Feminism pays off in the most unexpected ways. It’s not just a script I recite or something I put on for decoration, but something that has genuinely helped me cope with a world that is astoundingly and infuriatingly misogynistic, as well as all of life’s unpleasant little surprises…
…like when your male boss threatens you, which happened to me last week. It was a physical threat; I don’t fear for my safety at work, or worry that he could do lasting damage to me in any way. It was a verbal threat, an intention directly stated after having been heavily implied for months.
In a phrase: My boss thinks that his direct reports are shit. He likes to remind us how beneath him we are in a variety of passive-aggressive ways. I happen to think that everyone has value, and everyone has a voice, no matter what role they fill on the team. He believes we should be obedient, and never question him.
I won’t go into the details of the situation, except to say it was shocking – but not in the way you’d think. I wasn’t shocked that he finally verbalized his contempt and intent to force me to play the role he wanted me to play with comments about how he’s now the one in charge of filling out my performance review, and the one who makes decisions about compensation increases, and that I needed to comply with his demands. What was surprising was that he thought what he was saying so was okay, and that it was said with such conviction. I am above you; you will do what I saw without question or comment; you will not offer suggestions or ideas, you will merely wait to be told what to do and then do it.
And most shocking of all was the ridiculousness of it. The depths of his insecurities were laid bare – this man is extremely easily threatened. So easy, in fact, that the most mundane things seem to send him into a spiral of self-doubt so profound that he feels the needs to belittle and demean his direct reports in every way he possibly can in order to build himself back up again. His biggest complaint about me? “You offer me solutions.” Said with frustration in his voice. Solutions are his responsibility. By bringing him solutions instead of problems, I am overstepping the boundaries of my job and attempting to usurp his authority. Nevermind that all the literature about what a high performing employee looks like says that high performers are solutions-focused, not problems-focused. Nope, he wants my problems, and I’m not willing to give them to him.
“I’m the one who fills out performance reviews now, and decides about compensation…”
I reported him. There was no hesitation – I reported him, and the situation is being investigated. I reported him, and I was believed. All of us were believed, as I was not the first person to report him, but it appears that I may be the last. It appears that he’s been getting gradually more bold, as other colleagues have backed down instead of backing off, until he got to me – his biggest threat. Why? Because I’m a feminist. Because I have opinions and I will not be silenced. Because I’ll never put up with abuse ever again, even if it means risking my job to report it. Because I will not stand by and allow other people to be abused.
I intimidate him, so he tried to intimidate me.
But in the end, he didn’t intimidate me because I’m remarkably hard to intimidate. What happened to me in the past, all the abuse, made me hard, and I mean that in a good way. There are cracks, because there are always cracks, but I’m good at not letting self-doubt sink in. I’ve sealed myself off against the threat of other people’s opinions, because in order to cope with the abuse I took, I had to stop caring. And then I learned that not caring what others thought took a lot of the stress out of my life. While I certainly want to feel that there are people who understand me, I don’t worry about the ones who don’t. And if I ever lose someone’s love or respect, I find the lesson in it, and move on. I’ve been made hard; I’ve learned not to pine, to be content with what I have, and to not worry about the rest. The world is extremely well peopled – there’s always someone who will understand.
In the end, he only hurt himself. I’m going to go on about my life, but all of his insecurities, all of his self-doubts, are going to swallow him whole. His coping mechanism – namely, belittling and demeaning his employees – has failed. Not only failed, but it may very well cost him. What happens to someone when their greatest fears come true? He was afraid I would undermine him by having a voice. Say he is removed from his position. I don’t think he’ll see his behavior, and his decision to threaten an employee, as his mistake, but as me having successfully undermined him. I fear he’ll see this as a battle that he lost, that I won unfairly by stepping outside the lines, and that it will make him bitter.
Despite that, I actually don’t hate the man. Why? Because I’ve been abused, and recovered. Because I realize that all the toxic, belittling bullshit he spewed at me didn’t come from nowhere. Someone mistreated him; someone taught him that belittling others is an effective way to rebuild yourself, which likely means that someone, at some point, belittled him. He suddenly invoke that coping mechanism out of nowhere, he learned it and has likely practiced it, and found that it works, which is why he does it. He’s got some really toxic ideas about what it means to be respected and what it means to lead that I can easily tie to toxic masculinity.
I don’t hate him because he didn’t make me second-guess myself. I don’t hate him because I was able to challenge him, even in the moments he was attempting to scare me, and I never once felt the fear he was desperately trying to instill. Or, I should say, I didn’t feel fear for myself, but I certainly felt his.
But just because I can look at him and feel some measure of pity for him doesn’t mean I’m going to be the one to try to reach him. What happened to me helped me to recognize all the ways in which people can be broken…but it also helped me to realize that it’s not my responsibility to fix them.
I don’t know yet how this all plays out. I’m cautiously optimistic that those above us will do the right thing, but until it’s done, I’m bracing for becoming the scapegoat. Women who refuse to take shit all too often find that others find a way to pin the blame on them for speaking up.
If it comes down to it, I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is being silent.