Why I’ve never screamed in my car, but I’ve cried in the bathroom

I was talking to a colleague the other day about a bad work situation at a previous job.  He said, “You know, it’s just one of those things where you go out to your car at lunchtime, shut the doors, and scream.”

I didn’t know what that felt like. I had never done that. But I have cried in a bathroom at work. Many, many times.  Cue the Tom Hanks.

Anyway, It got me thinking about gender at work, and what’s considered “the norm.”  When this colleague made this comment about yelling in his car, he said it as if it were a typical thing that people do on frustrating days. Conversely, while I would have shared “crying in the bathroom” with a woman, I wouldn’t have volunteered it to a male colleague.  (I know, I’m sharing it with the entire internet right now. But that’s besides the point.)

What it boils down to is that in most of business and high-tech, men are “the norm” and we woman are “the other.”  It doesn’t mean we’re categorically discriminated against, or that we’re held down, or even that we’re unwelcome.  But it does mean that we censor our recap of Scandal while we listen to hours of fantasy football talk. It does mean that we feel sheepish coming back to the office with a TJ Maxx bag or manicure after lunch, even though guys come in with a haircut after lunch with no shame.  It means we wonder how many pictures of our kids are “too many” while the guys have no problem practicing their golf swing during a conversation.  (And COME ON, how much better can your golf game get when you’r practicing your swing with an air club??)

(As an aside, I am a football fan only because I work in tech. When I was first in tech sales, I found that I couldn’t talk to the guys at work or to our customers from August until February unless I watched the Pats game each week.  I am 100% serious.  So I started.  Then I realized Tuesdays were tough if I didn’t watch Monday Night Football, so I started.  I came home from work one day and asked MrDiva if he knew that there was such a thing as Thursday Night Football?  And I knew I had fully converted when on a Sunday night, during a nailbiter, I shouted “Sshhhh – I’m watching the game!” at him.)

A few weeks ago I was on a panel for new moms who were returning to work after maternity leave.  We were talking about how to handle negotiations with your boss about a schedule that enables your coming in late or leaving early to manage daycare drop-off and pick-up.  Many of these women were really stumped as to what to say, or if it was ok.  They were concerned about the perception their peers and management would have about them.

My advice was simple.  Simple to give, that is, not as simple to follow.  Think of every time you heard a guy say, “I gotta get going, kid’s got hockey tonight,” “I’m leaving early for my son’s baseball game,” “I can’t make that meeting, I’m coaching at soccer tonight.” And then ask with that degree of “normal” and confidence.

There’s a major religious war around whether we as women need to fit in with the norm or we need to change the norm. I don’t know the answer. But I do think we need to start with recognizing that there is a norm, and that it isn’t always us.  And that this norm is sometimes expressed in very subtle but pervasive ways.

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