My internship in the financial sector was a complete frat house. On the surface, everything was very professional – fancy ties, shined shoes (a man paid by the company actually came around multiple times a week to shine everyone’s shoes. We’ll leave that story for another day). However, under the façade of uptight corporate suits, these middle-aged professionals often acted like they were in college again. Everyone had nicknames, and if they didn’t have one, they were called by their last name. On Mondays, stories would be exchanged about planking taxicabs over the weekend. And important to this story, almost all of these ‘suits’ were men. In the part of the company I was working in, I was 1 of 2 women. We didn’t have nicknames.
The other interns scattered throughout the company were also predominantly male. The architecture of the office was pretty open, so I couldn’t help but overhear what the male intern in the group next to mine was enduring. 50 McNugget challenge. Hot wings contest. Being sent on foot for miles and miles to pick up the best ribs in the city. The stories are endless. The managers who had male interns would organize these events to have their interns compete. I, along with the other female interns, was never invited. At first I was relieved that I got to peacefully sit at my desk and focus on my Excel spreadsheet instead of being treated like a fraternity pledge member. But gradually, and ironically, I became a bit annoyed at just how well I was being treated. My boss would make remarks to me with the general sentiment of you’re lucky I’m so nice to you, and the underlying implication of these sentiments was you’re lucky that you’re a girl, and that’s why I’m so nice to you.
When a new male hire just out of college was brought into my group, it affirmed the fact that I was being treated as I was because I’m female. Immediately, he was given the nickname of Doogie Howser. He was taunted endlessly and charged with doing ridiculous tasks. He wasn’t even an intern, yet he was being treated like he had to earn his keep, and I was being treated like even the slightest joke or insult would send me crying to HR. Profanities were often exchanged, and my colleagues would stop mid-sentence after noticing that I was in their presence and tell me to put on my “earmuffs.” As if I had never heard any of these words before. As if I was a child.
I am not fragile, yet I was perceived and assumed to be. There is no doubt that women have gained a lot of ground in the workplace, but I think we are still a long way away from being on an equal playing field as men. It is almost like there is a segregation of experience for men and women in the corporate world. Strangely, I felt disrespected by being overly respected. My boss was constantly reaffirming that I was doing a good job and saying thank you to me for work that had Doogie Howser done it, my boss would have no question found something wrong about it just for the sake of calling him out.
It may sound absurd, but I just wanted to be treated how all the other interns were treated. I say – pass me the chicken nuggets. Maybe I couldn’t have eaten all 50 of them, but I would have been given an equal opportunity to at least try. By treating me better, I was viewed differently than the male interns. As if just because I have estrogen, I am weaker and less suited for the fraternity atmosphere they created.
What’s also important to note about all of this is that most of their actions were subconscious. I don’t think that my co-workers actively thought – oh, she’s a girl, she couldn’t possibly do a chicken nugget challenge. I think this is evidence of the fact that generalized views about the distinctions between men and women are so deeply engrained, that individuals don’t even contemplate questioning them. It was inherent that my boss treated me with so much respect – and this is where the problem lies.
One final story to wrap it up. My mother’s company recently hired a new CEO; their first female CEO in history. All of the top level executives met to discuss how they were going to welcome her on her first day. They decided on flowers, and they argued for way too long about just what type of flowers and where the flowers should be placed in her new office. It was only my mother, the only woman in the meeting, who brought up the point that had a male CEO been hired, their banter about flowers would never have occurred in the first place.