Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

One of those moments

My boss is smart.

She has a Ph.D. She’s done research in aquatic biology, conducted wetland restoration work, taught at the university level, and now she’s running the premier environmental organization in my region. She’s got a quick mind, strong opinions, and makes friends easily. Because she works in a field that has been traditionally dominated by men, and because she worked in a hypermasculine environment (the Department of Defense) where she was not only “the only girl” but also younger by 20 years than most everyone, she developed a thick skin. She’s not one to cry “sexism” or “misogyny” at ever turn.

But she has her limits.

Last year, she was asked by the director of one of our region’s chambers of commerce to serve on a committee that would look at the energy needs of our county and try to come up with some solutions. She came back from her first meeting knowing she was up against it: most of the business leaders who were on the community have no love for environmental organizations, even one like ours, which is generally not a lawsuit-happy, jump up and down and scream, anti-progress, trees are more important than people kind of organization. Over the course of 50 years, my organization has been pretty good at being reasonable and finding ways to work with all sorts of people.

Anyway, she started coming back from these meetings increasingly frustrated. She was not being listened to. She was not being taken seriously. Her ideas were repeatedly shot down. She was being patronized. The committee chairman said, “You’re like my crazy little sister.” My boss, who is not one to see sexism everywhere and has worked in hypermasculine environments, takes it as a compliment. Meanwhile, the other women on the committee, including the chamber’s executive director, sit back and say nothing and contribute little to the conversation.

After a series of increasingly frustrating interactions with this committee, my boss told our board last week that she wanted off. She was backed up by a 20-year-old intern of ours, who attended a couple of the meetings and said she couldn’t believe the way my boss had been treated. One person on the board suggested it was because she’s from an environmental organization, but it was pointed out, by the intern, that the committee several times accepted and applauded ideas that were put forward by a man on the committee (one who is actually working as a subcontractor….for us!) right after they shot down the same ideas. From my boss.

This young lady was shocked and outraged by the behavior she witnessed. Good for her, and I hope she keeps that outrage whenever she encounters it. My board? Not so much. “Welcome to our county,” said more than one–including several women.

It was a real eye opening moment for me. Not to hear about the crap my boss has been taking–I’ve been hearing about it for the last eight months or so. No, it was the way it was shrugged off so casually by men and women on my board. Men and women who should know better. Men and women who should not accept this with a shrug and an easy comment. “That’s the way it is,” as Bruce Hornsby sang so many years ago.

It’s funny how it hits home that much more when it’s someone you know, isn’t it? We can read all the stories we want about casual or institutional misogyny, sexism, racism, every -ism out there, but until we see it in action, until we see it bite someone we know, until we see how it is so casually embraced, I don’t think it’s possible for many men to really understand it on a gut level. Those of us who think we are enlightened, who wonder how this sort of thing gets perpetuated in modern times only have to look at that “Welcome to our county” comment to understand how it continues. I can only hope our young, outraged intern isn’t having this same conversation with her board when she’s my boss’s age 25 years down the road.

3 Responses

  1. The “casual embrace” would’ve been the bigger bite, except the listless vibe, unconscious acceptance and uber-complacency are the staples in the depressing stew of parochialism that is so endemic you suddenly wonder if you’ve had the bug all along. Any more room on the fly paper? The good news is the intern is getting valuable educational experience and, hopefully, “there’s nowhere to go but up”… but the balloons won’t last forever. Alternative candidate songs might be I Can See for Miles, Us and Them, or a Pub with No Beer, er, or maybe the Octoberfest with No Beer.

  2. It does seem to be so ingrained still, even though we think we've made progress. Mystifying why the same ideas apparently sound better coming from a man.

  3. That's infuriating. I'm amazed the women in the group bought into it. Maybe they did it because they have their little niche and were worried that if they spoke up they'd lose it.

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