About that ‘Catcalling’ Video…

 

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I wasn’t going to post about the recent video produced by Hollaback, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment. You know… the one showing harassment of one woman over a ten-hour period. There are already so many opinions about it out there. But then I read some of the comments* about the video and my blood beat a little harder and my jaw clenched a little tighter. The comments that struck me were the ones griping – how is a man supposed to converse with women if not on the street? Shouldn’t she just be flattered? Is no one allowed to talk to anyone or make a pleasant conversation anymore? She is begging for the attention, what with her sexy, plain back t-shirt and jeans! Ugh.

Here is the thing, as many have already pointed out, far more eloquently than I, women know, women feel, that it isn’t just a pleasant comment. For example, recently I was heading to a meeting at around 7pm on a Thursday, just five blocks from my apartment. I reasoned that taking my car could lead to parking five blocks away anyway in a different direction, looking for a cab would mean standing on the street for a long time, and there were plenty of street lights so it wouldn’t be that dark. So off I set on foot. Halfway there, I turned down a block and the only other person on it was a man coming the other way. I assumed the usual woman walking alone in the city position, hands in my pockets and eyes on the ground. I assumed we would pass silently, maybe with a friendly nod, or at most a ‘good evening.’ Feet in front of me, he suddenly ducked to look into my face and yelled “Hey there beautiful, what are you up to tonight?”

This is what gets me about this whole debate on street harassment… context can be everything. The words “Hey there beautiful, what are you up to tonight?” are, in and of themselves, fine. Uttered at a bar, they may be a bit cheesy. Sent via text from a boyfriend or close friend they are sweet. Accompanying a guitar in G major and you have a pop hit. But on the street, when I’m alone, they is scary.

The internet is clogged with opinions about why such an interaction shouldn’t be considered harassment. For example, what was I wearing and was I seeking attention through my outfit? There is a blog, But What Was She Wearing dedicated to this ridiculous idea, where women can share their stories. For the record, I was wearing business casual slacks, button down, boxy jacket and my glasses. It isn’t about what women are wearing, but about so much more. Besides being annoying, being yelled at/followed/aggressively come on to in the street reminds women that they are vulnerable, that they may not be safe, because there are many women who have not been safe walking alone in the street. At least in my experience, a woman will not think ‘Gee, that guys thinks I’m sexy, how nice!’ upon hearing comments growled behind her about her posterior. Rather, she may think ‘I hope someone else starts walking here so I won’t be alone in this situation” while clutching her keys and quickening her pace.

But men are just trying to be friendly and connect… WHY IS NO ONE ALLOWED TO BE FRIENDLY ANYMORE?! I’m not saying this is never true, just that it is rarely true. I have never had a man on the street stop me to talk to me, comment on my outfit, tell me to smile, introduce himself, opine on my appearance, or whistle while I’m walking with my husband. So, either there is a hole in this argument, or men on the street are only trying to “connect” to women walking alone, because they don’t yell at women in couples and they don’t make comments at other men.

The sad thing is, it is possible to be friendly and interact with strangers without being creepy. Yet some creepers just ruin it for the rest of us. Obviously, even though I use the general term ‘men’ for this post, street harassment applies only to some men. And some men talk to women they don’t know, give them a compliment and it is taken as such – but again, context matters. To contrast my story above, I was walking to an appointment one morning in the same city when I stopped at a traffic light. There was a man sitting alone at a cafe table on the corner, feet from where I was standing, drinking a cup of coffee and apparently enjoying the morning. We were the only people on that particular corner, but there were people bustling along the other sidewalks. He smiled and said good morning, so I smiled back. He asked if I was headed somewhere important because I was dressed very sharply (in a suit), then told me to knock ’em dead and have a great week. I said thanks, also wished him a nice day. The traffic light turned, and away I went. Now I know that these stories have similarities – I’m alone both times, the man is alone both times, he comments about my appearance. But, the second interaction felt different because it started with just a smile, he didn’t get in my face, he only continued to talk to me after I responded, his comment about my appearance (although I could have done without it) was not sexual in nature but about being dressed to impress (in the business world) and looking confident. There was no lasciviousness, no mention of beauty or any of my body parts, no move to follow me, no intrusion into my personal space to force me to interact with him. It felt like a friendly conversation on a street corner on a sunny fall morning.

Obviously some women/people do not want to be talked to at all while out going about their day. That should be respected. Personally, I do enjoy saying hello to people, at the post office, in a store, or in an elevator – always nice to be nice, ya know? If, however, you can’t see the difference in these interactions described above, can’t tell that one of them is invasive, and imposes on me instead of an interaction with me, then maybe don’t try to talk to women walking alone on the street. It’s about respect.

 

*I’m not talking about the comments that pointed out the possible racial bias in the editing, even Hollaback has acknowledged the point and promised to do better.

