Hi everyone! I work in an industry where 90% of my colleagues are straight men nearing retirement age. I am almost always the only woman in the room.
For the first few years of my career I managed to brush off microaggressions (and worse) as harmless ignorance. As I’ve progressed, and become more confident in my professional skills, I’ve realized that at least half my colleagues will never listen to me, believe me, or take my advice. It makes it hard to bear the small things, like people joking about how I talk too much or using a diminutive of my name.
So basically, how do I deal? How do I deal with knowing that I’m not likely to progress in my career because I can’t make male colleagues listen to me, and how do I get through the day without getting angry/sad every time I encounter one of the microaggressions that remind me I’m not going to get anywhere?
For what it’s worth, this is an industry-wide issue; for some perspective, a company where I experienced some really sexist hiring practices just won a national diversity award. I do work to improve things for the other women in my current org, but of course my power is limited.
I’ve been thinking about your question a lot since you submitted it and, honestly, since long before. The limiting effects of sexism (and racism) on my career have plagued me for years, and, like you, I’ve been left asking myself what exactly I’m working for or towards. The sad reality is that sexism and racism and ableism and classism and transphobia and homophobia exist in some form or other in every industry and, I would argue, in every workplace.
So, what do you do about it? I wish I had a real answer for you, but every time I’ve sat down to try to write this response, I’ve been faced with a web of unsatisfying half answers. The best I can offer you is a window into my own trajectory to show how I’ve dealt with these types of issues at various points over my professional working life. As I’ve written so many times in response to advice questions, I don’t think there’s ever a “right” path in terms of how to grapple with these issues, though it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes, you just have to make the decision that can give you the most peace of mind in the moment, knowing that no decision is ever really permanent.
For years now, I’ve felt pretty hopeless about pursuing a “career” the way so many people talk about it, because the pattern of being overqualified for the positions I’m offered and then working above my title and pay has played out far too many times. And then, I would watch white people and men get a smooth path up the ranks, while one obstacle after another was thrown at me.
At various points, I’ve channeled my frustrations in different ways. In my previous organization, I tried to make changes in the limited ways I could, for instance, by joining the Diversity Council and pushing for more ethical recruitment practices so that I could feel like I was at least making a marginal difference in other people’s lives, if not my own. Eventually, as I saw my efforts repeatedly undermined, I decided it was time to leave that organization. (It’s incredible the twisted way in which people can, on the surface, appear to agree with you about changing their practices in the name of diversity, equity and inclusion and yet refuse to actually implement those practices in their own behavior because they think it doesn’t need to apply to them…)
It sounds like you’ve been trying to affect these types of changes yourself in your own industry and organization. It’s a long, slow and, at times, infuriating game that can feel really pointless depending on the leaders you’re dealing with. But what I’ve realized, in retrospect, is that even if the organization I was in didn’t really implement the changes I wanted to see, I myself learned important things through the process that I could then implement in subsequent positions where I did have a little more say and power. From seeing other people’s shortcomings and failures, I was able to really hone in on the insidious ways in which prejudice and bias reinforce themselves, even in places that are recognized for being “inclusive.” Because I had to come up with concrete proposals to try to pitch to leaders, I ended up researching and reading a lot more about the practices that really matter in terms of equity and inclusion. This is both useful to know in terms of how I approach my own work and interactions with others, and it’s also allowed me to read a lot more into job postings and how the way they’re written speaks volumes to what I can expect from an organization I’m interviewing with.
At the time, though, that experience led me to a certain nihilism and hopelessness about work, that feels relatable in your letter. I ended up making, essentially, a lateral move to another position that I was once again overqualified for, and I used the additional mental bandwidth (and time) that I now found myself with to reassess what I wanted out of my life more broadly. By that point, I had already completely changed careers (I had majored in music in college with the dreams of being a professional violinist), and so I already intellectually rejected the notion that work and career should define us. But I hadn’t been living it because my jobs up until then had completely consumed me. So I was able to use that lateral move to focus more on relationships and, eventually, pursue personal interests outside of work, like writing here. I still faced microaggresions (and worse) at work, but keeping in perspective that I had so much more in my life outside of my full time job helped me take those incidents in stride a little better.
What I’m suggesting can look like a lot of different things. It can mean really putting boundaries around work so that you can focus on other passions that give you more joy and satisfaction (and, hopefully, involve dealing with shitty people less or, at least, on your own terms). It can mean no longer pursuing career advancement in your field so that you don’t have to butt heads with all the bigotry quite as often. (You’ll still deal with it, of course, but at a bit more of a distance.) It can also mean changing fields entirely.
