Sunday, July 27, 2008

Women in the Workplace: Assertive vs. Aggressive

By: Erika Kelley

I have been working since I was 16. And throughout the years I learned that the roles of men and women in the social and corporate world have evolved. However, early on, I also discovered that workplace stereotypes still exist. For women, it is often expected that we are to be submissive, eager-to-please, and supportive. However, if we're too nice and understanding -- we're considered emotional and soft. But, if we're a bit assertive and outspoken -- we're ice queens.

Men on the other hand are expected to be strong, forceful, and direct. What’s interesting is that in leadership and management courses, I ascertained that a “good” employee is one that exhibits directness with simplicity. A “good” employee is assertive, a trait very often exhibited by men; one that is accepted…expected.

So, the age-old question still exists: What's the appropriate stance or attitude women should have in the workplace?

My stance has been to follow the path of a “good” employee and break the “passive” female stereotype. However, instead of affirmation and recognition, I have often encountered negativity, more often from my female counterparts, and have occasionally been referred to as “aggressive.”

Here’s my story…

Over six summers ago, I decided to participate in flex-time at work. Instead of working the standard hours, 8:15 AM to 4:15 PM, I decided to change my hours to 7:30 AM to 3:30 PM. I’d miss traffic, get home in time to watch Dr. Phil with the hubby, and even have time to exercise! Sweet.

About half of the people in my office took advantage of flex-time; however, only a handful worked the early hours like me. The inconsistency between work schedules never posed a problem…until…well, allow me to explain.

With a project that surpassed its deadline and extension, my co-workers and I met frequently to consummate the project. A few times, the meetings were scheduled in the afternoon, from 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM. And like typical meetings in our office, they tarried and often exceeded the allotted time. No matter, an older (50+) Caucasian male, Michael (my former colleague’s has been changed to protect his confidentiality), that worked 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM (half hour lunch instead of an hour), would politely alert everyone that we should start wrapping-up, promptly at 2:45 PM. And that’s exactly what we did – wrap up – so that he would be able to leave at his scheduled time, 3:00 PM. What a considerate bunch, right?

Well the following week, Michael went on vacation. Like last week, we had another afternoon meeting, 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM. We started at approximately 2:15 PM and the meeting was still in session at 3:15 PM. Like Michael, I alerted the group that I would need to excuse myself in a few minutes, so it might be a good time to start wrapping-up. I expected everyone to concede, like they did normally. This time, however, was different. No one began to wrap-up. Instead, a female colleague asked me: do you mind staying a little bit longer? Being the team player that I aspire to be, I agreed to stay. The meeting ended at about 3:35 PM. Not a big deal, a five-minute delay.

Two days later, the same thing happened. A meeting that was supposed to begin at 2:00 PM started about 10 minutes late and was still in session at 3:15 PM. This time, I found myself thinking: Where is Michael? Things were so different when he was present at meetings. No one ever asked him if he could stay longer. Again, like Michael, I mentioned that we had exceeded the time allotted for the meeting, and now would probably be a good time to wrap-up. I was met with sighs and rolling eyes. A female colleague even said to me: We know you leave at 3:30, Erika. There was extra emphasis on the word “know” and my name!

I digress…Have you ever watched a movie where there’s complete silence and then a brass cymbal hits the floor? This is where the cymbal hit the floor in the midst of deliberate silence.

May I make a suggestion? Can we start our meetings on time, to avoid running over the allotted time scheduled for the meeting? I was met with blank stares. A female colleague spoke up: Most of us work 8:15 AM to 4:15 PM; have you ever considered working the core hours so that you’re available for afternoon meetings? I was ready to scream, kick, and yank my hair out. I felt somewhat attacked and felt this situation was very unfair. I knew for a fact, they, who happened to be all females – Caucasian, Hispanic, and African-American, would have never asked this of Michael, but I wasn’t sure why.

So, I looked at the differences: Michael was Caucasian, a male, and over 50. I was African-American, a female, and in my late 20s. But so what? Which is exactly why I said: Yes, I have considered working the core hours; however, my current hours better accommodate my lifestyle. I was then told: Well, you’re free to go. With that, I gathered up my belongings and said to the group: Enjoy the rest of your day; I’ll follow-up with you regarding what I missed tomorrow.

The office informant later told me that I had been dubbed: aggressive. Nonetheless, the meetings for the remainder of the week started and ended and time, as scheduled. And the week thereafter, Michael returned.

