Songs for the Struggling Artist

Sexism Can Still Surprise Me
April 21, 2017, 11:43 pm
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: , , , , ,

I can’t stop thinking about that story about the employees who switched email signatures and how it revealed incredible sexism. (If you haven’t read it, start here to read the woman’s account and click through to the man’s Twitter thread.) I’ve seen a lot of responses to this story that can most easily be summed up as  “No, duh.”  A lot of people (of all genders) have said, “Not surprising.” But I will confess to being surprised. Not that there’s sexism, I suppose, but that it could be so plainly revealed. And in email, too!

But, it also feels more like the fish in water not knowing its wet situation. Like, sexism is the water I swim and I feel like I understand a lot of it. I understand when I’m being denied opportunity or being dismissed or ignored or talked over or patronized or harassed or any number of things. But the specifics of this sexism floored me. You mean, men get shit done in half the time simply because they’re not being questioned and challenged at every turn?

There were aspects that were not surprising (the getting asked out, the harassment) but the TIME! The TIME! Double the time! This shocked me. And it makes me wonder what other behaviors are hiding in my experience in plain sight.

I’ve been noticing sexism ever since I was a baby feminist and I suppose I thought at some point I would know about all the sexisms. I suppose I thought I’d know the whole ocean of sexist behaviors or conditions. But I see now that’s impossible. Each new sexist surprise teaches me something new. For example – at my local bodega, a man got a little too close to me while examining the chocolate in front of the registers. He apologized and backed away. Then he returned and reached for the chocolate bars in front of me, inches from my crotch, as if it were no big deal. I was so shocked, I couldn’t react. And once I was home, thought of all the things I should have done. (Possibilities: scream. Grab his hand and move it away. Pin his hand in place with my knee. Elbow to the head. A loud, “What do you think you’re doing?” or “How about you get the fuck out of my personal space?”)  I’m prepared for the next time some dude unconsciously invades my space. But with so many surprises to anticipate, I can never be prepared for every instance of sexism.

Now, again, as in the email sexism, for a lot of people, this is a “No, duh” situation. For women who’ve had their personal space violated on multiple occasions, this dude’s hand would not be surprising – but I was surprised. This was a part of the sexist ocean I was unfamiliar with. I’ve had creeps invade my personal space before – but those previous invasions were always obvious. It’s the old man groping on the overly crowded bus scenario. But there, too, the first time that happened, I was so shocked, I did not know what to do.

Every first encounter with a new flavor of sexism is going to be surprising and those will be not surprising to the people who have endured them again and again. If you’ve been groped on a bus a dozen times, you might deliver a “No duh” to someone who reports their first grope or their friend’s first grope.

If you’ve seen explicit email sexism in action – if you, say, work in customer service and watch it unfold every day, this email story may well be a “No, duh” situation – but for the rest of us…it still has the power to surprise. And reveal something in action that I wouldn’t have even included in a list of possible sexist behaviors.

Every little bit of the sexism ocean that we light up and reveal helps the other fish swimming through it and gives us tools to fight it, too. Things I’ve learned to try from these two surprising sexisms. 1) If I’m experiencing a time wasting push back via email, I can write back from my (imaginary) associate, Jack, and see if he can’t get it done faster. 2) If anyone reaches into my personal space, I will pick up the hand the way I’d pick up a disgusting piece of garbage and say, “To whom does this inappropriate hand belong?”

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It’s my Harassment-versary!
September 23, 2013, 12:33 am
Filed under: art, business, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

One year ago, I posted this blog about my experience of sexism in American Theatre. The response it got was overwhelming and generated a whole host of other thoughts about my experience. (Here, here and here, for a start.) A year later, the initial post still gets a view or two a day but mostly the dust it stirred up has settled.
So I thought I might kick it up again because the past year has given me a great deal to think about. Because there’s so much, I’ll be celebrating my harassment-versary in installments.

Part One: The Job

Many people wanted to know what happened with the Job. The immediate effects are recounted here but what came after is trickier to sum up.

Short version: I haven’t worked there since.

