Patriarchy in the (Peripheral) Workplace

My coworkers and I are rather fond of each other. I’m very lucky that way, and seeing as I’m one of those women who have always drawn a distinct line between their personal and professional lives, it’s really saying something as to how wonderful these women are. They’re both white women, and when one of them burst into laughter at the sight of a resume (“Look at this resume. Only a white male would list his children on his resume.”) I nearly proposed my eternal love to her. I’ve discussed the violin with them, described my writing, borrowed classical music composition books, made confessions as to the exact degree of my introversion, inquired about the effectiveness of ballet as a workout, ruminated on the possibility that all we know emerged from a collapsed star in a 4D universe–I even once texted one of them at 3am about my day. We’ve talked about life and dreams and love.

There are still certain boundaries I’ve drawn (I won’t, for example, be Facebook friends with them) to make it clear we are, ultimately, coworkers, not friends, but in all honesty I sometimes share more with them than anyone else–I would have said it’s a common trait of the career woman, but I know I couldn’t do this with just anyone I worked with; it’s their personality types. Somehow we mesh really well. We exchange glances. We make the same humorous remarks. The same injustices outrage us, regardless of how “minor.”

When one of my coworkers went off on a week-long vacation (the other was a new mom and checked out early before I arrived), I happened to feel like wearing a flowy olive dress on a Friday. Because of the coworker on vacation, however, I thought no one will see me in this and, since I wouldn’t wear it twice within one week, reserved the dress for her return. (Of course, people would see me in the dress. What I meant was–no one whose opinion I cared about would see it.) I wore the dress on Monday instead, and realized when I got to the office that she wouldn’t be back until Tuesday.

It occurred to me then, as it had before, that I, a straight woman, had just dressed up for another straight woman–that it was some form of affectionate bonding. I would not have actually commented on the dress, or expected her to, but the fact that I had waited until I could share the vision of myself in it with her is subversive of any patriarchal claim that women dress certain ways for men. There were men in the building, but regardless of whether I wore heels and pencil skirts, I would never dress for them.

As I walked out of the office into the general building, I happened to pass by a stairwell up which a man was struggling to pull a very heavy desk. Despite sensing immediately that the piece of furniture could roll down at any moment and was therefore a threat to my physical safety, I called out, “Need any help?” I couldn’t stop myself; the poor man was red in the face. It would be callous, I thought, to simply walk past him, even though I recognized that at 100 pounds, I would hardly be of any real help and might be committing some grievance against myself.

“Yes please,” he blurted, heaving out the words. I walked up to the massive piece of furniture and attempted to shove it up the stairs in his direction. I didn’t know who he was; I was all too aware of the fact that if he were to let go even a little, the desk would come crashing down into me. As I grabbed the furniture, the man was able to relax a little, but I couldn’t move the desk. He tried pulling it up again, and this time was able to move it further.

“I don’t think I’m much help,” I remarked. What I meant of course was that I wasn’t enough help to actually relieve him of the weight of the desk;–I only made a difference in so far as countering its gravitation pull downward, which, seeing as that ultimately got him to move it, was pretty significant anyway.

“Ha, I should get one of those young guys to do it,” he laughed.

I scoffed audibly. He must have realized he’d offended me, because there was a slight change in his expression. “What you need,” I wanted to say, “is someone who’s more than a hundred pounds–of any sex.” I was well aware I couldn’t lift enough to really help him; I was also aware this had nothing to do with the fact that I’m a woman and everything to do with the fact that, with ballet, I had chosen flexibility over the applicable kind of strength. Unfortunately, I was in a position in which he could very easily hurt me (by simply letting go) and I didn’t know enough of his character to determine whether he could handle being antagonized or would throw an emotional fit. It was not worth paralysis.

“You have this then?” I said, sounding irritated.

“Just–a little–more,” he strained. He took a brief pause. And then, almost as though in attempt to undo the wrong he’d just committed, said, “You must be restricted in that dress.”

