Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women’s strides toward equality, achievements, and general badassery. But it’s also a day to talk about all the B.S. women have to deal with on a daily basis — like workplace sexism and sexual harassment.
Not only do women have to work twice as hard to get half as far as men — for just 70% of the pay, no less — but they have to battle sexist attitudes, inappropriate advances, and belittling assumptions along the way.
We decided to ask 10 women about the worst experiences they’ve ever had with workplace sexism.
Our goal is to shine a light on the sometimes-invisible abuses and microaggressions women have to put up with just to have a career — because no should have to endure this.
“I don’t care what you have to do to get Aja to clean that bathroom.”
When I was in high school, I worked at Vans Shoes and I worked Wednesday nights. My boss put up a sign in the back room that stated that the bathroom needed to be cleaned every Wednesday night, which meant I — and only I — was the one who would be cleaning it. I was the only girl who worked there. Mind you, the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned in ages! I, even at a young age, called B.S. and told him I would do it, but only if I wasn’t going to be the only one.
He later pulled the shift supervisor to the side and said these words: “I don’t care what you have to do to get Aja to clean that bathroom — if you have to drag her in there by the hair, it better be cleaned.” After the supervisor told me that he said this, I called the district manager and left a voicemail with all the details. I quit that night because I’d be damned to work with such an a-hole, and guess what? The district manager never returned my call.
— Aja, Los Angeles
“He asked to speak to the manager, so I told him that was me.”
The first time I remember was when I was a 21-year-old theatre box office manager of a prestigious theatre in Toronto. A male customer argued with our policy that I had explained to him. He asked to speak to the manager, so I told him that was me.
Just then, our newest, youngest, male employee walked behind me, and the customer asked to speak to him. Since we had a ticket booth window, I was able to stand to the side, not being seen or heard by the customer, and tell the younger, new, male employee what to say in answer to the questions. The customer accepted his answers/explanations and walked away.
— Barb, Toronto
Free manicures for ladies.
A former employer wanted to reward the whole team for a record quarter. The men were all invited for a weekend on his house boat at Lake Powell. The women were all given gift certificates for manicures.
— Jacque, Utah
“He mansplained how to leave a f*cking voicemail!”
I had just given a crowd-rousing speech about net neutrality at a media policy rally organized by a highly funded organization that had asked me, last minute, to help them — for free — to organize women to come out to the protest. One of the men in leadership for that organization seemed extremely impressed by my speech, and asked me for my notes because he wanted to quote my speech in the press release he was writing up about the event. I told him I didn’t have any notes, I just spoke off the top of my head. He asked me to write out quotes for him, but I couldn’t or I’d miss the post-event lunch. He then asked me if I would mind leaving a couple of quotes on his voicemail, and then he could just transcribe the voicemail when he was on the train back to his state. I said that was fine.
So he passes me the phone, and he says, “So, first you’re going to hear my number being dialed, and then you’re going to hear me leave my message, and then you’re going to hear a beep, and after the beep you can leave your quotes.” DUDE MANSPLAINED HOW TO LEAVE A F*CKING VOICEMAIL! After I just gave a detailed and powerful speech about a then still relatively undiscussed media policy/regulatory concern.
I took the phone, looked at him incredulously, smiled really wide, and said, “Thanks! I know how phones work.” The whole table, including his male boss, started laughing.
— Jennifer L. Pozner, media critic and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, New York City
“He put his hand on my leg under the table with his wife across the table.”
It was in 2004. I was recruited to start a whole new department at Columbia Records. I was young, 27, and I was so grateful and felt so privileged to been asked to come over there and start a new job. My boss was the MAN in music at the time; he was the Weinstein of music. He took me under his wing, gave me a huge budget, wined and dined me constantly.
Slowly, he became extremely inappropriate. It was everything from constant, inappropriate messages on instant messenger asking me to come into his office during late hours, to putting his hand on my leg under the table with his wife across the table. I felt so uncomfortable and started questioning the reasoning why I got the job in the first place. I felt like an object. I started finding reasons to leave early, to not go to certain events, it was deteriorating me.
I finally found someone I trusted enough to talk to about it and went to him in confidence to discuss the issues going on. He said to not take the legal route because I was just one of many women, and that “this happens all the time.” He said that he would get me a deal with severance plus six months of consulting.
