Recently I got the opportunity to work at Comic Con as an exhibitor, and part of the job involved working on the build day – a day of manual labour.
Being a young female wearing makeup, an assumption was OF COURSE made that I would not be capable of the physical demands of the day. A man asked my male colleague “can the young lady manage this?” while gesturing to a heavy pallet with boxes containing books. I was stood next to my male colleague, and yet I was not asked directly if I could carry the load.
First, an assumption was made about my physical abilities. Second, an assumption was made that my male colleague would know how strong I am (he didn’t). Thirdly, why was he asking him, and not me? While he was obviously expected to manage the load himself without question, simply because of his gender.
Later the man questioning my abilities continued to patronise me by adding that “it will all be over soon darling – I know this isn’t what you wanted to do today”. I informed him that in the past I had worked on a tech crew for events, so was used to manual labour and was managing it just fine.
At this point I’m sure some people will raise the time old “biological argument”. However, asking my male colleague if I’m capable of doing something, instead of asking me directly, has nothing to do with biology. That’s just being sexist.
This experience took me back to my time working on that tech crew, and while my female boss showed no gender bias, external event staff would. This sexism pushed particular women on the crew to work harder to receive promotions. Of the people on that crew, these two women went on to secure jobs in the event tech industry while their male counterparts did not.
Ironically, the sexism they experienced motivated them to work more hours on trickier shifts to combat this stereotype and show that they weren’t weak. The man at Comic Con did not know my physical limits or work history – but that wasn’t the problem. The man at Comic Con could not believe that I would have such strength or experience due to a combination of my age, gender, and feminine appearance.
This has a wider impact on work in general, as it subtly plants the idea that women cannot achieve the same things that their male colleagues can. And this can grow into bigger issues and further discrimination down the line.
What starts out as “she’s too weak to lift something” can turn into “she’s not capable of doing things as well as the men”, leading to more promotions/development for male colleagues while the women are left behind.
Yet, what is not so obvious is when sexism shows itself in behaviour that initially might seem respectful. When a woman successfully does her job, there’s a reaction of surprise that she could actually do it.
Even I have had moments like this about myself. I had adopted the viewpoint of the shocked males around me, becoming surprised for a moment at my own work after having doubt placed in my mind that I may not have the endurance for the task.
When I do, impressed looks follow. The respect that is suddenly received is not one to be celebrated. The so-called respect is also, like the outright disrespect, a sign of sexist thinking. It comes from the belief that women are not fit for these types of working roles and so are viewed differently when they earn their right to work alongside the ‘lads’.
Those that hold this belief may have been proved wrong for a second, but their attitudes refuse to shift more permanently. Next time a new woman joins the team, this pattern is recycled.
In order to be treated equally by and to male colleagues, there is an urge to turn up to work appearing more masculine to be taken seriously, spoken to directly, and not underestimated. Although, let’s not succumb to this sexist ideology around appearance, gender, and spheres of work.
When I told a friend who works and travels with heavy equipment that I was writing this article, she jokingly responded that she would share it with her all-male office. For those men: believe it or not, we were also hired on merit and experience.
So yes, we most likely can manage that heavy load.