How my 10 year old taught me about workplace sexism and misogyny.
(This article was first published in parts on LinkedIn March 9, 2018)
Just over five months ago, my 10 year old son arrived home on the brink of tears, at first not wanting to discuss why he was crying. As a parent, your first instincts are — what happened and did someone do or say something to you? As I pressed him, I realized it was best to wait as I had ruled out that there was nothing inappropriate but whatever it was, I needed to get to the bottom of it. Hours later, when he had had a bath and seemed to have forgotten why he was crying, he relayed to me how he was the only one of his friends who had ended up in Group work with just girls. I could not believe my ears. Not to make a scene and demonstrate any level of annoyance and angst about hearing this, I asked jokingly:
“So who ended up doing all the work?”
To which he grinned mischievously and replied, “the girls.”
Then I asked — “Did you get group marks yet?”
To which he said, “We ended up coming first, but the boys made fun of me because I was with all the girls.”
To which I responded, “they were probably jealous.”
Later in the conversation, I was able to convince my son that a diverse group produces best results, and frankly, girls were good at “getting things done,” and he should feel lucky that he was part of the girl group, placing the top of the class in Group work. Moreover, while this conversation tapered off to make allowances for a 10-year-old level of understanding, my gut was moved as I thought: Oh my God, this starts so young and even as adults in the workspace the ills of youthful misguidance still has a ripple effect in my corporate life.
I went to bed that night feeling sad and knowing full well that for the most part, I was surrounded by elongated versions of my 10-year-old son, taking actions that reflected the same sentiment of the ten-year-old mind. Moreover, while my incidents take place in the corporate tech space, and not a grade five classroom, women in my professional orbit have a myriad of such stories, but in each case, the perpetrators were fully grown men
Before I had children, I have always had this sense that things were not right and would never be right for women in tech in my lifetime. And so, with this to anchor and inform my own life decisions, 2017 marks the last year of self-subjugation to systemic misogyny and sexism that has marked the careers of every woman I know to this point in our civilization.
For the moment I hesitate to anchor this post onto the #metoo or #timesup movement, which is tied to the more visible change happening in Entertainment. However, our stories, as women in tech — with less financial clout, are just as traumatic. Moreover, hashtags such as the current fads lack the deeper understanding of what pre-Millennial generations have had to endure as working women, vying for equality in a male-dominated world. Further, the fuller spectrum of stories are yet to be told, in less abstraction and this is compounded in my predicament as a woman of color — albeit a Canadian woman of color — but still a woman of color. And while I sit on the cusp of the generational cusp of Millennial and Gen x, I am torn by the unraveling of this movement and what backlash lies ahead.
The experience has made me wonder what this backlash will mean for my growing sons but most importantly how I can reshape their thinking to embrace girls, not as “other” but as peers of equal, vying for all the same things in life. I do not have any ready answers for the moment, but one thing is sure after over 23 years of the emotional stabs of misogyny and sexism, I am shell-shocked and cannot in truth to my spirit further subject myself to one more incident, however small. And before I go on to write about why I, as well as many of my female peers, won’t be returning to the tech space, I strayed to infuse the stories of some of my female friends.
On my Instagram feed @kemlaurin, I sometimes announce what topics I plan to write about as I am now partially focused on empowering woman and advancing the cause of women, using the Instagram tag #mypostcorporatelife. I was not prepared for the many direct messages in my inbox, resulting in juggling many threads with friends and strangers alike. I am confident sharing their sentiment of this watershed moment is necessary, without divulging names and companies for which they work. The names have been changed to protect these women on my feed, but you know who you are. And if I did not cite your thread, rest assured I hear you sister:
Kristen, a university educated grad in her 40s writes “…I am seriously at the point of wanting to become a virtual assistant so I can leave the setting
Monica, who owns her agency, also in her 40, after suffering for years, but still coping with the same issues says: “I am done! Just done” mentioning that she is happy at this point to forgo the idea of home ownership, in exchange for a life post-corporate, doing crafts.
Jax writes: “I refuse to kiss arse and chinwag with these men. I prefer to be 1 in a million doing me than dying slowly inside.
Veronica writes: I am very interested in reading your posts not wanting to work in the corporate world anymore. I feel that way too! You have a higher education than I do, I am surprised to hear of your disenchantment. I got so tired of being disrespected and abused at work that I quit. I want to be my boss. Still trying to figure that one out.
These are but a few of the direct messages that resonate with the current zeitgeist. For me, it covered the myriad of reasons why I too, have decided — no more.
No more being talked over,
no more listening to elongated alpha boys and double entendre imbued with sexual messages;
no more being passed over for that promotion;
no more mansplaining to me what I just told you yesterday!
no more expectation that we will take notes as you interrupt to ask us to get you coffee;
no more glancing down our tops, that we buttoned as high as it could go;
no more touching me;
and please no more hugs.
And HR — Shame on you! Shame! Shame! Shame!
And while I am happy to take on selective projects, I stipulate I need to work from my home. In many ways, I feel like I am living through a weird form of disability with no immediate cures and while it scares me to death, as I have kids to feed, there is a great sense of freedom I feel in living in my truth. Announcing I was going on six-month sabbatical was the first step in this journey, after securing funds to take me through. Somehow this announcement made me more in demand. Since this announcement, I have turned down seven lucrative positions, again in leadership. This watershed moment reminded me in part of the great Canadian brain drain of the early 2000s when I followed many in my generation to seek greener pastured in the US. The same is happening at alarming rates. Women talk to women and men who will listen. We are the workforce leaving in droves to retreat to the professional safety of new progressive engagements.
As we wait for the head-spinning moment of #metoo and #timesup to translate into the legislature and societal change that informs a direction change, one thing remains, something is going on, and the drumbeat is getting louder. I channel, honor, and appropriate some of Jessie Williams 2017 BET speech when I say to women:
For the women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone and being stepped on by our male peers, for whom we are good enough to be their mothers, sisters, and friends, you need to collectively do better by us as we are beginning to do better by ourselves. And the data tells us how we work just as hard and if not harder yet make 30 percent less. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights, stump on misogyny and demand justice. Today we need to mobilize, and we will restructure the function of corporations that condone misogyny and sexism, and the perpetrators that continue to devalue us. We will redefine your function in our future. In my next post, I will go through the top reasons women have cited as not going back to tech and how we can begin to create our structures and systems that exalt us.