Recently, after suggesting a particular content strategy for a client, I was met with some unexpected resistance. I discovered that the client’s subordinate, for whom I’d developed this strategy, was asking my prior clients about my competence, in a fairly unflattering way. I mentioned this to the client, who directed his subordinate to, “go speak directly to her, and be honest.”
The subordinate set a meeting, and then sent me a list of eight questions that were meant to ascertain really, really basic competence in my field. Y’know, this field I’ve been in for three decades.
Had I been younger, more insecure in my mastery, I might have been intimidated. But this is absolutely not my first rodeo in facing the “skeptical white man of a certain age”. So I sat down and wrote a 2,000-word reply to his questions. I billed for my time, naturally, while simultaneously wondering how much faster women in the workforce could get things done if we weren’t constantly having to prove ourselves to men who don’t know as much about what we’re doing as we do.
The meeting came the next day. In it, the subordinate implied that I’d somehow worked my feminine wiles on the client, but that he’d spoken to a peer of his I’d done work for previously, and that peer respected me highly too, so clearly, it must mean that I’d snowed them both somehow.
I laughed, because there’s really nothing else to do.
“But that email …” he continued, “… that was formidable. You know your stuff.”
Thanks for noticing.
When I begin a new engagement, especially a virtual one, I am careful to pepper my conversation with clues that would lead an astute listener to realize that I’m much older than I sound on the phone. My 14-year-old son and I have similar enough voices to fool Siri 100% of the time. I sound like a teenaged California surfer chick, which is what I was, and where I come from. Even when I try to suppress that, it comes through. But if I’m speaking about my historical work engagements in a certain place and time, you’d have to pick up that the voice is giving you inaccurate information.
Those clues sailed right over the subordinate’s head. He only listened to the sound, and totally missed the context. And the deeply hilarious part about that is that in real life, I’m a grey-haired mother of teenagers, which means I get disappeared in the way that older women do in our culture. I am simultaneously too young and too old to respect. Schrödinger’s Consultant.
Do you suppose that, perhaps, there is something fundamentally flawed about how white male businessmen judge the women they encounter in the workplace? Do you suppose that a whole lot of genius is passing unnoticed right under their noses, and that is why they will fail? Do you suppose that those of us who see them and their knee-jerk judgy selves will throw our efforts behind their competitors, intentionally, simply because we’re really, really tired of having to justify our mastery of our field to their mediocrity?
Perhaps. And if we do, they will never see it coming.
The client, when I related the story of the meeting, was quiet for a while. I sat and let him think it through. “I wonder,” he mused, “just what he thought you did to win my admiration?” I let him sit and think on that a little, too. “I think,” he concluded, “that I’m almost as insulted for me as I am for you.”
Good. You totally should be. Because fundamentally, this distrust of female expertise is smarmy, and rooted in the idea that women can only obtain stature venereally. And that is as clear an illustration of how toxic masculinity hurts men as much as it hurts women as is possible to make. My competence was impugned, but so was the client’s integrity.
This is the kind of problem that men must fix, because by definition, women cannot assert their integrity and intelligence in the face of willful ignorance and obliviousness. It’s up to men to help their wayward brethren truly understand the error of their ways. Or they too will start failing competitively for their failure to leverage the expertise of 51% of the workforce, and they will have it coming.