The double-bind of the professional woman.

/The double-bind of the professional woman.

I’m sure every woman in just about any workplace ever will have experienced at least some of these. We can lean in and we can ban bossy but what does that do, really? When we’re not the ones holding the power?

Excuse me while I tell some stories.


Way Back When, as a grad looking for a promotion, I was absolutely stunned to read a referee report given by a former supervisor. I thought the guy liked me and considered me competent–hence asking him to referee–and so it felt like a deeply personal betrayal to find he’d rated me poorly in my report with the justification that I didn’t do “enough for the team” like “cleaning up after morning teas”.

Yes. Literally that. Those were the words he wrote.

And, like, just in case this isn’t clear; my job was as a technical security specialist. Not office manager, or maid, or waitstaff, or whatever. (Not to say those jobs aren’t important–they are!–just that they’re not my job.)

That was one of the first times I can remember thinking “would you’ve done this if I were a man?” in a professional context.


I’m un-feminine. I know that. I don’t wear heels or make-up or have long hair. I know my job and I’m not afraid to make other people know I know my job. I’m assertive to the point of aggression. I have a reputation for “not dealing well with bullshit” that apparently precedes me. I demand perfection.

I have almost zero workplace confidence. Why? Because I know all my strengths are read as weaknesses. And I know the only reason that they are is my gender.

I work in one of the most macho fields in one of the most macho professions. Well-meaning men constantly give me “advice” to negotiate harder, strive further. To apply for better jobs and ask for higher salaries. After all, it worked for them. Why would I be any different?

Why indeed.

I’m not perfect, and I’m not superwoman. I fuck up. I’m hard to like.

And no. I don’t clean up after morning teas.


At a training course. The trainer is old and male. What we in the IT industry call a “dinosaur”. It’s not a marker of age so much as attitude.

Earlier in the day I’d challenged the trainer over some of his Deep Pearls of Conventional Wisdom. Exactly what they were doesn’t matter, only that I’d done it. He spent most of the rest of the day picking on me to answer every question, trying to catch me out. I’m sure you know the type.

At one point, he started going on about “techo boys and coffee girls”. On and on and on and on.

Then he asked me a question.

“Well,” I said. “I’m sure a ‘coffee girl’ like me wouldn’t know the answer to such a technical question.”

The entire room did the Oooh Thing. You know what that is.

Later, the trainer stammered out one of those I’m-sorry-you-were-offended notpologies. “I’m just an old fashioned guy,” he told me.

As if I should give a shit, when his “old fashioned” attitudes make every day of my life harder to live.


I’ve had men subordinate to me call me “darling”. I’ve been told to get back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich, hur hur hur.

Yes. By co workers. At work.

I’ve lost count of the number of times men have acted surprised that I’m good at what I do, as if I’m supposed to take that as a compliment.

Every senior woman I’ve ever met in a professional context treats me like a threat. I don’t take that one personally. After all, what else have they been taught to do?


The fridges in our office are foul. Like, I’m talking “tangible stench oozing out whenever the door is opened” foul. I’ve seriously wondered whether the life forms growing in there would be better at doing our jobs than we are, if only given half a chance. And that’s not even getting to the state of the rest of it.

At one point, a roster for kitchen clean-up duties was produced; someone from one team every week to tackle the mank. When it was our turn, my boss took me aside and asked if I could take my grad (also a woman) and do the duty for the week.

I told him no. He looked shocked. I mentioned that every single other time the cleaning had occurred, it’d been a woman doing it. I told him I thought the roster was implicitly sexist and I refused to participate.

That week, the fridge was cleaned by a woman.

And the week after. And the week after that.

I know you know how this story goes.

2016-05-14T10:05:44+00:005th July, 2014|Tags: business, culture, xp|Comments Off on The double-bind of the professional woman.