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Power play: Professional inequality

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‘No, I am not his date. I am his colleague.’
 
My not-so-witty retort was softly spoken. My voice had none of the sharp-tongued sarcasm I can lash at the men who strut around bar stools. Its tone betrayed my defeat.
 
In a moment, my naiveté of my professional world was on display - as I was for him.
 
I had only frustrated silence to answer his walk-away-wink.
 
My sudden urge to paint myself onto the wall would be matched only by my rising fury that his power game had worked. I felt illegitimate.
 
In a quick effort to revive my confidence before proceeding into the negotiations, I considered whether my choice of outfit had somehow encouraged him. Sadly, I found nothing amiss but for a scuff on my shoe. I ruefully acknowledge that in doing so I effortlessly joined our thriving blame her tradition. Predictably, I learned nothing about his motives.
 
My next instinct was to act as though nothing happened: keep quiet and don’t be seen to complain. To do otherwise would be to risk judgment from my peers and well, I'd hate to be accused of making a big deal out of nothing. It was his misguided attempt at a joke, right? As would become a themed query over the weeks to come, I scolded myself for being too serious.
 
As a feminist, these responses were troubling for me. My problematic instincts made rough company for my academic understanding of inequality and gender mythology.
 
Sexual harassment of the kind I have described is mundane by today’s standard of ‘newsworthy’. I had no fetish angle on which to sell it, even to myself.  But I, and many thousands of women, walk through our office doors with expectations of respect and equal opportunity with our male colleagues. We’ve been told that feminists have already won and it isn’t like it used to be. (Well, at least for educated white women, right?). So, my experience doesn’t fit with the political myth of women in the developed world. It must be chalked up to the ‘some guys are just dicks’ mythology. And yet, my experience is not unique.
 
Every workplace demands us to navigate the social expectations of power, authority and legitimacy. Our gender exerts a constant pressure on our interactions. Should a female manager be brusque? Should a female lawyer cross-examine her witness maternally? The answer to these and countless other questions of performance is not to, ‘be yourself’. Such a response would deny the social hierarchy our media plays upon, our comics live off of, and ultimately the roots our oppression subsist on. We must consider such questions carefully; our legitimacy is at stake.

I doubt very much that I will ever exude power when I walk into a room. My legitimacy will be built and rebuilt; never given. It is an inconvenient status of women in this country but one I intend to call out.
 
So no, I am not his date. 

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