that girls CAN'T be good friends or co-workers. Looking back, I think that's way more about societal pressure than inherent tendencies.

  4. This makes me angry and bitter and pissed and sad, too. I've never heard the term benevolent sexism, but I understand your description perfectly. What a world... I feel so much rage for your bookclub friends. It's absolutely ridiculous. I'm fortunate in that I don't have to deal with sexism too often, although my field is very male oriented and I feel the effects of that when we do trade shows and stuff.
    I recently asked a question on FB about which spouse/significant other drives on long road trips. I got a plethora of responses, but one guy wrote, "I'd never let a lady drive me anywhere." GAG! (While he was trying to come off chivalrous, it's important to note that he'd been accused of assaulting a drunk girl while they were in hs. Just FYI.)


Talk to me! I'm friendly. I won't bite.

P.S. If you use Blogger and you want to get email replies to your comments, use your blogger profile instead of Google+ and make sure the box is checked next to "show my email address."