When this is happening, you are living in fear — “If I don’t let him touch my leg, what will happen?” etc. The girl I knew before would have said “f*ck that,” but I was so diminished and I felt so small. I took the deal and ran away. I moved to LA.
— Tristan Coopersmith, founder of Life Lab, New York City
“I was the prettiest meeting he’d had all day.”
I have worked at a few startups where clear gender bias was present from time to time. I was lucky enough to have a founder and CEO at one startup who stood up for me when a sales guy from one of the two big analyst firms commented that I was “the prettiest meeting” he’d had all day, and that I “should bring some of my cute friends” to an event that night.
Repulsive? Yes. Disrespectful? Yes. Condescending? Yes. Insert whichever word you can think of that removes power, respect rightfully earned from years of dedicated experience, and the confidence needed to go into the next analyst meeting where (undoubtedly) I would be questioned about whether the budget was mine to spend. It was, in fact, mine.
I actually walked away feeling even more empowered, though. I took the experience with the analyst to my CEO and was blown away by the indignation that he felt on my behalf and the disrespect he felt for his growing company.
— Challin, Chicago
“Your husband is a lucky man to be with a different woman every night.”
My first “grown-up” job coincided with a bit of a hair-dying phase. Nothing crazy – just different natural shades of red and brown. A few months in, I was called to a meeting with a senior male colleague I admired. I was prepared, and couldn’t wait to impress him with my ideas. The first words out of his mouth were something to the effect of, “Your husband is a lucky man to be with a different woman every night,” referring to the frequency with which I dyed my hair. I haven’t dyed my hair since.
— Casey, Texas
“The woman got more than 20 rude or sexual comments a week, and the genderless cat got almost none at all.”
In October 2017, I built and launched a website called Kapwing that helps people accomplish simple video editing tasks, like making memes, resizing video, adding filters, making collages, etc. When we launched the site, I added a chat box that automatically pops up in the corner of the site. It showed my photo and had a friendly welcome message offering to help users if they ran into trouble. I got lots of good feedback from people making videos on the site, but about twice a day I also got messages from users that were insulting, offensive, sarcastic, or nonsensical. I ignored the messages until one day I got seven crude messages before coming into the office at 9 am. Annoyed, I decided to switch the photo that users see on our chat box to my male co-founder’s photo to see if it made a difference.
It did. After switching to my co-founder’s photo, I got almost no harassing or rude messages. The effect was so dramatic that we decided to experiment with a stock photo of a different woman and our androgynous cartoon logo of a cat. The woman got more than 20 rude or sexual comments a week, and the genderless cat got almost none at all. The informal study implied a bias against female customer support agents.
When I tell this story to my friends, they say it doesn’t surprise them, but it honestly shocked me. Anecdotally, it was the first time that I experienced how I would be treated if I could change my gender, and I naively thought that women might actually be treated with more patience and respect, not less. Since the experiment with different customer support agent appearances, I represent myself as “Team Kapwing” and use the cat logo when answering questions from customers and users online.
— Julia Enthoven (read more of her story here), San Francisco
“He paid the men more because they had families to support.”
My boss at my old CPA firm told us that he paid the men more because they had families to support. And my supervisor, who did more work than her counterpart, went on maternity leave. He gave the male a raise and not her because she was on leave — and she would not be getting one when she returned. Sooooo I started my own firm and make sure I treat everyone equally no matter who you are or where you come from. We’re all in it together. #girlboss.
— Amber Powell, Los Angeles
“He felt I sounded vapid and clueless.”
Recently my boss told me that he thought I sounded “unprofessional” on the phone with clients. I tried to get him to give me specific phrasing that I had used that was not professional (we are a very low-key brand with a casual, friendly vibe that he wants me to convey to clients, so I often joke and make friendly conversation when on the phone). He said he was fine with the casual joking, etc., and encouraged it, but he said, “It’s just something — I can’t put my finger on it.”
After some prodding questions and asking him to listen to me make a few phone calls, he was finally able to admit that it is my higher-register voice. He admitted that he felt I sounded vapid and clueless, (“unintelligent and incapable” were his words) and that if I had a deeper male voice I would not sound that way.
He also refused to interview an otherwise very qualified candidate who I did a preliminary interview with, and really liked, solely because (he admitted to me) of her Latina accent.
— Emily, Boulder, Colorado