The following post is sponsored by BlogHer and the AFL-CIO, for the Women@Work editorial series.
My first job out of college was my dream job, but it was also where I learned that workers–particularly young female ones–are in danger of being judged not on their skills or qualifications, on what they can do, but on who they are, whether for better or, in my case, worse.
A few months out of college, I landed a job working for a small book publisher that hired me as a part-time, temporary employee for the kinds of odds-and-ends work that occupies many industry newbies for years in a row. Thanks in part to the structure of the company but also to my own diligence, within a few months I was permanent and full-time, and within a year after that, I had been promoted twice. I soon had a corner office of my very own and all the autonomy of my counterpart, a woman who had been working for the company for fifteen years and was, not incidentally, as old as my mom. Her age matters here because I was at this time twenty-three years old and sometimes wore my long blonde hair in pigtails at the office, which may not have been the smartest choice, but hey, I was twenty-three and still had much to learn. Fashion faux pas aside, my employers knew what I was capable of and what I was there for–not to answer phones or fetch coffee or stuff envelopes but to edit books–and they showed every confidence in my abilities.
My bosses had such trust in me that they didn’t think twice when they assigned me a job editing a book written by a senior staff member of a Very Prestigious Institution. I remember the author’s reaction clearly: “She’s going to edit my book? Why isn’t the other editor doing it?” My bosses assured this woman (yes, woman) that her book was in great hands, that the endeavor would be a success, and that was the end of that. Or so we thought. The project turned into a nightmare as the author fought me at every turn during the months-long process. She questioned every change, challenged every judgment, frequently emailed my bosses instead of me, and basically made it clear that she didn’t believe this “little girl” was up to the job.
What was going on here? Was it ageism? Sexism? A little from Column A, a little from Column B? Perhaps it was just one cranky lady in a sea of otherwise lovely clients? I tended toward the last of these until I found myself in the same situation with another author a few months later. Granted, I was not the most experienced editor on staff, and I wasn’t above being called out for some lapse in performance, but to be dismissed based on who I was, before I’d even had a chance? Not cool.
When I told my bosses what was going on, they were understanding and reassuring, but they were also very wise in that they let me handle the issue by myself, in the best way I saw fit. To me it seemed that if I was having trouble getting people to take me seriously, the best solution was not to run to my (older, male) boss to defend me while I sat in the corner like the dumb little girl I was so intent on proving myself not to be. Knowing my employer had my back was wonderful–everyone should have that kind of support–but it was an even bigger vote of confidence that they trusted me to work this out on my own terms.
So what did I do? My move was not bold, but it was effective. After soldiering through the two projects with difficult authors, I thereafter declined face-to-face meetings with clients before I’d started working on a project and had had a chance to prove myself. Not only did it eliminate chances of my youth being seen as a liability, but it made the later revelation of my age something to look forward to. The best reaction was the look of surprise in the eyes of an old Vietnam vet with a grizzly beard spilling onto his lumberjack shirt (he was literally a lumberjack and I was tickled to see him show up in plaid flannel): “You’re the Leah who edited my book?” he said, taking my hand between both of his. “Well, isn’t that a kick in the pants.”
Even though that man’s reaction was warm, one might argue it still reveals an underlying prejudice about what some people expect from a young woman in the workforce. If so, I like to think I did my part to chip away at it, even though I took a roundabout rather than a more aggressive approach. But honestly, if the other option was letting everyone see how old I was first and then working uphill against their expectations, I much prefer my method.
Now that I’m not twenty-three anymore and I save the pigtails for housework and Halloween, the challenges of being a woman in the workplace haven’t disappeared, merely changed in nature. As in my twenties I used to take care not to reveal my age to clients, in my thirties I took care not to mention my pregnancies, lest anyone question my commitment to my work or accuse me of having “baby brain.” That any of these things are still issues in 2013 is shameful, but I’m heartened to know that I–and other young working women everywhere–can do a small part to change the dominant paradigm and not merely stand by and wait for larger, sweeping policies to do the job for us.
Let us not be defined by our challenges but by our responses to them.
This post is part of BlogHer’s Women@Work editorial series, made possible by AFL-CIO.