This is a reader response to the ELGL Workforce Development Toolbox item “Workplace Confessionals,” where members share their stories so we can learn from each other’s mistakes and poor judgement to build more cohesive and inclusive workplaces. Learn more about this series here.
Being a woman in this profession doesn’t typically faze me. I know what comes with the territory. I’ve been objectified many times in my life and have learned to either play into it or overlook it depending on the situation. Some days I use it as leverage to get things done. This isn’t saying that I overly bat my eyelashes wear low cut shirts, or flirt with men to get stuff done. I just know how to talk in particular situations that later facilitate my desired outcome.
Working in and around the human resources office for nearly 10 years, I often say that I may be the least politically correct human resources staff member. I rarely take offense to anything. I doubt I could have survived living in a small town or working in a police department if off the cuff remarks hit me personally. I actually take pride in knowing I’m adaptable, likely because I can let comments roll off my back.
I’m used to being called sweetheart, kiddo, little miss, and pretty lady both by citizens and council members. Growing up in a small town, I understand these are terms of endearment and aren’t meant in a derogatory manner. Getting to know the core intentions of an individual also influences how far I am willing to let an individual get away with remarks. For instance, some people would have taken offense to a conversation I had with a citizen regarding vacation and sunscreen application. I never once took offense to his hypothetical offer to apply sunscreen, only remarking, “I’m certain our spouses wouldn’t approve of that offer.” This conversation must not have fazed me because I regularly interact with this older gentleman. I know he’s a jovial, joking, innocent but flirty man who poses no threat. He still respects me as a female. He respects my position in the community. I know I can count on this man to do anything for me in this community. I don’t take offense to his remarks for all these reasons.
Let’s contrast this with two people who do not respect me as an individual or my position in the community.
One is an employee of the City. We’re a tight knit staff who get entirely too involved in each other’s personal lives. I was told by other staff members that another City employee had told him, “If she needs a place to stay tonight, you can let her know where I live.” It was at that point that I considered breaking out every frumpy dress I owned. I vowed to stop wearing makeup. I did not want to be seen by employees with that lens. I wanted to be respected. I wanted to assert power. I did not want to be objectified. More importantly, I lost respect for this employee which hasn’t been regained in over 3 years.
The most recent degrading situation occurred a few weeks ago. An angry citizen asked to speak with me after not receiving satisfaction from the front line staff. To this day, I’m not certain exactly what he wanted when he came in to City Hall. He was originally upset about a late fee assessed to his water bill (which was legitimately late). I took off the late fee in an effort to be nice. Then he launched into a rant about the City’s lack of return envelopes.
He continued on multiple topics: City finances, city employees stealing money, credit card convenience fees (even though he paid with check), utility shut off notices, late notices, high utility bills, etc. My source of calm during this tirade was realizing that this man may have been mentally ill and clearly was stuck in a different era. He made many derogatory comments regarding different races. I tried to correct him on many of these incorrect stereotypes. I may have blacked out during those forty-five minutes. I kindly offered to answer any of his questions.
He declined my offer to explain the latest financial audit. He wanted to vent. He wanted to make someone else’s day miserable. I allowed him to go on as long as he wished. The only time I remember raising my voice is when he would talk over me while I was addressing one of his issues. Unfortunately this happened more frequently than I would like to admit. I know as a woman I want to make sure I don’t become smaller in a heated conversation. I will not allow anyone to speak over me when I’m calm and addressing their issues. I want dialogue. I want to explain. I didn’t even realize this was a hot button issue with me until I took this position. It’s come up multiple times with multiple people and in those moments I don’t think anything can make me more upset.
Ok, my mini-rant is over. Back to the story:
This man got under the skin of one of my employees who left the office in a nervous breakdown. The police department employees showed up to ensure I was okay. I held my own. After forty-five minutes of being berated this citizen, he finally decided it was time for him to go home.
He finished with, “You know, you’re really cute when you are angry. I would have liked to get you upset enough to say some curse words. That’s a sight I’d like to see.” I was boiling inside knowing that this guy got deranged pleasure from angering me. It was likely the reason he kept pushing me. But with a smile on my face, I explained that working in a police department previously increased my profane vocabulary. I knew the words but just didn’t choose to use them at that moment. He humanized at that moment and talked about working with the military police and the command necessary at particular moments. I like to believe in that moment he realized I was a person, not an object.
I survived. It wrecked my entire day as I came off the adrenaline rush and had to repeat the story to many inquiring staff members. I even received high fives the next day from the police department for holding my own. I was proud of myself.
Yet it shows how far we still have to come before women are viewed as equals and not objects.