Friday, May 14, 2010

Some workplace sexism

Alright ladies and gentlemen: I've got a new "everyday example of sexism" anecdote for you.

A friend and I were at work earlier this week when we were approached by one of our supervisors (for reference, this is a man who seems to shift between friendly and helpful to "ick kinda creepy" on a regular basis.  He's very approachable in terms of sharing our concerns, but there are times also when my friend an I give each other "that look" and make an excuse to leave--but that's perhaps a story for another day).  Anyway, he wanted to tell my friend something, but acted sort of nervous about it.  My past experience told me that he wanted to compliment her (which admittedly does warrant nervousness because she's one of those people that does not take compliments well because she thinks that those complimenting her are being insincere).  Finally, he gave up the attempt and told her he would tell me, and then I can tell her.

So after my friend walks away, this supervisor lowers his voice and asks, "Is she planning on leaving [boyfriend]?"

I was very confused by this question, so I replied "Not that I know of.  Why?"

"I just noticed that she's been doing her make-up and hair a lot this week, and I was wondering if she was thinking of leaving [boyfriend]."

I admit it took me a few seconds to recover from this mental leap of his.  All I could manage was "What?  You think she's advertising early or something?"

After I told my friend about our boss' absurd assumption, I had time to think about it more.  And the more I did the more I got irritated by his statement, because it was incredibly sexist.  Let's break it down with a bulleted list (my favorite!):

  • There is an assumption that when a woman is available, she will advertise it: hair and make-up will be done.  Basically she will (apparently) take pains to make herself look more attractive.  This point plays into a greater narrative about our culture, in which woman who dress a certain way, or have their make-up a certain way are perceived as available.  Let's stretch that just a tiny bit further...rape culture anyone?
  • If a woman is "unattractive" or if she doesn't take the time to look presentable, then she's already in a relationship.  Or she's single and doesn't care what she looks like.
  • Women only wear make-up to make themselves attractive for men.  Women don't wear make-up because they just feel like it, or because it's one of those things that they enjoy doing for themselves.  And they most certainly do NOT make themselves attractive for other women.  

Did I miss anything?

I think if I were to discuss this with the man who said it, it would be brushed off as an innocent remark.  But that's how all this works.  It's all so ingrained in our culture and our perception that it this sort of comment is unconsciously sexist.

As a side note, how is it any of our supervisor's business even if she were planning on breaking up with her long-term boyfriend?


Sunatic said...

You see, he had a theory "oh, she looks better made-up than usual, must be because ___" and since his opinion matters soooo much, he just had to tell it to someone. Also, he obviously considers it his business what goes on in the love lives of his employees. And lastly, maybe he's interested in her and wanted to verify if she's really going to be available soon.

Indeed, it's so ingrained in culture that even the "nicest" people can live their entire lives without once questioning just why exactly they act and say the -ist things they do.

Nanci said...

I hate when this sort of thing happens. I hate this sort of 'nice' guy sort of sexism that is allowed. Because he's noticing that she's looking nice ('oh thank you') and is being 'perceptive' ('wow!).

This happens all the time at work, and when I call out the sexism, I'm just being an overzealous feminist. I still remember this one time when a male co-worker requested that I smile for a piece of gum. To which I said "If I were a male and asked for gum, would you ask me to smile?"

FilthyGrandeur said...


yeah, this sort of behavior is not uncommon with him. it may be that he's interested in her, which is another "ick" moment since he's 1. our superior, and 2. significantly older.


you make a very good point. this is sort of where the "certain women don't take compliments well" comes in--because it's really more of a backhanded compliment steeped in sexist assumptions...

Paul said...

I'm glad you're documenting this! It seems like it's only a matter of time before this supervisor is in court or arbitration.

Reasonable Within Reason said...

Workplace sexism or the consequence of the fact that every "female-centric" film (dare I say "chick flick"?) where the heroine liberates herself from her oafish, neanderthal-like boyfriend includes the obligatory "new me" scene, which entails a new hair style, wardrobe and increased sense of "female power" garnered by the many stares and near car-accidents that occur during the climatic "reveal" scene when the newly empowered woman warrior is seen walking down a busy city street, almost exclusively in slow motion.

As they say, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

His interest in the personal affairs of his employees, whether male of female, was definitely out of bounds though.