During the summer, I was out running through the woods near my house and I noticed that one of the dog walkers on the path ahead of me had recently been a client of mine.
He noticed me, too, and waved me to a halt. “Thanks for sorting that issue for me,” he said, once I’d pressed pause on my headphones and stopped my GPS watched. “Really grateful. If it weren’t for COVID, I’d be over there giving you a big smoochy kiss right now to say thanks!”
A couple of days later I met with a widower in the wake of his wife’s sad death. “Well, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” he told me as I showed him to my office. “If I’d been a few years younger, you’d have wanted to watch out! I’d have been grabbing hold of you!”
Last week, I had a telephone appointment with another client, whom I had yet to meet face to face. I was slightly late making the call because my previous client had stayed in my office far longer than I’d anticipated.
When I explained this to him my telephone client said “Oh, you disappoint me. I thought you were about to tell me a hunky young man had dragged you to bed last night and you’d only just managed to haul yourself out from between his sheets!”
I live and work in a small town, and this is how the men of a certain age speak. These casual comments focused on my gender and appearance are what I have always heard. It’s been the same all the way through my career.
It’s like white noise in the background; it’s a constant hum that only becomes jarring and discordant when I set it against, well, logic, and the common-sense knowledge that it’s never been OK to be spoken to like this.
So how do I respond? How do you suppose I’ve been highlighting and calling attention to this casual sexism, stopping it in its tracks and doing my bit for the cause of feminism?
Hold tight, I’ll tell you.
To the man in the park: “Ha ha ha! Well, you’ve dodged a bullet there, I’m incredibly sweaty!”
To the widower: “Ha ha ha! Take a seat. How can I help you?”
To the telephone client: “Ha ha ha! Sorry to disappoint! Just the usual mad dash to the office and everyone running a bit late, I’m afraid!”
Tinkly laugh. Eye roll. Sunny smiles all round. And another inappropriate comment enabled, by me. Nice one.
I always do this. I smile along and then later I rant at anyone who’ll listen about how inappropriate my client was and how unreconstructed the late-middle-aged and elderly men are in my town.
It’s not that I don’t want to call them out. It’s not that I don’t think I could. I’ve got sufficient seniority at work to know that I don’t have to worry about causing offence or about the opinion of my colleagues, and generally I’m not afraid to speak my mind when I need to.
So what’s my problem?
I don’t think it’s as simple as wanting to be polite to my clients and not to ruffle feathers and become known as “difficult” in a town where a good portion of my business depends on goodwill. That desire forms part of it, of course, and it’s what I would always say if I were put on the spot about it.
But if I am honest I think that part of me feels it would be somehow vain, or self-obsessed, to call attention to the casual comments I hear so regularly. That I’d be making them more than they are; making my own role in the comments more than it actually is.
That in a way, the men who make these comments believe that I expect the innuendo, the “banter”; that they do it because I am younger than them and they want me to think that they find me attractive.
I think, in a strange way, they honestly believe they are paying me a compliment.
Deep down I think that if I said “Whoa! That’s extremely inappropriate. What gives you the right to speak to me like that?” there’s a chance that one of them would bite back at me, “Oh come on. It was just a joke. Stop being so sensitive. And as if I’d look twice at you, anyway.”
That right there is a big part of what I’m afraid of, if I peer into the dimmest recesses of my motivation and examine its folds. I’m afraid that one of these men will turn around and tell me I’m ugly and that I will be embarrassed and hurt as a result.
How ridiculously shallow of me. I know that not one iota of my worth is formed of their opinion. I also know that if they did insult me, it would be from their own hurt pride and not a genuine comment on my appearance. I know that my appearance is not who I am, either.
And more importantly, I know that it doesn’t actually matter if my feelings are briefly hurt by an embarrassing confrontation: surely I’ve got a duty to highlight everyday sexism in the same way that I wouldn’t stand for anyone, not even a client, making a comment that was casually racist?
How can I hope anyone’s attitudes will change if I always laugh along? If I continue to laugh, at best I am agreeing that my currency takes its form in my appearance rather than in my ability to do my job, and at worst I am perpetuating that same stereotype of all women everywhere.
That’s not the working environment I deserve and it’s not the one I hope younger women will have to work in.
So I’ve decided: for my daughters if not for myself, I’m going to be braver and next time it happens I am going to say something. I’m going to call it out.
Wish me luck.