Under the microscope of the male gaze from 9-5
Story by Allyson Cartwright
College campuses are environments where young women can thrive, nurture their minds intellectually and realize their potential and self-worth. Yet, when they enter the work force, this realization of female empowerment seems to be nothing more than a youthful pipedream. I was a woman who had naïve faith in the progress that our society has made in gender equality. Being a member of UN Women at U.Va., Her Campus at U.Va., and Iris Magazine, I was reassured every day that my voice was valid. I had platforms that allowed me to express female pride. I gained a false sense of empowerment because I had these groups at school that specifically supported my gender.
Outside of college, there there lacks such an abundance of easily accessible organizations and clubs that promote female empowerment and woman-to-woman support. There are not the same multitude of celebrated groups that spread awareness on domestic violence and rape like SARA and “Hoos Got Your Back”, that endorse women in STEM, or that encourage female activism roles like “FIFE”, and establish a bond of sorority sisterhood.
The male-dominated workplace, especially, is not so forgiving, as I have come to understand it. The female advocacy found on college campuses is not matched in the corporate world. During my past summer internship working for the U.S. government through the Navy, I was made to feel like being a woman was a disability rather than a source of pride. On this confined Navy base, I was a prisoner to sexism and objectification.
I thought at first I was just being a narcissist or paranoid, but this was not something I witnessed happening with anyone else, nor was it something that the male interns dealt with. When I realized that I did not want to feel the way I did, I knew the way I was being treated wasn’t right. I was targeted for what I can only assume as being a young woman in an environment almost exclusively male.
Many of the people I worked directly with were friendly and respectful, but there were many others who made me feel wrong, like I did not belong there, like it was “cute” that I was trying to work in an office, and that my sole purpose was to be their eye candy. Every time I left the asylum of my desk, I would pass by a man who would scan me up and down and give me a coy smile, sometimes a wink. The reflective glass on the fronts of every building offered clear view of the men behind me staring at my ass. I could see a man’s stare, plainly, every single time I went into a building.
I could not make any action without it alerting men. When it was raining once, I stood with the rest of my vanpoolers waiting to be picked up. As I put up my umbrella, an employee passing by ignored my colleagues and said to me, “Make sure you don’t get wet out here,” with a sly smirk and wink that dripped with innuendo. It was relentless attention like this that at one point led me to stop wearing skirts, thinking that that caused this unwanted attention. When it still continued, I stopped wearing makeup thinking that it would definitely make me less visible. I stopped doing my hair and wearing anything that showed my collarbone. Despite reducing myself, the comments and the unwanted attention did not stop.
Typically, I would chalk my experience up to being a lowly intern, but this was not how my many fellow male interns were treated. Seeing how their interactions with the employees differed from mine made it clear to me that it was not just because of what position I held, but who I was. From the employees, the male interns got fraternal words of wisdom, nostalgic stories about college antics, or were not paid any attention to at all. I, however, was under the microscope of male gaze from 9-5. My mind, my qualifications, and my personhood were undermined by my gender.
I looked to the other women in the office to see how they navigated this male-dominated space. The other female employees sheepishly laughed and rolled their eyes at lewd comments and jokes at women’s expense. They surrendered to the inappropriate behavior and excused it, often saying to me, “Boys will be boys.” I could not help but think, “They aren’t boys though, they are men.” My female co-workers offered me this mantra as a helping hand. But to me, it felt as though these women were deluding themselves with that saying so that they did not have to admit the unfairness in their career. It was easier to justify the men than criticize them.
After my experience, I relish the shelter of college as a young woman. At the same time this makes me hopeful about the future for women in the workplace. Maybe I feel so empowered at the University of Virginia because men and women here are determined to change the gender dynamic in our society. Or at least women here are trying to pave the way for other women to be a corporate employee without having their femininity hinder their authority in the office.
I hope that my story is a testament to the backwardness of previous generations and that my generation will make strides towards change. My fear is that the generation of men in college now will fall into this chauvinistic system and keep the cycle going. I also fear that when I enter a career, I will become one of the women I met who were afraid to speak up out of fear of getting fired or losing a chance for job advancement.
To end the workplace objectification against women, women need to take an active role in empowering their gender as the groups in college do. These groups on campuses that promote the empowerment of women need to extend outside of college to remind everyone that women are equal and need to be treated that way. Female advocacy groups in college are loud, highly publicized, and passionate. I want that enthusiasm for female progress to be present when I enter the “real world” because I have experienced how easy it is to lose self-confidence and self-empowerment when faced with objectification and sexism.
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