Sometimes I wish I could travel back in time, visit myself in my early twenties, and smack myself in my own mouth for being such a dumb ass about life. I wish I could go back to the woman that was so confident that she knew how the world worked and show her the enormity of all that I now realize that I didn’t know.
This morning I had cause to reflect a little bit about how my career has progressed and how people’s regard of me has changed over the years. At twenty, I had taken time off from college and was working as a medic. There, I was one of the guys. Sort of. I at least tried to be because I had a delusion that acting like one of the guys made me fit in with the guys. In retrospect, I realize that it never did. It made me a novelty, but it never made me one of them.
At twenty-one, I took a job at a medical device company where my primary job was to teach employees at client organizations to use the devices. We had devices that went to hospitals and we had devices that went to industrial clients. In making this transition, I went from a job where I wore a t-shirt and cargo pants and boots to heels and a blouse and a skirt. I got a lot of attention from my more senior, older male coworkers. I was aware enough to know that a lot of that attention was related to how I looked but I was naive enough to think that their attention gave me some sort of power over them. That their attraction was something that I could capitalize on. When I was at our corporate office, they’d buy me dinner or drinks after work. Nothing overtly sexual, but certainly more attention than most and I accepted it. I felt strangely cared for. I never crossed any professional lines, but I did entertain their flirting and returned it in kind. I think a lot of it stemmed from my own imposter syndrome. I was young and needed to feel like I was doing a good job and like I belonged there. I took positive reinforcement however I could find it.
I started to notice that I was being sent to fewer and fewer hospitals and more and more industrial clients. I was teaching fewer doctors and nurses and more factory workers in places that were more exclusively male. One night I was visiting our corporate headquarters, pretending that I liked gin enough to hang out with my more senior male colleagues and I remarked on how my assignments had changed. The director of sales chuckled drunkenly and said, “You’re smart, Isis, and you do a good job. But, these men also like to see a young woman in a skirt with a nice ass and when they know you’re coming, they buy more time. And, we know we can send you when we fuck things up because you’ll sweet talk them and smooth things over. We can’t send one of the guys to do that”
I hadn’t really realized I was being used in that way. I was floored by his honesty, which I suspect I would not have been the recipient of if he hadn’t been as drunk as he was. Reflecting on it more, I realized that by entertaining their attention, I had also sent the message that I was willing to use it to help them get ahead to. I was an object to them. Their attention didn’t make me belong to their club more. If anything, it excluded me more deeply. My intellect was a commodity only because it was attached to a firm rear end…
Now firmly in my thirties, I want to shake women in their twenties and tell them that some positive attention won’t give them the advantage they think it will. Attention for being young and attractive and “cute” won’t gain them bargaining power. If it did, men would certainly cultivate it more. Being catered to rarely comes without the expectation of something more and real power comes when you find colleagues with whom you have an equality of intellect.
I still wear makeup, I still dress nicely, and I still have killer shoes, but I am secure enough in my own abilities to want to make my achievements the focus of the positive attention from my colleagues. I’m secure enough to answer comments on my appearance with an eye roll and to realize that professional compliments that come hand-in-hand with remarks about my appearance don’t come from anyone that is going to really take me seriously or see me as their peer.
Those true intellectual relationships are the ones worth finding and cultivating.