“C’mon, do you really believe that there’s still sexism in our workplace?”
The question was innocent but Selene felt a bubble of anxiety start to form in the pit of her stomach. She hadn’t really meant to turn their conversation in this direction; they had gone for coffee after presenting their latest evaluation of the Mali project, and talk had turned to speculation about which of their managers would be promoted into the vacant Managing Director position and then quite naturally to their own career aspirations.
Mark was her colleague and they had been working closely together lately on a new project proposal for senior management. He had been with the team several years longer than her, and Selene considered him both a mentor as well as friend. She had started to trust him with some of her more vulnerable career hopes and project ideas, but when he questioned her concerns that her gender would hold her back, she immediately felt off-balance.
“Well, yes I do actually!” she replied, with more confidence than she was feeling. Or was it too much confidence? All of a sudden, the sound of her voice seemed to be at the wrong pitch and her reasoning, so certain in her mind, started swimming away from her. She felt her shoulders tense up as she persisted.
The last six promotions to executive positions had been comprised of five men and one woman.
The team selected to present at the conference in Europe was almost all men.
One executive shouted hearty hello’s to one of her male colleagues while Selene usually got a smile and a nod.
The examples tumbled out of her; she worried she sounded shrill and despised herself for the thought. She took a breath.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued. “I’m not trying to say every man’s a sexist and we’re the living embodiment of Mad Men,” she laughed. (Why am undercutting my own argument? She silently chided herself).
“Ha! No, of course not” Mark replied.
Selene snuck a side glance at Mark’s face as he drank his coffee. He seemed perfectly calm. So why was she worrying that his silence was dismissive? That by being honest about her convictions and her concerns, he would suddenly see her not as a believer in feminist principles (of which she was proud), but that in in his mind she would be cast instead in the role of the strident and brash capital-F Feminist?
After a moment of silence, Mark moved the conversation on to other office gossip leaving Selene both relieved but also overcome with questions about the impact of her words and why she had expressed them in the first place. Should she have just let the subject pass without comment or should she have been fiercer in her condemnation of an issue that she felt passionately about? How should she proceed with Mark from here?