If you love your work for what it is, if you find it meaningful and fulfilling, then I know what I’m suggesting is actually incredibly heartbreaking. In many ways, I went through this with music. I loved playing violin, and music meant the world to me, and yet the racism of that industry really did push me out of it, ultimately (though I hadn’t been able to see it that way at the time). It really is an incredibly hard and painful thing to have to do, but sometimes we have to do what’s best for us. I don’t consider this quitting or giving up or letting the bigots win, even though they have, essentially. It’s about balancing your own needs in a world that is so flawed both fundamentally and structurally that the only changes we can hope to make happen on a truly microscopic level, in the scheme of things. That isn’t to say those changes aren’t worthwhile, but rather that sometimes those changes are so small our day-to-day life is still really quite unbearable.
All my strategies above are about resignation and acceptance, but ultimately, your question is about how to find hope in the midst of the inescapable bigotry that defines the working world. Not knowing your industry, where you work (geographically) or even what point you’re at in your career, my next suggestion might be completely irrelevant, but I feel compelled to make it, nonetheless. For me, at least, my hope of one day moving into a position of leadership with appropriate recognition of my skills and more say in how things are done has kept me going. (Admittedly, in fits and starts, but I think that’s fine. Nothing in life is really linear, anyways.)
This is, undeniably, a long, difficult and, at times, incredibly demotivating game, but a while ago, I realized that if I continued to be in mid-level roles, I would always be left feeling powerless and hopeless. It’s taken me far too long to get the leadership position that I have done under a lower title for years and that I’m qualified for, in large part because of some of those -isms I listed above. Would my story be different if I were a cis white man? Without a doubt. But ultimately, I have gotten an opportunity that I feel genuinely excited about.
Having more power can mean more than just moving up the ranks within your specific field, though. It can also mean doing similar work in a different field or at a smaller organization that might be more willing to hire people on, you know, actual qualifications and not how they present. Or it could mean moving into a space of self-employment where you can dictate and guide in what ways, to what extent and with whom you deal as part of your day-to-day work.
Concretely, the strategies of how to get there are probably things you’re already familiar with. Make sure your work is seen and recognized, even if it means that people will say shitty things like “you talk too much” or “you’re too aggressive.” Find allies in your field, which can include people you don’t fully see eye to eye with but at a minimum generally mean well. Rely on this network to help make meaningful connections to opportunities that eventually move you into positions where you’ll have more say in how things are done. And most importantly, make sure you have a set of personal champions who understand and acknowledge the reality of your experiences while encouraging you to keep trying, because none of this, by any means, is easy or comfortable.
Any way you choose to go, the hardest part (again, for me at least), is believing that change in the status quo that has defined so much of my professional life is even possible and, therefore, worth trying to work towards. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long, long time. It might seem a little hokey, but I’ve tried to find my inspiration by immersing myself in the work of other women who have transcended boundaries and who speak openly and honestly about the structural issues inherent to their experiences, women like Serena Williams and Rhiannon Giddens and Rachel Levine, to name just a few.
On a more personal level, it’s also meant learning strategies for how to play the game I am faced with, and for this I have to credit my closest friends and most especially the Black women in my life. Growing up, I witnessed firsthand as my parents dealt with endless racism in their own careers, but they themselves had no tools for confronting these issues while continuing to move forward. And, spending so much time in white spaces meant that I was either met with outright denial of any issues at all or a severely limited understanding of what I was up against because neither the gay men nor the white women wanted to really acknowledge the elephant in the room of my brown skin. Over the years I’ve found that the Black women in my life have been able to fully appreciate my experiences and struggles, even helping me see things I’ve missed at times, while continuing to encourage me to keep moving forward, because what is the alternative anyways?
Having close friends who I can discuss the details of specific issues I’m facing with has been so, so important to me over the years. Even people who are outside my field but know the realities of sexism and racism have offered me invaluable perspective, advice and encouragement. But, having at least a few people who understand those realities and know the ins and out of my field is also really critical. I know you said that 90% of the people in your industry are white men, but it might be worth seeking out the other 10%, if you haven’t already. See if there are affinity groups for women in your field that might help you connect with others who are in similar boats as you. It might take some time, but eventually you might find a trustworthy mentor or even some friends.
In the end, the things you’re struggling with are really an inescapable part of life and work. That might be a grim way to look at it, but that also means you aren’t alone, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in perspective is that the way you approach all of this can and will change as you progress through different parts of your life. Sometimes, you might find you need to move work and career advancement to the back burner and focus on things where you feel more fulfilled and validated. Other times, you might have the motivation and wherewithal to fight the fight for what you deserve. I hope that in sharing some of my experiences in my professional trajectory this far, you’re able to find a few strategies that might sustain you at one point another, as well.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.