It was a vain attempt to blame my unhelpfulness on the dress rather than my strength, and a horribly offensive one, as though my choice of this feminine attire (which is actually rather liberating to the legs, and would have otherwise been an imposition of his patriarchy) was what made me weaker, not the fact that he was expecting a fish to climb a tree. (Let’s see who can do the splits?) I clenched my jaw in suppressed anger. To make matters worse, in that moment as he rested, his eyes swept over me opportunely–the way I was positioned, further down the steps below him, made me conveniently accessible to him–and I could tell, from both my familiarity with the male gaze and from his expression, his thoughts were uninvited ones. I shoved the desk suddenly in his direction, and he started, as if remembering his task. With a single determined heave he pulled it up entirely into the next floor.

“That’s it then,” I said coolly and turned to walk back down the flight. “Thanks!” he called out.

I told myself I shouldn’t have stopped to help him; the worst that could have happened is that he would have been unable to lift the desk, would have let go, and the furniture would be damaged with nothing to stop it from rolling down. If he’d made that mistake while I tried, I wouldn’t have had the strength of/or weight to stop it from continuing down the stairs even on my impact–and it would’ve destroyed me with it. I don’t just dislike putting myself in situations where I’m dependent on some else’s mercy–when that someone else is a strange man I can not trust, it’s a psychotic fucking hatred of the circumstance. But I couldn’t have just walked past him–I hadn’t been conditioned to think of myself first.

Why had he been attempting to lift that thing up the steps himself anyway, without a lift? When he endangering not only himself but anyone who chanced to walk by below? What an idiotically masculine thing to do.

The incident reminded me of something else that had dawned on me early into my current employment; my workplace isn’t just wonderfully non-toxic for a corporate office–the fact that I work closely with mainly women meant events like this never happened. This man worked outside of my office, in the same general building, and chances are I’ll probably never have to hear his “benevolently” misogynistic remarks again.

With my coworkers, however, there wasn’t just the absence of misogyny–there was the kind of bonding that, when between men and masculinity, makes a male-dominated workplace impenetrable for women. As much as I’d wondered whether it was objectionable that I had texted my coworker at 3 in the morning–well, let’s face it, the glass ceiling exists because men text their coworkers at 3 in the morning. And have “business meetings” at strip clubs.

It’s interesting, then, what’s considered “professional”–and who is policed to that perception.

In my quiet little corporate workplace, there was a warm, inviting shift in the cultural makeup, where we discuss piano accompaniments and religion and astronomy rather than boisterously appealing to each other’s masculine inclinations. Any man–if he didn’t fit the atmosphere pre-established by our personalities–would feel like a fish out of water. And this is what patriarchy does to women, with exaggerated demonstrations of masculine culture forming exclusionary impenetrable connections, on a systematic level.

Are you aware of what has been taken from you? I have seen fragments of liberation. If we only knew the full extent of how we’d been wronged, we would set the world on fire.

3 thoughts on “Patriarchy in the (Peripheral) Workplace

  1. Lucid and enlightening vignette. Hearing your mind during the events is fascinating. We all have encounters like these and most are unexamined despite the dynamics you describe. Nice to see them openly displayed and discussed.

    Nice also to see how women can create space for themselves in an oppressive society.


  2. Nice observations, and I completely know what you mean about the environment created by the personalities in a workplace and how gendered that can be. I work in a male-dominated environment and I feel like a fish out of water! And it troubles me that a lot of feminist thinking seems to be about women becoming more like the male stereotype, to compete – Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, for example. The results of that being the dominant culture, especially in spheres of big power, are seriously bad – we need an alternative.


    1. I agree completely. I can’t imagine ever attempting to “dominate” my coworkers–people can argue as much as they want that it encourages “efficiency” but it’s really just amateur and insecure.

      When you’re good at your job, you do your best work, collaborate with your team, and give credit where it’s due.



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