 

When Sexism Becomes a Joke

“It’s just a joke” is one of the most watertight defenses for a discourteous comment. You can say a lot of things under the guise of a shrug and a smile, claiming it’s just funny. Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t, but making jokes about the opposite gender is a delicate business.

Recently Emma Watson addressed the U.N. on the issue of gender equality, promoting the new HeForShe campaign. One of her many salient points touched on the need to get men on board with gender equality discussions. As with any complex societal topic – often eliciting impassioned responses – there are a variety of attitudes toward forwarding discussion. The impression that issues affecting women must evoke an “anti-man” response from proponents of gender equality in order to further an agenda, is bantied about with regularity on twitter/comment boards/the internet generally. Ms. Watson’s speech directly targeted this idea, and instead invited men and boys to join the conversation. She posited that in so doing, they become better men by helping the world become better for women and thus better for everyone. With all due respect to the many approaches over time toward bringing women’s issues to the fore, I am inclined to agree that bringing men into the discussion can only help.

I was fortunate to grow up under circumstances where I was encouraged to do or be  anything. I not only had the encouragement, but the means through my parents’ support (both personal and economic) to thrive in whatever direction I chose. As Emma Watson discussed, she had the privilege to be raised in a place and a family where gender did not matter. I too experienced this privilege. Perhaps that is why I am always taken aback when I see, or feel, a ripple of the sexism that still pervades in areas of the world as a whole, or my own personal world. Just as an example, I was working on an issue with three male colleagues in my same field of work. (I’ve touched in the past on the occasional disparity  in the ratio of men to women in my field). For the record, we had all met each other for the first time about twenty minutes prior, and they were older than I. Needing someone to take notes as we came to a resolution, the man heading up the project asked me to take down our progress, adding “I didn’t ask you to do that because you are the woman.” Followed by a feeble joke about maybe asking me to run and get them coffees when I was done taking notes. Everyone chuckled.

I, too, laughed off the comment and finished up the project, but later I began thinking about the encounter. Perhaps it was just a tasteless comment, an attempt at humor, from an otherwise, seemingly, pleasant and respectful man. Likely he had just randomly assigned the dictation to me, then perceived that it may have given the wrong impression. In which case, his comments were an apology of sorts. Whatever the intention, I found it all a little uncomfortable.

Here is why the comment made me squirm. First, I had the same credentials as the men in the room and was contributing equally to the conversation, yet drawing attention to my gender dredged up the madmen-esque stereotypes of the past where men were professionals and women were their assistants. Suddenly we were all thinking that 40 years ago, in this setting, I would have been his secretary. Second, making a joke about taking dictation and doing coffee runs, feels patronizing toward those types of assistant roles, which by the way, are valuable in their own right. Third, talking in jest about a more “traditional” role of a woman in the workplace, to a woman working in a profession that, only a mere few decades ago was dominated by men… well, I’m not sure what kind of message that is supposed to send. Are you trying to tell me that you are okay with my presence? Are you still working through the transition from the assumption (safe decades ago) that women are ‘only’ secretaries, to the reality of professional life today?

Through this very small, hardly-worth-mentioning example, I’d just like to point out that even in situations where women are provided equal opportunity, there is still room for a conversation. Jokes like the one directed at me take us from a group of colleagues to a group of men and one woman. We may not speak up at the time, because we feel outnumbered, or don’t want to “make a scene,” or be perceived as sensitive or difficult, but such comments still make an impression.

I remember in middle school, when boys were first noticing girls, and girls were noticing boys. It became very popular to tell somewhat naughty jokes, and some of them were downright sexist. But the girls always laughed, because they liked the boys, and the boys told more jokes because the girls were laughing. Now, of course I love a good joke as much as the next guy (or gal)! There is plenty of humor to be derived from the differences between men and women. But the context, the intention, and the taste level of the joke matter. And just because a woman is smiling at a joke about antiquated gender roles doesn’t mean she thinks it’s funny.

Why I Am Asked My Age At Work

It is an unusually cool morning for late August, but, in my dress shirt, suit and makeup, I am grateful for the lack of typical Pennsylvania humidity. I stroll into the conference room, place my briefcase on one of the chairs surrounding the large dark wood table and extend a hand and smile to the older couple waiting nervously. The woman, dressed beautifully in a light sweater, her white hair pinned neatly behind her ears, is my client. She returns my smile, and says “I thought when we spoke on the phone that you were a young girl, just from the sound of your voice.”

Close your eyes and imagine people in various professions. First picture a librarian. Then think of how a nurse would look. Now envision a lawyer.

Let me guess, that last one is a man, wearing a clean, sharp suit and bright tie. Perhaps graying around his temples, perhaps already balding. His voice has deepened with age, and his eyes, while bright and playful are creased at the corners. Maybe he wears glasses, which he then pulls off in court and uses to point with for emphasis. His briefcase is worn from attending many, many, many meetings.

I am none of these things.

