(Originally posted: 2/13/17)
Last week women across America watched with horror and familiarity as Senator Mitch McConnell silenced Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor and offered his now-famous rebuke:
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Who among us has not had a similar experience? Been scolded for talking out of turn in the office; interrupted, hushed, belittled by a man in power; put in our place and instructed, with coded vocabulary, to be less defiant, less disruptive, less difficult?
I reached out to some of my friends to hear about the challenges they've faced as young women in the workplace, attempting to lead fulfilling professional lives in traditionally sexist spaces.
Behold: 10 tales of persistence from 10 vibrant, kind, scrappy, unbreakable women.
I hope you’ll find courage, inspiration, even humor in their insights. I certainly did.
Staunchly, persistently, yours,
One of my first journalism jobs was as an assistant on a news show. I was the lowest in the newsroom, basically a glorified intern trusted with demoralizing yet “important” tasks like taking the hosts’ dirty clothes to the dry cleaner. The job sucked—like a twisted version of The Devil Wears Prada, but with absolutely no access to Stanley Tucci, Chanel or the Conde Nast cafeteria, which I've heard is quite nice but not as good as the one at Hearst.
I took the job because the show's leaders told me that I’d be an assistant first, then if I proved myself worthy, I'd move up the ranks of the show's staff of writers and producers. That’s what happened to the guy who held my position before, they told me. But I noticed when he held my job, he was called a “talent producer,” not an “assistant.” So I asked about that. I was told I’d have to work up to that title. So I played ball, worked my ass off, asked for a title change from “assistant” to “talent producer” and got a flat-out no. Asked again, still no.
A few months later, the show hired another assistant to work with me—a guy my age with noticeably fewer qualifications—but hey—we weren’t exactly doing God's work here so whatever. Except when he joined the show, he was given the title as “researcher.” He wasn’t expected to answer the phone if he didn't feel like it, and he wasn’t expected to take dirty clothes to the dry cleaner if I was there to do it. Instead, he was encouraged to surf the web for possible stories they should cover, while I was told to run around Manhattan to find the exact shade of a discontinued Sisley self tanner the female host ‘required’ as part of her on-air wardrobe. I guess they thought we made a good team? It took me a few days to realize that my employers thought so little of me that I had just been passed over to mindlessly surf the fucking internet. I stuck it out another few weeks and got the hell out of there.
They were never going to promote a female assistant to a substantive news role. They wouldn't even pretend to by giving me the same title as my male counterparts. So I found a newsroom that would.
I once had the privilege of organizing a high-level round table featuring former Secretary of State and perpetual badass Madeleine Albright. Upon greeting me at the event, a male counterpart from another organization laughed incredulously and proceeded to comment repeatedly on my formal business attire—he’d apparently “never seen [me] like this before.” Despite my attempts to change the subject to something relevant to the event, he really couldn't get over my skirt suit, and kept shamelessly looking me up and down like I was his gussied-up prom date. I wish I could say I told him off in Madeleine's iconic presence, but my retaliation’s been more of a silent one, a struggle to stop being afraid of stomping on a man's dignity when he doesn't think twice about doing it to me.
I was working day and night on a client presentation for several months, and in the final 24 hours leading up to the meeting the mood was very tense. Two male superiors told me they thought my remaining responsibilities should be handed off to a male peer because they deemed me “too emotional” to finish it out. I told them if they replaced me on the project it would be my last day at the company, persisted against their wishes, and ended up receiving accolades from my boss for my work.
At the immigration court here, there's a metal detector you have to pass through to get into the waiting area, which is pretty silly, but I guess they want it to feel like a “real courthouse” (it’s not; it’s an administrative court that shares a building with the Social Security Administration office). What’s fun is that they’ve got it set such that it will always beep for the metal in high heels and will often beep because of the underwire in a bra. This means that, as a lady attorney, I get to take off my shoes so that my pants drag on the ground (serves me right for not wearing a skirt though, amirite?) and then probably set the thing off anyway and endure a thorough arms-out wanding from one of the two male security guards who will inevitably crack a joke about my underwire. In front of my clients. This is always an excellent, confidence-boosting start to a morning of adversarial proceedings.
