As I leaned over the man’s shoulder, trying to get a better look at his miniature laptop, another man interrupted and literally waved me away. “I got it,” he said. Pulling the computer closer to him, he began clicking and typing again. I bristled and stood up straight, but I didn’t immediately turn on my heels- I wanted to see if he did indeed “have it.” He did, and both men promptly went back to their work, ignoring that I was a mere two feet away from them, looking at the backs of their heads. I took it as a sign I was dismissed. I had been.
I work in technology, but not the industry that typically comes to mind when one thinks of technology—I don’t code, I don’t develop apps or websites. I am in hospitality, event planning, but on the Audio Visual side. I cater to clients who hold receptions, business meetings and get-togethers. I’ve been doing this long enough to know whether there will be a problem the moment I shake someone’s hand, and being dismissed by clients because they “don’t need a woman’s help” is not a scenario with which I am unfamiliar.
The hospitality industry is just that- hospitable, meaning it doesn’t discriminate against clients who are misogynists, racists, bigots, zealots or anyone else. Everyone’s money spends just the same, and in the service industry, that’s all that matters. “The customer is always right.” Every time I am subjected to or overhear a racist/sexist/homophobic remark, or if I’m handed a flyer about God, accused of stealing, asked out for a drink, or if I’m simply dealing with some man trying to sweet-talk me in exchange for free stuff, I have to just grit my teeth and continue smiling. Saying anything beyond a gentle ‘no’ would rock the boat. In this industry, you can’t risk losing a loaded company over one employee making accusations about sexism, or as management would probably call it, “questionable decision-making.” There are a million other places a client can take their business, and they will. So I grit my teeth and smile.
Have I wanted to be nasty in response to the sexist or dismissive things I’ve overheard from clients, or the oftentimes equally insulting things they have said to my face? Yes. But have I ever stood up to a client on my own behalf? Or on behalf of somebody else? No. I can’t. I’m a representative of my company, and I am here to do a job, to provide a service for our clients’ events and to ensure everyone is happy; it’s not my job to act like the behavior police. My employer provides a handbook listing provisions they’ve put in place to combat conduct that could result in a hostile work environment; however, those statutes only apply to fellow employees and not the paying client. It’s a hard line to walk when a person is purposefully offensive and I want to object, but can’t. Even when I shake my head and think, “That guy’s an asshole,” there are still times when I feel complicit by not speaking out. Shaking my head is about the only thing I can do while I’m on the clock without risking my job.
One of the most mortifying instances I was personally involved in came at the end of a large conference one Saturday afternoon. The room needed to be cleared out for the next event, and I was hurrying to get out of the way. The hotel staff was beginning to reorganize the chairs and tables. After my clients had packed up their materials, three men, all in their early to mid-30s, began changing out of their business suits and into their street clothes. Right there in the conference room. I was the only female in the room when the manager on duty spoke up and asked them to use the restrooms down the hall to change. The three men, too concerned with shucking their business attire, ignored the request. The manager then said, “There’s a lady present.” Ouch. Not that they shouldn’t get naked in public, just don’t get naked when there’s a lady in the room.
One of the three retorted nonchalantly, “I’m sure it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.” From the corner of my eye, I could see the three men watching me, waiting for me to agree. I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment, so I quickly exited the room to let the situation diffuse, leaving my task unfinished.
Had I been personally offended by three men changing in front of me? Not really. Was I taken aback by their exhibitionism? Yes, as were my male peers working alongside me. But I had done my best to ignore it, continuing my work with my back turned. What was more upsetting was being singled out by the manager’s remark about a “lady being present.” More offensive still was their defense, “It’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.” I waited in the back hallway until the manager came out and said, “Those jerks are gone.” I reentered the room to finish moving my equipment, not another word said about the incident. I’ve filed it away under Jerk Clients and only bring it out when swapping horror stories with colleagues. Despite the passage of time, I still feel slimy when I recall the entire interaction.
Not that the Don’t Be a Sexist Asshole handbook keeps my co-workers from being offensive either. Unfortunately, clients aren’t always the only offenders—a highly-placed executive once asked me a sexist question about how I cover large-scale events in the event that I find myself without any assistance. If I didn’t have a scheduled employee to help, or if an employee called off, what would I do? I was caught off guard, and didn’t come to realize how offensive it was until I asked a fellow manager, a male, if he was asked that same question. He was not. I’m approximately 5’1”, so while there may have been some merit to asking a question regarding heavy equipment that requires two people to build or break down, the fact that the same question was not asked of my male counterparts made it sexist, and that infuriated me.
I felt singled out, and for the first time, I doubted my ability to perform duties I had no issues handling prior to that question. I felt I had to reestablish my value, and for a few weeks afterward, I grappled with paranoia about my job being in jeopardy–because I was a woman. I was offended, but I did not go to HR for two reasons: 1) He was my boss’s boss, two steps above me, and someone I probably would never see again. 2) I didn’t trust my HR department not to punish me for making an issue over it. So I did the only thing I felt safe doing: I convinced myself that the guy was just a jackass and continued on in my duties. Working in the service industry breeds a particular culture, and though policies exist to prevent all of the hateful and discriminatory “isms,” the culture of the service industry is such that you’re expected to have a thick skin—to tolerate assholery from clients and colleagues.
Thankfully, after an organizational shakeup, the man who had asked me about my ability to perform my job without any scheduled assistance is no longer employed by my company, and these days, I’m surrounded by a great group of peers. The damage is done, however, and in the back of my mind, I’m always painfully aware that being female in my position is not the norm.
In the case of the naked Jerk Clients, and by dint of working in the customer service industry, saying anything back to them could have cost me their business, and by way of residual effect, any further networking opportunities with their company or their acquaintances. Hypothetical or no, from a business standpoint, the negative repercussions that would have resulted from speaking up far outweighed any potential benefit I’d have experienced from dishing out a quick retort. And yet, I am still conflicted about not having spoken up then, and about still feeling hesitant to speak up today. I am not so bold as to think what I have to say will necessarily have a lasting impact on a stranger’s view, much less their behavior, but not saying anything sometimes makes me feel complicit in their discrimination, or sometimes worse, their outspoken opinions on race or sexual orientation. Though I am compelled to speak out when faced with an undesirable conversation or sexist language at work, it’s easier to communicate my disapproval through facial expressions and body language. I have yet to be reprimanded by my boss for lack of eye contact, crossed-arms, or a curt consultation. Plus, like I said, “The Customer is Always Right.”
Make no mistake, on any given day, the majority of people I meet through my job are friendly, breezing in and out of my workspace without incident. I count on them to make my job more pleasant, to tip the scales after a particularly difficult client has just called me “sweetie.” I’m confident I’m not alone in feeling resentful that speaking out against sexism, or discrimination, could cost me my job. If you work in the service industry and can attest to putting up with disrespect, discrimination and hate speech due to the propagated “The Customer is Always Right” mantra, and you want to share about your experiences, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Because dealing with shitty customers and swallowing your beliefs while you’re punched in is REAL SHIZ.