How to to talk to your co-workers about their unintentional sexism after the election
This article was written on November 9th, 2017 — the day I heard the election results.
There’s a man at my company who plays loud, obnoxious music. It’s an open work space, loft-style, no offices — so everyone can hear everything anyone says or does. This man takes an odd, juvenile pleasure from playing music he knows everyone will hate. There will often be profanity of some kind or another, at which point my brother-in-law — who is my boss and the creative director at the agency where I work — will pipe up and tell him to switch the song. Most of the time, this man ignores him, or over-exaggeratedly pretends that he can’t hear. He finds this amusing.
But today, he chose to play a song, volume cranked, that repeated a certain phrase, on loop, for close to a minute. I don’t remember the name of the song or the melody or any of the other lyrics.
As soon as he heard these words, my brother-in-law told him, “Next. Next song.” As justification to continue playing the track, this man simply said, “It’s almost over.”
Unfortunately, we don’t have an HR department. Actually, this man is supposed to be our HR department. There’s no one of higher rank to actually tell him to stop. My brother-in-law tried, but he didn’t try very hard because, well, boys will be boys, or in this instance, [Insert Man’s Name] will be [Insert Man’s Name].
I don’t think he played it because Hillary lost. I think he just likes the song. But it stung like it was a direct and intentional slap in the face. Stupid bitch. Stupid bitch for trying. Stupid bitch for running against a man. Stupid bitches everywhere doing stupid things.
This is not the first time that I haven’t spoken up for fear of causing trouble, for fear of taking something too personally, of being overly sensitive, or of being plain afraid of losing my job. I was going to let it go. I was going to drink wine and watch Vampire Diaries. But then I told my mom this story, and she got angry.
She told me I could sue them over something like that. And her anger re-ignited my own. She was right. This wasn’t something — small though it may seem — that should be allowed to slide by. It wasn’t something that I should be expected to smile at, or roll my eyes at, or shrug at.
But I’m not litigious. I don’t think lawsuits solve much, most of the time. And in the grand scheme of genocides and child soldiers and rape and war and holocausts, it is isn’t that big of a deal. But it was enough.
And even though I’m half his size and half his age, when we meet, I’m going to calmly, politely, and professionally communicate that his song choice made me uncomfortable. I will ask him to refrain from playing songs that include derogatory language going forward. I’m not going to get my boss involved. I’m not going to get the owners of the company involved. I’m not going to make a fuss.
And by the way, I actually like him. He’s a fun coworker. Intelligent. Good at his job. He has kids, too; daughters. At least one daughter, I think. I don’t dislike him. So it confuses me that he would fail to see the obvious.
But it goes beyond that. It goes beyond him.
It’s what it represents.
It’s my father believing that wives should be subservient to their husbands. It’s my ex thinking that men should be the head of the household. It’s being cat-called and followed on the street, receiving drunk texts from my internship boss, fending off hugs and kisses.
It’s being 5’4″ and a hundred pounds, and knowing that if push comes to shove, I won’t be able to defend myself.
It’s my dad grabbing me by the jaw and throwing me against the wall and telling me we don’t slam doors in this house.
It’s watching as my brother-in-law tickles his daughter, my niece, and doesn’t stop when she begs him to stop, when her giggles turn to tears of anger and frustration because she can’t make him believe that she’s no longer having fun. It’s knowing that it’s only going to stop when the dad or the brother — or whatever male it is — decides it’s going to stop, even if it’s only something as “harmless” as tickling or roughhousing.
It’s watching my sister get angry at her husband for not understanding why that’s a big deal.
The only way to keep someone from hurting me, from pushing me past my boundaries, is to convince them. To be smarter than them. To be cleverer.
(That, and pepper spray.)
I don’t want my niece to grow up thinking that her no doesn’t mean no. That stop doesn’t mean stop.
I’m done allowing men to get away with sexual harassment and intimidation. I’m done being worried that I’ll lose my job if I say something because I don’t work at companies large enough to have actual HR departments. I’m done making excuses for why it’s “not that big of a deal.”
And I’m not going to let that become the norm for my niece. I’m not going to let my nephews grow up to be the kind of men who think that their yes means more than any girl’s no.
So when I’m crying at my stove trying to cook scrambled eggs, it’s not because Hillary Clinton, specifically, lost. Or even that Donald Trump, specifically, won. It’s that this is the state of things. It’s that this is the norm.
And now I have to go explain to my much taller, much older male co-worker that blasting songs in the office that repeat “stupid bitch” over and over isn’t appropriate. I have to explain that to him.
NOTE: the day after writing this article, this e-mail exchange occurred:
I was shaking, my voice was trembling. I explained my position, how the song had made me uncomfortable. I could see this moment of, “Oh shit, she’s actually upset” cross over his face.
He immediately and repeatedly apologized, and I believe he was sincere. He told me he enjoyed working with me and never intended to upset me or make me feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.
To let him know if he slipped up and played any music that was disrespectful. Though the conversation was initially terrifying, I believe it accomplished what it was intended to accomplish: behavior was changed, and mutual respect was achieved.