Long version: After the initial phone calls from the managing director in which he expressed hopes that I would continue working there and in which he let me know what actions were being taken, after all the teaching artists suddenly received employee handbooks (including a sexual harassment policy) and after plans for a sit-down with the big bosses of the organization and the man I’d called out were made (for a future date, sometime before my next meeting there): nothing much happened. Due diligence by the organization, lawsuits averted, asses covered and then it was a matter of waiting.

Months went by before I was scheduled to come in for the next round of work and I realized that if I was going to have this promised meeting, I’d have to arrange it myself. And I found I did not want to work there enough to do that. So I skipped that first work commitment (this is the advantage of working At Will) and I had enough work elsewhere to turn down the next round of work, too. Given the choice between working at a place where I’d experienced sexual harassment and working at a place I hadn’t (yet. . it ‘s never too late!) I went with the place I felt welcome. And while all of this lacks the dramatic punch that many readers longed for (“Did you get a heartfelt apology?” “Did you sue?” “Did you quit in a blaze of glory?” “Did he get fired?”) I think it’s likely that this is how a lot sexual harassment stories go.

I’ve done a lot of reading and listening and thinking about women in the workplace in the last year. One thing I discovered was that women are a lot less likely to report sexual harassment than they think they are. That is, every 8 out of 10 women who read my blog and thought “I’d totally report that guy!” probably wouldn’t have in reality – for a lot of good reasons. (But my hat’s off to those who have!)

Why is this sort of culture so pernicious? There are dozens of reasons but one likely contribution is a psychological concept called Learned Helplessness. That is, people who encounter a failure enough times will simply become unable to do anything. (Watch the video at the end of this great article about the idea.)

This makes me think about the myriad ways women encounter sexual harassment throughout our lives and how we learned that it’s just a part of the culture so there’s not much we can do about it. Girls are fetishized as sexual objects before we are even aware of what sex is and the culture constantly reminds us that we are only as valuable as we are sexually desirable. After a lifetime of being unable to stop the wolf-whistles, cat-calls, unwanted touches, aggressive innuendo and inappropriate jokes, many of us have learned to feel helpless when someone crosses a line. Because someone crosses a line almost every day of our lives and if we spent all our time fighting it, when would have time to do our hair? (Ha. Kidding. I mean, when would we have time to become brain surgeons!?)

But the Learned Helplessness effect isn’t just a factor in the initial response to harassment. In other words, it’s not just in whether or not you say something in the moment, it’s also in what you choose to do later. And it doesn’t have to happen to us personally for us to learn the consequences of speaking up. Women in my generation saw what happened to Anita Hill as we were growing up. And every day now you can see what happens to women who speak up about injustice. When Lindy West talked about rape jokes, she received a barrage of threats of both rape and death. Anita Sarkeesian became the target of an organized on-line hate campaign just because she decided to make videos about women in videogames. Silence becomes a much safer response to all of this in a culture of trolls.
Should I have stayed and fought? Maybe. If it were a job I really wanted, I would have. In my case, the frustration and disrespect that plague my profession as a whole are such that I’m doing everything I can to get out of it and get my own businesses off the ground (this and this.) I don’t have time to teach one guy and one organization how to handle me and my case better. I have better things to do. (Like my hair! Ha. No actually, seriously, we have a photo shoot for my show and the hair takes a wicked long time.)
My suspicion is that many many businesses lose their women this way. A work environment becomes hostile or just uncomfortable and rather than making a point of why they’re leaving, women will just go. More and more women are starting their own businesses, becoming entrepreneurs. That’s exciting on one hand and a wake-up call on the other. If I were a big business, I’d be concerned about a culture that encourages women to leave it.
Did I do the right thing? For me, I did, yes. Did they do the right thing? For the most part, yes. Could they have reached out to me again? Yes. Would I still be working there if they had? Maybe. Do I want to be? Not really, no. So it’s all fine. I mean, aside from the fact that the dude has what is probably a six figure job and I’ll be lucky if I clear $20,000 this year. But I’ll save the post on the economics of sexism for another day.

Next up: Part 2 of my Harassment-versary Special:
Progress report on Women in American Theatre

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