I never experienced sexism until I moved to the South and applied for a job
Women here aren’t supposed to be ‘aggressive and intense’
If someone asked me what sexism felt like when I was growing up in Southern California, I would not have been able to answer them. To be honest, it was something I’d not experienced before. My parents had done a wonderful job making me feel equal in every way. My educational environment never made me feel inferior, and my goal was never to gain the attention of boys – especially not at the expense of who I was.
Then I decided to move to the South. I signed onto a D1 athletic team, and my freshman year was spent running around and fulfilling the crazy demands that come with being an athlete. Because of that, I was unable to bring the cognition into my life that I was used to, however there were certain things that I simply could not ignore.
I began to see sexism displayed in a way I’d never witnessed before. It was silent, oppressive and it began to suffocate me.
If I could describe what it feels like to face sexism, I’d say it is a slight tension, or a nervous anxiety. You know there’s nothing that can be said, in fact, you cannot really call out the person that’s discriminating against you. Most times you don’t even realize it is happening, but upon reflection of the situation you start to feel ill.
At first I’d grow angry with myself for not standing up, for not saying something, for not immediately registering what was happening. I’d question what was wrong with me – why did people shut me down in such a way?
Allow me to present the event that truly pushed me over the edge and made me realize that I was not the problem but the victim. It was a group interview for a leadership position in a university-run program, something I was very excited about and felt I was the perfect fit for. It required an interview that included two other male college students and one female student. I was slightly nervous, but made sure I dressed the part – business casual. I had on high-waisted jeans, a nice blouse, a french knotted scarf and a black coat. Not a Southern female style, but uniquely my own, and both tasteful and appropriate.
In the interview, the three peers I was with were hesitant to answer the first few questions, as many people are. They react to their nerves through retraction, it is very normal. However I saw this as an opportunity to shine, therefore I was the first answered the beginning questions. All these beginning questions were answered by all the interviewees, so the order we went was not relevant.
The interview went on for about two hours and the other interviewees began to open up more, so I made sure to shrink back to allow them space to speak. At times I’d add onto what they spoke about if it was a viewpoint I really agreed with or had an opposing view of. I had been previously told this was okay for us – encouraged, even – and I was no more conversational than my two fellow male interviewees. I would say my energy level matched them equally. The other female interviewee was a bit less talkative, more agreeable and less sharing of her own opinions. I spoke about my desire to teach young students about mental and physical health, as it is an issue near and dear to my heart. I was honest and open, but also kind and considerate. I felt like I was nailing the interview.
The last activity was a group project, and I again made sure to ask my peers their opinions on each step, considering their thoughts and feelings on what we were executing. We all got along well, laughing and organizing a mock skit for the panel of interviewers. We used lots of props, acted silly and did a great job working together. I never felt as though my peers thought I was overly cumbersome – in fact, I felt as though I could work well with any three of them. I would say there was one male interviewee that “stole the show” on the final presentation, but in all the best ways. I admired his wit and charisma.
However, the following week I got an email, I was rejected from the position. Below there was a note to contact them for questions regarding the rejection. Never one to miss out on a learning opportunity, I decided to pursue criticism.
What I was told in response was vague at best. For starters, the man that provided me the critique had not conducted my interview, he was left to read the notes left by the panel. He said that the notes mentioned I was competitive, most likely in response to me choosing the go first in the beginning round of questioning.
He then mentioned the note said I was overall too “aggressive and intense.” I asked for further elaboration and he said he could not provide it. The conversation lasted less than five minutes, and I was given no more than a few sentences to work with. He stated that the interviewers thought I would be a good fit, but not right now. Essentially, what he seemed to be saying was that I needed to settle down and lose my intensity before I would be a good fit.
Confused, I hung up the phone. Then it began to sink in. God forbid I be too keen or earnest in my answers. God forbid I’m comfortable in my words and confident enough not to sit in a room and wait for the man to lead the conversation. I grew more appalled as I reflected on it.
This was a university run program. I was basically discriminated against by my own university.
Maybe there is some merit in the words given to me, but as the time rolls on, I become more and more disillusioned by their comments. If they were attempting to help their students, the feedback should have been more concrete. I am very open to criticism, but the fact of the matter remains I was no more talkative than the two males in the interview.
However, I was more talkative than the female in the interview. I was no less passionate about mental health than the fellow men in the room, but the other female interviewee remained quiet on these touchy topics. Maybe it is not a woman’s place to comment on such issues with deep passion? Passion is too intense. Women only speak when spoken to — and that means after the man. A women does not go after what she wants, she waits for the man to bring it to her.
I reached a breaking point last week. I’ve spent this past semester no longer a student athlete, forced to open my eyes and see the environment I’ve placed myself in. While some aspects of the South are lovely, the suppression can be suffocating, overwhelming, and heartbreaking. My “intensity” and “aggression” are qualities I’ll work on in order to be a better coworker – something I must remain conscious of. But it is what makes me successful, it’s why I’ve achieved all I have. I have many female friends, none of which have told me I compete with them. I have many male friends, all of whom match my go getter personality. And then I have a portion of my life where I am learning, slowly, how to dim my light in order to avoid conflict.
To survive in my new environment, I’ve learned to quell myself in public. I used to believe this could change, but I’ve gone through too much to fight for it anymore. I’m done battling for my place in the South, because it will never exist. My plan for the following years at South Carolina is to survive; a place where conformity is expected, and uniqueness, dejected.