You Need Help: How Do I Deal With the Inescapable Sexism in My Industry?

Q:

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.

A:

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.


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himani

Himani is a dabbler of a writer. Her work includes reviews of media centering Asian stories, news and politics, advice and the occasional personal essay. Find her on Instagram.

Himani has written 47 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. I’ve been a software engineer for 7 years, and I think this nicely covers the options. I’ve attempted most of these strategies, and yeah, at this point, I am leeeeeeeeaving. Every field has its issues but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t find one that’s better for you personally. I’ve lost my 20s to being miserable in this industry but I finally figured out a field that would be better for me and am working towards it. I have a lot of years left in my working life and I intend to spend them not being tormented by the overwhelming sexism and ridiculous labor practices of tech. Also I dunno about your field but though tech has its Lean In style women in tech communities, it also has lots of pockets of women sitting around strategizing on their coping and/or escape plans – finding people you can relate to is super important regardless of which direction you decide to go in.

    • Here are some more things I’ve found useful so far:

      A really good boss (more useful if you’re a low level employee). I’m afab nonbinary in a sexist and to lesser extent homophobic field, and my boss at my last job was a lesbian with like 20 years of experience in the field. She really made a difference for me, making sure I felt welcome and supported and heard and respected. From shielding me from homophobia, to being the first one to really tell me I had the experience to do something I didn’t think I was qualified for and had previously been pushed away from by unrelenting sexism, she was amazing. So if you can find a boss like you who really cares and is good at what they do, it can make all the difference.

      Less of a complete move, but rather a pivot. I got discouraged by the rampant sexism in wildland firefighting, and decided it wasn’t worth it to pursue that despite loving the work. But, I tried out a slightly different role and it was much better. For me, that was switching from working on an engine to working as an EMT, but I think this could be applicable to anyone. Like instead of being a doctor be a nurse or physicians assistant or chiropractor or phlebotomist or pharmacist or someone who creates tools for medicine or HR for a hospital- if the goal is to help people medically, there’s lots of roles even if the one you want or started with is too sexist.

      One I want to be true but idk if it is: getting an unarguable amount of experience or unarguable award
      But my experience doesn’t really back this up
      “I can prove objectively that I am more qualified than you” doesn’t always matter. But I think it does help sometimes

      • I had an experience similar to this. I found working in forestry/as an arborist pretty sexist and homophobic, not just from bosses but pretty ubiquitous throughout. I pivoted to a municipal conservation job. Great until a sexist boss came along. Got the same job for more money with a better boss in a different town and took a coworker with me. The right boss who respects you can be huge.

        • naturequeer-Erin & @hollycascade — thanks so much for sharing this! I don’t have experience working in either of your fields so I really appreciate your broadening the scope of this conversation and sharing your experiences. You both also brought up great points I didn’t think about explicitly before, that having a good boss makes SUCH a difference. It does feel a little like finding a needle in a haystack, but if a person manage to find a job with a good one it can offer some much needed reprieve from the bull shit.

          To the point about getting an unarguable amount of experience or award — I think you’re right about this but it really does become a long game at that point. Personally, I haven’t yet found that alone to be sufficient because people still probe about my title at previous positions or my degree or other nonsense instead of looking at my experience for what it is. But I also haven’t been working for *that* long in the scheme of things. Same thing with objectively proving that one is more qualified.

    • @ha12345 Oof software engineering is definitely one of the really tough fields to deal with this in. I think you’re 100% right about this: “Every field has its issues but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t find one that’s better for you personally.” At some point, it does come down to what we can personally deal with, given everything else in our lives.

      Also, thanks for sharing the point about the different types of affinity groups. You’re absolutely right that some of them are very Sheryl Sandberg Lean In style but there are definitely others that are just about people connecting and coping and dealing with the shit together.

      Good luck with your next endeavours!

  2. I keep coming back to this article, with nothing really valuable to add other than commiseration. Dealing with situations similar to the one you describe always makes me want to pull back from the world at large, and just exist in equality-driven spaces… which… isn’t realistic, I know. I’ve experienced sexism and power struggles even within LGBTQI+ communities.

    Real talk- for me, for now it just seems better to play the game during working hours, scream into my pillow at night, and save every possible cent I can, in the hope that I can afford to create a better space someday. In other words, you do what’s best for you right now, but having a long game is just another idea to try.

    • anna- so sorry to hear of your experiences and your struggle! “Dealing with situations similar to the one you describe always makes me want to pull back from the world at large” — I really can relate to this and felt this way for so long until my most recent transition. It’s frustrating because increasingly I’m finding based on things I read, my own experiences and experiences of close friends that “equality-driven spaces” are… often not what they claim to be, which has often led me to a greater sense of nihilism about it all.

      As you said, do what you can to remind yourself of who you are and what you love and draw boundaries around the shit you’re dealing at work from the rest of your life, to the extent you can. Wishing you all the best and sending lots of love your way!

  3. This feels similar to my experience in a tech type field. I got a promotion into a position that was held by a man before and after me, so I could compare directly how much quicker those men were given respect and access than I was. I’ve had multiple men tell me to my face they won’t take my advice because they think it’s wrong, only to have them return when they realized I knew the software better than them (a requirement of my position at the time).

    I ended up doing some of what is mentioned here. I switched my job to a new track in the same field – one far less interesting, but with decent pay and less overall responsibility. The sexism is still there, just less aggressive. But it has given me flexibility I wouldn’t otherwise have and is basically a shorter term fix that allows me time to focus on relationships/hobbies/non work and give me time to decide if I need to leave. I work less hours (from 60-80 a week to about 50 a week) as well.

    A big thing I’ve struggled with is being comfortable being “loud” or “demanding.” I built up that kind of persona at an old job because I really only got power or access to upper management by being a bitch. And it allowed me to stand as a buffer between the people I supervised and our demanding bosses – which gave me a small space to improve some stuff when I could. But it made building useful relationships with more senior people pretty much impossible and took a ton of energy. I had to really run on rage for years and that had a long term negative impact. I have not done this since, but that also made it easy for people to take advantage of me and pretend they had no way of knowing I was being overworked. I do think being “loud” was ultimately better for my career than being “calm” and accommodating even though it was worse for my mental health overall. I’m at a new job now so hoping to maybe figure out what kind of balance works for keeping boundaries but also building relationships.

    Another thing I’ve hit was a team that enforced a kind of toxic positivity, which really allowed the men to avoid accountability when they took on less but made it harder for the women to talk to each other truthfully about what was happening. I wish I knew to take the step of saying directly “hey, this seems wrong” back then because, even if we couldn’t change things, I think the women on my team would’ve left sooner and felt more validated.

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