To be or not to be assertive? That is the question.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“The Meaning of Wife”: When Nothing that was Actually Old is New Again

By: Caitlin Murphy

While walking through the insanity that is Penn Station early on a Tuesday morning, I was in a different state than the normal look-straight-ahead-and-maintain-efficient-steps routine I usually maintain: I was actually hyper-aware of marital imagery.

After finishing another chapter from Anne Kingston’s “The Meaning of Wife”, I almost laughed out loud to really see an advertisement for “Bridezillas” on WeTV at the exit of my train. I’d passed by the advertisement for several months without ever truly pausing to think about the implications of the entrenched message it sends about brides-- women who are getting married turn into emotionally unstable, child-like beasts that act on primal, deep-seated urges. These urges, we’re told, “naturally” affect us all, but certain women get more “passionate” than others about it. Not more than a minute later, I noticed a young woman carrying chocolate-brown bag that had pink dots and big, swirling letters that read “Bridesmaid” on the side. Once again, this revealed another entrenched message I had never quite reflected on before-- that the actual wedding day is a kind of fashion statement that is far more important than the actual marriage.

Both of these seemingly innocent encounters with bride/wife imagery shocked me into the realization that there is a steady flow of marital images that we subconsciously gloss over daily. However, no matter how little attention we may pay to these details, they play an important role in filling in the “gap” that has developed in defining brides and wives since the 1960s.

As Kingston posits, a “wife chasm” opened up following the slew of new legislative rights women won for their bodies, their finances, their career choices, their property, and their self. While there was a positive re-definition in what a woman legally could or could not do, there was a non-existent “catch up” in terms of what a woman socially and culturally could do, be, act like, and want. Since no new script was provided for women that found themselves with these new rights, there was a glaring “gap” in what the new definition of what a woman, and a wife, would be. Commercial, corporate, and political forces, while initially met with the “wife-lash” that followed the 1960s, found the huge niche easy to fill with a variety of messages that were generally accepted by the 1990s, which heralded a very deliberate shift from “wife-lash” to “wife-lust”.

The kinds of marital messages that I’ve been taking in and accepting subconsciously (such as that brides innately go off the deep-end during the wedding process-- itself a showy, elaborate affair) are purposefully packaged to appear as if they are timeless pearls of wisdom. However, if looked at closer, the over-the-top, “traditional” weddings that are expected today were never truly “traditional”, as only royalty could actually afford them. One of the most damaging messages, Kingston points out, is that the frustrated, burnt-out wife that can’t “do it all” is a new character in modern society that needs to deal with her own personal issues. (When in reality, she has been around for centuries, in any society that attributes more rights and responsibilities to wives outside the home and expects her to take on many new, extra roles without any additional government, societal, or corporate support.) Kingston points out that the attempt of women to “do it all” has ironically left many women in the kind of robotic, “Stepford Wives” state that the original film was tongue-in-cheekily suggesting as the solution for independent, feminist-prone women. Worse, there is a complimentary message that even if a wife can “do it all”, she must love keeping a blissed-out, warm, loving home through the fruits of her domestic labor, no matter how banal or arduous the chore. Kingston puts it bluntly: “A chore is a chore.”

So what is the solution in a society in which chores are weighted with emotional love, titles like “Bridesmaid” are weighed as fashion labels, and brides are weighed as “naturally” unstable, irrational beasts? We have to un-do exactly what is keeping these martial images entrenched in the “wife gap”– we have to strip the subconscious weight that is holding their place and make way for the kind of definition “wife” has needed for decades. This new definition would suggest something that at this point in our “wife-lust” culture would seem quite radical: that “wife” must become a gender-neutral term, as it captures all of the domestic duties and emotional support that two partners must be willing to share. As Kingston points out, this kind of re-definition requires an admittance on the part of the government and corporations that they must step in provide the kind of aid and support the modern family necessitates, but just as importantly, it involves finally looking at women and men as human beings who can only handle a certain amount of responsibility and emotional pressure. Perhaps then, the battle cry of “the feminist movement screwed me over” can be restated in the next generation of young women and wives as “we still have a way to go”.

The Younger Women’s Task Force–New York Chapter holds a monthly book club that discusses issues such as those brought up by Kingston with a group of intelligent and fiery young New York women that care. The book club will be meeting this month to discuss Kingston’s “The Meaning of Wife” at 7pm, July 16th, at Tea Spot, located at 127 Macdougal St.