As many of you know, my family circumstances do not put me neatly within the American norm. I’ve got a functioning Y-chromosome, but even though I’m happily married, I’ve done single parent duty for months at a time. Even when my wife is home, she has very little control over her schedule, and very little flexibility when it comes to things like taking time off when one of the kids is sick. There are few women working in her specific field, and not many of the ones who are there have families.
A while ago, I’d have told you that this gives me about as close to a first-hand understanding of the issues women face in the workplace as a man can have. I’d also have told you that I’m very confident that it is a good understanding of those issues. And I would have been right. Mostly. Well, partly right, anyway. Or at least a little bit.
In reality, what I have is a very good understanding of those issues, as they relate to that one set of experiences. And it’s a set of experiences where the issues are very easy to spot. Particularly if you look down.
That’s about the extent of the footwear that my wife’s allowed to wear at work. She’s got some variations on those basic themes, but that basically means that she’s got a few subtly different pairs of boots, and a pair of black low-heeled shoes for when the occasion is a little fancy for the Oxfords. On a typical day, she’s told which of those to wear. The rest of her wardrobe – let’s just say that when you open her closet, you get an overwhelming impression of “green” and leave it there.
It’s easy to think about gender issues when everything about the environment projects an aura of masculinity.
That’s not necessarily the case when the dress code isn’t quite so fixed. There are environments where everything is left to choice. Boots, sneakers, pumps, flats, dress, jeans, t-shirts, it’s all the same. Almost everyone who is a part of this work environment – whatever their X-chromosome count might be – thinks of themselves as being socially aware. Very few, if any, think of themselves as being an actively contributing part of a problematic situation.
It’s harder to see problems in an environment like that, as long as they’re not problems that affect you personally. This is particularly true if you don’t look. And, really, why look? After all, we all know that it’s a comfortable environment, right?
Of course we do. Right up until the point when there’s a catastrophic meltdown. That’s when we learn that quite a few people didn’t actually think of it as a comfortable environment at all, that they’ve never thought of it as a comfortable environment, and that we would have been aware of that fact had we been paying the slightest bit of attention.
It’s easy to mistake an environment where women are obviously present for one where women are comfortable. And, like most easy mistakes, a lot of us make it.
It came to my attention earlier this week that it was a mistake I’d been making elsewhere. I failed to notice obvious problems that a number of women had called attention to, and I did not notice that I, personally, had been doing so until it was fairly directly pointed out to me.
It turns out that more than a conscious effort to be fair and equitable is required if I want to help create an environment that’s comfortable for everyone. It turns out that I actually need to pay attention – real attention – to what’s happening around me.