I graduated from college just as this county was tottering into the recession, and thus decided to postpone the ‘real world’ a few more years and pursue an additional degree. That was several years ago, yet despite years in school, and a few years working, I am usually the youngest person in the room. Different areas of law probably have varying cultures, some I am sure, are dominated by women, some by younger attorneys. My chosen area, however, does seem to have a high percentage of men matching the description above.

For the most part, being a so-called ‘young professional’ has not been a problem, although one attorney noted on the record that I am his child’s age – cue uncomfortable laugh. And of course youth, and the lesser level of experience that comes with it, can have advantages. Others in the field, even opponents, can be very encouraging, occasionally giving practice tips, or asking about my experience thus far. Being young makes you stick out as being new, and that engenders a certain amount of gentleness.

Where I am the most awkward, and aware of my age, is when interacting with clients. I feel that my youthful appearance somehow let’s them down. Often I interact with a client over the phone prior to meeting them in person. We have a great chat, we make a plan, we set a meeting, and then I show up. That is when they ask my age. I am quick to tell them that I am being supervised by a more senior practitioner. I waive comments off, saying that I look younger than I am. I have even told clients that I hope my appearance does not change their level of confidence in me. I am usually told that it does not, yet every new client has the same initial reaction.

In a world that is youth-obsessed in so many respects (see, any show on tv), it is a strange experience to find pockets where youth works against you. I spend my evenings at the gym or slathering on night cream to stave off wrinkles, but in the morning I choose conservative suits and solemn shades of makeup in an attempt to look more mature.

It is difficult to find fault with people for wanting a representative who looks experienced. Surely some day, when clients no longer bluntly ask my age, I will sigh and remember the days of being a young (new) lawyer. Until then, my girlish appearance is incentive to be very professional, so as to win their trust.

 

 

 

And they all lived happily ever after in his home town … When the Bachelorette Moves for Love

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Everyone should have a secret or two. Here is one of mine, sometimes I watch the Bachelor/Bachelorette. Not regularly, and usually not an entire episode, but over the years I’ve probably seen my fair share of glittery dresses, accusations of fakery and loooong pauses before roses are doled out. It’s fun, its full of drama and even though the point is to find a life partner/bestfriend/soulmate in a few short months on national television, it all looks a bit like a vacation. Sure, there are tears and triumphant declarations of love, but the same sentiments are expressed so often on the show, a show where few couples have actually made it, that it is hard to take everything seriously.

These Bachelor/ette shows have faced a certain amount of (often deserved) criticism over the years. Many of the viewers probably do not pay much attention to it – after all, it is the viewing equivalent of eating cupcakes, no matter how many times they remind us that it is serious for those involved! However, there is one conversation that gets me every time. And it always comes up, usually around home-town weeks when the contestants suitors take the Bachelorette home to meet the family. This trip sparks the inevitable conversation about where the blissful pair will live after everyone else is sent packing. And it usually goes something along the lines of:

Guy:    Hey, do you think you can handle moving to (my town) after we get engaged?

Girl:     Absolutely/Sure/Yes/Probably/I think so

Why is the woman always moving?! At first I thought maybe whoever is the Bachelor/Bachelorette gets to stay in their town, and any contestant that ‘wins’ moves? Not so. (See Ashley & JP). Then I thought maybe whoever has the strongest family ties in one place stays? No. (See Emily & Brad, she moved with her daughter). Perhaps whoever has the most settled career? (This season Andi talked over moving to Iowa, but I’m guessing she didn’t have an attorney’s license in that state yet).

I do not know any of these people, so perhaps they all had great reasons for making the moving decisions that they did. I’m not judging individual couples for their decisions – do what works – but thinking over the seasons I’ve seen, there is a pattern. And of course someone will have to move – if you throw together two dozen single people from across the country, they are bound to be from geographically diverse locations. I also haven’t seen every season (whew) so maybe there was a guy who moved for the girl, I’m just saying it doesn’t happen often on this show.

Here is the thing about last night’s Bachelorette finale, it is the first one that circumvented the entire issue of who will move, and where, and why, and when. (Actually, maybe it isn’t the first, but I’m not a reality tv historian, so…) Andi and her beloved are actually from the same city, as was mentioned on the show.  This led to a lot of sneaking around in wigs, and secret dates over the last few weeks, because even though they are engaged they had to maintain radio silence for ABC. This is either cute, or giving you flashbacks to that 11th grade boyfriend your parents didn’t like. The point is, she chose someone from her home town, so no one had to move. That will probably make it easier in the long run. It will also evades the first big, real decision that most Bachelor/ette couples face after the cameras are off.

Maybe it’s a coincidence. Perhaps I just happened to watch every season where its the woman packing her suitcases at the end, as they ride into the sunset. Kidding aside, I don’t know why the shows end this way – maybe ABC only casts women who dislike their home cities, maybe women on the Bachelorette are more willing to compromise, or maybe they feel like they are expected to?

Something to think about next season.