Five months ago, I took a big trip to visit my best friend who moved to Asia. Twenty-six years of stockpiling airline miles left me with a pretty hefty sum, so I splurged and decided a sixteen-hour flight on a world-class carrier was the ideal opportunity to treat myself in first-class.
In the pre-flight lounge, I sat in a quiet corner to do my own thing (read: drink). Despite very obvious signals that my intent was to keep to myself, an older man in the airline lounge started asking me details about my trip. Where was I going and why? Who was I visiting? There were some disgusting little assumptions lobbed in there: Is your husband/dad allowing you to take such a big trip alone? Have you flown such a long distance before? Are you scared?
Feelin' my single professional woman oats, I held my ground and let him know (curtly, because a girl just wanted to watch Snapchat and eat her free cheese and crackers in peace!) that I travelled alone plenty, and was looking forward to seeing my dear friend.
Homie got the message and walked away to stuff more hors d’oeuvres in his nasty little maw. Yet after open-mouth chewing a couple of wasabi peas, he waddled back. “Your friend must like you a lot to keep buying you first-class tickets around the world,” he smirked conspiratorially.
My blood boiled. This was one of those insidious accusations that seems silly at first, but after lingering reveals its true ugly intent. This man seriously thought that I, girl of the Stan Smiths and Sudoku book, was a high-class international hooker! Just because I had the gall to show up in his exclusive airline lounge!
I was outraged and immediately got nasty. “I’d think someone of your advanced age would know not to make assumptions.”
“But you said you were invited!?” he shrieked, trying to shame me for actually reacting to the disgusting implication that only a paid sex arrangement could earn me a way into his world. “What does your friend even do?” Like that mattered at this point.
“Don’t you ever put words into someone else's mouth,” I spat at him. “I do perfectly fine on my own and it is absolutely none of your business.” (Looking back on this, I wish I had been more incisive, more cutting. But frankly I was shocked and holding back tears of anger.)
This is not the noble tale of Elizabeth Warren by any means. It's not the time I found out my equal male co-worker got a raise before me after his nine-month sabbatical, nor is it the time I was accused of being “the girl who fetishizes minorities” by a C-suite executive at my company (after being grilled on whether or not my family were drug-dealers because we're Latinos from South Florida).
It's not germane to my career, daily life, or even true circumstances, I know that.
Yet somehow, sauntering on to the plane after this encounter and taking my (better) seat, enjoying every indulgence without abandon, all while this moronic little imp kept his eyes on me, trying to figure me out, was a most glorious moment of delicious persistence.
An executive in my organization asked me to help him retrieve materials from a locked storeroom. As he followed me to the storeroom, he said, “I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but...” and then guessed that I had been working out and that I “looked really good.” This is not the worst part of this anecdote! I told him that if he finds himself starting a sentence in that way, he probably shouldn’t finish it. He shrugged off my criticism and didn’t apologize, so I went to HR the next day and asked them to please talk to him and set him straight. I was not part of any follow-up conversation, and although he left me alone after that, a year later he sexually harassed his assistant, who is now suing the organization. And, yes, he's still here...
When I was first out of college, I was an administrative assistant for a man who was about my height (5’5”) or a bit shorter. He was well into his 50s, maybe 60s. He yelled at me for being five minutes late to the interview he scheduled that morning, when I had to commute an hour and a half to get to the appointment. He made suggestive comments about my clothing and appearance. Worse, he regularly insulted me, he screamed at me for errors I had not made in front of board members and colleagues, and threatened to fire me. I'm the first to admit I was an idiot when I was 23, but I never messed up THAT badly. And if I had, why not just fire me already? I was so afraid of him that whenever I came to the office, I immediately vomited. I made more errors because I was so afraid. He said I did things I didn’t do, like talk on the phone to friends. (I’m an introvert and never use the phone unless I absolutely have to.) One time he circled all the typos in a printed document and had me read them and explain why they were wrong, all while berating me. (That was months before the movie Secretary came out, by the way. When I saw that scene, with a coworker, in fact, I got up and—you got it—ran to the bathroom to vomit and cry.) I stayed because I needed the job and I needed health insurance.
