Gender in the workplace: “You’re not that strong of a leader, Kami.”


By Kamrin Baker

Graphic by Okina Tran

Towards the end of my freshman year of college, I applied to be a resident assistant on Scott Campus. I was simply thrilled. While my freshman year was full of remarkable milestones and friendships that changed me and gave me room to grow, I knew embarking on a new opportunity was exactly what I needed in year two of college. Plus, this job had it all: cute crafts and decorations, 38 friends and coworkers, the promise of creative events and programs, a growing sense of community, and the compensation of completely free room and board.

And those things weren’t myths; this job had it all. What was not advertised to me, however, were the other things that the job had—the unspoken and unsatisfactory things. People who cat-call me, even when I’m wearing $3 baggy khakis purchased from Wal-Mart, residents who would follow me on campus at night, colleagues and superiors who lacked the awareness and underpinning knowledge to work with women effectively.

Just to be clear, I don’t believe anyone in my RA vicinity—especially my colleagues—has ever had bad intentions or seeks out a way to treat people poorly. Perhaps even the opposite; they cared to advance us as employees, but didn’t know the right words to say. That being said, I do still feel that my workplace on Scott Campus Housing was unfortunately tainted by the gender disparity and general workplace hostility discussed in part one of this series.

As an RA, one is subjected to many difficult situations, like diffusing roommate disagreements, confronting intoxicated and troublesome individuals, and being the first one on deck if something major goes awry. In these instances, as well as others (like car break-ins, physical assaults, etc.) that occur on and near the UNO campus make me and many other women more afraid of our surroundings.

While I personally never dealt with anything life-altering, I felt unsafe many times I was on duty for my job, especially when diffusing an alcohol-related incident with only female colleagues. I would feel more immediately comfortable calling a Public Safety officer or a male coworker, but it doesn’t make me feel more comfortable in the long run to live in an environment where I would fear for my safety as an individual—just because I identify as a woman.

Another component of my RA job that made me feel belittled and diminished were comments that were made to me within our office setting. While some residents made my position feel more like a babysitting job from the mid-2000’s, my colleagues and superiors occasionally made my position feel like a secretary job from the 1950’s. Comments were made to me that were pointedly and needlessly gendered. And, I wasn’t the only woman on staff who heard sentiments such as these:

“You’re too much of a feminist. Other guys on staff feel like they’re being lectured by you.”

“Kami, you aren’t that strong of a leader. I’ve never seen you take charge of a room.”

“Sometimes your facial expressions make you seem upset and show that you are too obviously bothered by something.”

I didn’t speak up for myself in those moments. Instead of knowing, deeply and personally, that being a feminist and leader and emotionally intelligent person all coexist in my identity, I fell for the idea that none of it was enough—or even, all of it was too much. I was in a position of power where I could lead, exist and grow as I pleased, yet in so many circumstances, I felt incapable of doing those things, afraid of repercussions. I felt powerless.

In addition, that powerlessness was often only reconciled by the community of women in my workplace. Not only were these bright people there for me in my time of need and discomfort, but I was there for them.

When a male in our office moved my friend’s hair off of her neck and touched her at work, we talked about what we’d do the next time something like that happened. When residents found my friends on social media and messaged them in a coy and advancing way, we worked together to write the most effective response; firm, but still nice, because we were their RAs. We empowered each other to stand up for ourselves.

Of course, I will be forever grateful for the influence of these bold and intelligent women in my life, and I know full well that they are my biggest takeaway from my year as an RA. However, it was not in their job description to go to combat against things and circumstances that should have never been. While I was suffering from having my confidence slashed, I was also suffering seeing how other women were treated, too.

After enough time and pain had come and gone, I confronted many of these issues and comments, and so did a few other women on staff. We spoke our minds and relayed our experiences, hoping that we would not face retaliation. Our jobs were secure and our feedback relatively embraced, but what I remember most prominently was the men who made uncomfortable comments were surprised that I took them offensively.

I had to spell out what it looks like to have a conversation in the workplace that doesn’t center around personal values and characteristics. I had to give suggestions of topics that allow for fun and friendship in the workplace— but aren’t contaminated with innuendos or indecency.

“It would be a much better working environment if it wasn’t up to an RA to explain how they need to be supported to a superior,” another RA said. “I don’t want to teach people basic empathy.”

In those moments of bravery, I realized: it was not, and never will be, in our job description to teach men the things they never learned. Yet, just as it is not any oppressed party’s responsibility to teach their oppressor how they deserve to be treated, how else will they change?

Graphic by Okina Tran

The Assistant Resident Manager on Scott Campus, Chad Richmond said: “Everyone—if physically able to—is taught to walk, but the sad truth is that not everyone is taught the same morals. What some people take as a joke might not be a joke to another person.”

I certainly won’t get paid my fair share to break down societal norms and gender roles in the workplace. But in a setting where the actions of a superior or coworker become so normalized, allowing these issues to continue pervading our lives teaches men and boys that they can act without consequence, and it teaches women and girls that there is no use in speaking up.

I know I am in a crop of women who are privileged because of my middle class, heterosexual, white-skin background. However, I know I can use those advantages to evoke change, discussion and growth for others and myself. This experience has taught me the unfortunate lesson that this is only the beginning of fighting for my worth in my career; but on the plus side, I have also learned what a leader should be.

A leader should be empathetic, confident and bold. They should channel these strengths and skills—or at least work to improve them—every waking day. A leader should give to everyone equally, with the tenacity of the first female president and the individuality of the unique and sensitive versions of themselves.

But good leaders are also allowed to take. They should be inspired by their followers, humbled by their praise, grateful for their feedback, and made tireless by their collaboration. Good leaders create alongside their team and organize based on what makes everyone comfortable. They make sacrifices, but what they refuse to sacrifice is the dignity, mission and love of their organization. They offer light, wisdom and security without forcing anything upon their team, and their relationships are authentic, lasting and useful; not simply transactional.

This change will not come overnight, and in the next part of this series, I will look into the things that perpetrate these needlessly destructive social constructs to prepare for more rigorous discussion and advancement.

When asked about the improvement of the Scott Campus workplace, Richmond said, “I will always consider myself foundational in social justice issues because there is so much to learn. As long as we have these conversations, I’d say we’re doing the best we can—but we need to get better at it.”

While we continue that open-door dialogue on this issue, for now, I want to leave you with a quote to affirm the leader in all the women who fear they are only facilitators, organizers or team players—because that was never done for me.

“When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important if I am afraid.” –Audre Lorde

And my vision is a tomorrow where I can be considered a leader without a second thought—and the men who are leaders above me can use their strength and power to amplify mine.

We’d love to hear your stories, too. Comment below or message the Gateway Facebook page to share your thoughts and experiences about workplace harassment.

Part three of this series will be published on May 1, 2018.