As a young woman, I believe I owe a lot to feminism. A lot of the opportunities that are open to me are only available because of the activism of those previously denied them. But we still don’t have gender equality. There is still a very long way to go. My experience with an extremely sexist co-worker this summer has opened my eyes to that truth.
I’ve had a couple of jobs before. I took a gap year before uni to work two different jobs. I had a summer job in Southampton after my first year of uni, and despite the current state of the world, I was thrilled to be able to go back this year. This was a job that I enjoyed. I was good at it and I liked my colleagues.
On my first day back, there was someone new starting that day too. In the interests of Covid safety, we would largely be working together, having our breaks together and all of our shifts. This seemed reasonable enough, but under these circumstances it was important that we got on.
He was a tall, large, white man in his 50s, quite out of shape and generally miserable looking. As we began work, he was very slow and idle, but I was willing to be patient at first. He may be a bit slothful but maybe he was an alright guy?
He soon disabused me of that notion.
At first it was little comments. He was quite chatty and loved to share anecdotes of his life, but recalling tales of his interactions with women, people from other countries, people of colour and minorities, he would bring up a lot of stereotypes. He seemed to have a lot of resentment for various groups of people (especially students) for very little reason, and was happy to talk about whole sections of society with outdated and hateful assumptions.
The comments were not horrendous in themselves, but it was their frequency which was the most disturbing. Almost every day, he had something to say which was inappropriate at someone else’s expense.
I can take a joke, but this was ridiculous, and it got old very quickly.
Then there was his behaviour towards me. We had a very active job that required a lot of mobility over a large site and included a lot of odd jobs, sometimes requiring a bit of heavy lifting. I am a small girl, but I can manage, and for heavier things we are supposed to work in pairs anyway. He was a liability in all other aspects, but he could do heavy lifting, especially if that meant taking over what I was doing to show that he could do it better.
I am not a proud woman. I know what my physical limits are, and I am not afraid of asking for help, or taking it when offered. But none of the other guys were ever condescending towards me, nor did they ever automatically assume that I couldn’t do something. But this new guy blatantly acted as though I was incompetent and couldn’t do my job.
About 4 weeks in, I was miserable. It was taking all of my energy not to tell him where to go every time he spoke. He was so incompetent he couldn’t be trusted to work independently, so I was basically in charge of him. We would be given the same instructions at the same time, and then he would turn to me to ask questions about what we were doing. Then in the next breath, he would treat me like a child.
We then had two new girls start, also about my age. He switched shifts and they got stuck with him while I was able to primarily work with someone else. Apparently, on their first day, he made a point of asking them all about what they thought of me, and ranted to them about my not wanting to have children, which he seemed to take personal offence to.
They unfortunately also had a similar experience with him. He was dismissive of some tasks for being ‘a woman’s job’, would take over anything ‘manly’, and treated them with the same contempt he had me.
So why didn’t we say anything?
Unfortunately, he was a relation and friend of our supervisor, who had also gotten him the job. I was very aware that anything I said about his sexist behaviour could have negatively impacted the other girls, since he primarily worked with them. I had once called out something he said as sexist to his face, but he took it very badly, ranting about how sensitive young people were and bringing up my ‘sensitivity’ for the next two days. All the trouble didn’t feel worth it if I could just grit my teeth and get through to the end.
Even when I had drafted an email of complaint at the end of the summer, seeing my grievances on paper felt so silly and petty. But then I thought about how he made me feel, and how demoralised and defeated I was. He singlehandedly made me feel like I wasn’t good at my job, which I used to enjoy.
I did say something in my last week, knowing that nothing could come back on me or the other girls who were also finishing that week, but it didn’t feel like justice. I know he won’t change, and if anything, he would think of himself as the victim. But upon reflection I came to a very sad conclusion – as a young woman entering the adult workplace, this is something which I can expect a lot more of. This realisation made me very sad, and frankly disappointed. My excitement at pursuing careers is now tinged with cynicism at how I may be treated in that environment, based entirely on my gender.
I expected more of people in 2020, although I’m not sure why, given what else is happening in the world. I know my experience is not particularly profound, or even that bad compared to others, but it is disappointing. It was a sobering experience, and I’m determined that we need to do better going forward, to stop it from happening again.