About nine months into the job, I splurged and bought some serious Sex-in-the-City style 3” heels, because I told myself I had to dress up and get it together somehow. I wore the shoes to work, my feet hurting the entire time. When my boss came over to my desk and leaned over it, to demand I do some menial task he could have done himself, I stood up, and realized I towered over him. I said, “Sure, I'll get to that in a minute.” He paused, about to say something, and said, “Great. Thank you,” all while looking up at me. For the next year and a half, I wore 3” heels, I stood up any time I had to talk with him, and for the next year and a half, he left me alone (well, more than he had previously). I have the fractures in my sesamoids 15 years later to prove it. I’d like to believe they were worth it, but I shouldn’t have to break my feet to have been treated with basic dignity and respect.
My boss, who is the star, creator, and, now, director, of her own television show had a baby boy about four months ago. She brings him to set every day, plays with him between takes, pumps or breastfeeds while she sets up shots or gets her hair and makeup done.
The other day, we were walking away from the set—she was holding her son—when a man stopped her. He was the father of one of the background actors on our show. He asked the baby’s age.
When she told him, he said: “And you didn't want to stay home and take care of your baby?”
Ever the professional, she politely replied, “Well, I have to be here to run my TV show.”
The man, apparently unable to grasp this concept, continued, “... in Europe, most mothers take time off to be with their children. They want to raise them.”
Keeping her cool (although I don't know how—my blood was boiling), she said, “Well, that’s the dream, but I also love my job.”
She then ended the conversation and calmly walked away.
This woman runs her own TV show, is a genuine, present mother to a three-year-old and a four-month-old, a loving wife, and one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever worked for. The entitlement of this guy to instruct his son’s BOSS on how to be a mother and a woman would be laughable if it wasn’t so upsetting. To him, I say: fuck you kindly, sir. This is North Hollywood, not “Europe.” And we have a show to make.
For the most part I consider myself extraordinarily lucky in regards to feminism. I grew up with a coven of strong independent women as mothers, and a bunch of male feminists for dads and uncles who made sure we knew we could be athletes, lawyers, teachers or politicians (the fact they all ended up with daughters may have had something to do with it).
As such, I was perhaps a bit older when I was first faced with sexism. I've always attended a lot of events with my father—conferences, lectures, fundraisers, etc. I love being around older people, and I always felt like they treated me as an adult and were interested in my life, goals, and pursuits. Until I reached a certain age, and people were no longer sure whether I was the daughter or the younger girlfriend. If the latter, I was no longer interesting as my own individual person, I was ignored. And this was primarily a reaction from other women. My father noticed it too—we both started taking great care of introducing ourselves as “his daughter” or “her Dad.” Almost immediately, there would be a noticeable shift and people would become far more friendly to me. It was the first time I felt so slapped in the face with sexism—I’m sure a son has never felt that way accompanying his mother.
Since then, I have attended events with significant others, and I have noticed that attending as a woman accompanying a man versus attending an event by yourself results in far different interactions with people, and I always walk away feeling like I was perceived as less than I am. Perhaps some men feel this way on the arms of their women at times, but I bet they walk away feeling like they were labeled as “the boyfriend” a hell of a lot less. I'm not just THE GIRLFRIEND. I have a name, I have job, and being on the arm of this or that is one of the accomplishments I rank near the bottom of the long list of things I would consider myself proud of.
Currently I work for a nonprofit that is as old as it is conservative. The nonprofit does wonderful things for struggling families but is rooted in conventional ideas of gender relationships. I am the youngest director in my division. Hell, I might be the youngest director in the whole damn organization. I face many issues of discrimination in my job: ageism, sexism... anti-blonde-ism. The most obvious example of sexism that I deal with, on a daily bases, occurs when working with the male social service directors. They refuse to email me, return my calls, or even look me in the eye. They prefer to speak to my assistant. Who is male. It's a conservative, white boys club, and I go to war everyday to fight for my liberal, female place in it.
Sometimes a “Nevertheless, she persisted” moment doesn't include a woman standing up and saying, “Hey, you are being sexist!” Sometimes it is a slow and thoughtful rise. A manipulation of thought. I will prevail in the long run because I will show them that women are smart and capable, especially in business.