Until this year, I have never spent time in a place where women were in a minority. In my preschool class, the girls ruled – literally and figuratively. I attend single-sex schools from elementary through college. My first job out of school was in social service – a female-dominated field. The very female environment of my workplace was compounded by the fact that the organization was also a women’s club, created for ladies who lunch. Its members were people who wanted to do good while wearing pearls. The group was a smashing success in its heyday, though by the time I arrived on the scene it was a smaller operation – though no less vocal. The group and its members continued to pride themselves on their position at the forefront of feminism. They had plenty to be proud of, but feminism wasn’t their strong point.
The first time I ran a meeting with senior members, I got high marks. The women, all of whom could have been my grandmother – some of them older than my grandmother – regulated the discussion by cutting off anyone who took too long to make her point. I sat quietly, taking notes and redirecting the conversation as necessary. As the meeting wound down, one of the women told the others that they should always have that wonderful girl – pointing at me – at their meetings since they -.
“She’s a woman,” Gerie interrupted, all 90-plus years and 90-odd pounds of her put into the force of her words. “She’s not a girl, she’s a woman.”
“If she’s a woman, than I’m ancient,” someone else shot back.
The group laughed.
Gerie shook her head.
Gerie would have gotten along with Mrs. Z, my fourth grade teacher. Every day for recess Mrs. Z would round us up into a semblance of order before we walked out of our classroom. Every day, it was a struggle. “Women!” she’d shout. “Women, line up.” It was no use telling Mrs. Z that we were 8 and 9 year-olds. “Women, quiet!” she’d yell in response.
I should have followed Mrs. Z’s lead then and there – lined up, shut up, and learned that girls are really women. Instead, it took me a few more years to fall into line, I have yet to stop talking, and it wasn’t until my second job that I began to refer to people with the respect they deserve. At that job, my supervisor was also a woman, just like the rest of us in the group. Her emails usually began “Hey Ladies,” and she sometimes called us “The Girls.” One day, I was talking to my dad about work, and in the middle of a sentence, he interrupted.
“…the girls and I -” were the last words I got out before he stopped me.
“I didn’t know you worked with girls,” he said.
I tried to backtrack. I did apologize. And I have never referred to my coworkers as girls again.
This year, for the first time, I attend a coed school. The graduate school is known and respected. As far as I know there’s never been a charge against the school for discrimination against women. But in the classroom, there is no mistaking the absence of women. The men dominate business school classes; they’re the majority of school and its most vocal participants. I didn’t think much of it, until I noticed something odd. When we talked about our studies, every male classmate assumed I was going for a degree in finance. I don’t talk about finance. I don’t look like I’m interested in finance. Yet every single man thinks I’m getting a finance degree. It was strange, until Emil explained it – by accident. Emil sat next to me in class; he’d check with me when he didn’t understand the material. One day, I asked him what he wanted to do after graduating.
“Trading,” he responded proudly.
“Eh,” I said.
“Of course you wouldn’t want to do it,” he said, “you’re a girl.”
I laughed. “No,” I explained, “it’s because trading is random. Though it is an excellent way to lose money.”
That ended that conversation.
I knew in 4th grade that Mrs. Z was smart. It took me years to realize that she is genius. Because girls become women – and if you fail to show them the respect they will deserve, they may fail to earn the respect they need.