Life can be tough when you're a character on a TV show. Fortunately, filmmaker and film teacher Jennifer Peepas -- who also blogs as the wise Captain Awkward -- is here to help them deal with their drama.
Sleeping with my boss has made me the office joke. How do I get the brogrammers to take me seriously?
Dear Captain Awkward,
I've been sleeping with my boss. To be honest, the sleeping together thing predates the official "boss" thing, and it's pretty much over now because he's an asshole with ridiculous hair, but it's still screwing up my life because my coworkers know about it. I feel like I can't make any mistakes, ever, because if I do they say that I'm only here because I screwed my way into a job when the truth is I'm the only one who can do what I do. Gee Willikers, it sure is FUN to be the only female programmer at a tech company!
But the worst, the WORST, is when my co-worker's stuck-up wife said something to me about it, like somehow my vagina is personally at fault for the fact that she's stuck in some assistant role wearing blouses with stupid bows on them when she should be running a company. Shouldn't women stick together? And I guess my overall question is, now that I've been contaminated by boss cooties, how do I get everyone to shut the hell up about it?
Do I Have To Personally Kick Every Single Ass In This Place?
This is going to be cold comfort, but in male-dominated environments, *whenever* a woman is successful at anything at work, someone will mutter something about how she probably slept with the boss to get the job. Or, they will constantly comment on her appearance: Either she's too hot to be smart, or too ugly to be hot, with the message that what she does and says is never as important as the package she's wrapped in. This is sexist bro-logic, where their jobs are based on "merit" and "fairness" but your job is obviously based on the only important thing about you, your lady parts, and did you not see the NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign on the clubhouse door?
If they are saying stuff like this out loud, to you, congratulations: You have officially threatened their understanding of the world order with your white-hot excellence. Now, if only you could turn that into some kind of cleansing flame...
This is what your coworker's wife is probably reacting to (badly). She's a little older than you, I'm guessing, so she's fought these battles longer than you have and she's done it by blending in. Being non-threatening, wearing the right clothes, being respectful, following the rules, being above reproach in all of her doings. "Working her way up." "Paying her dues." Her method of resistance within a sexist workplace is to visibly, consistently make the idea that she slept her way to the top (or, er, wherever she is) patently ridiculous.
If anyone at work were to say something about her sex life, her planned defense would be to raise a single eyebrow and say "How insulting and juvenile" and watch the offender slink away from her fierce Mom-look and go somewhere private to pull his withered nutsack out from where it shriveled up into his body. So in her mind, by actually fucking the boss, you are ruining it for her and for other women by making all the stuff that "they" say about women in the workplace true. In her mind, she is setting a good example and your bad example is canceling out all of her hard work.
"Respectability politics," a term first coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1994 history of the women's movement in the Black Baptist church, is about the notion that Black Americans could somehow mitigate or end racism through perfect behavior, exhibiting the "right" kind of speech, manners, education and clothing, by behaving like "model members of their race." It was about somehow proving their humanity to white folks. "We belong! We can be just like you!" Black churches passed out literal pamphlets on bathing, dress, and manners to working class people.
While the scholarship comes from the Black community, the concept is applicable to how other groups cope with structural oppression, and it sounds like your coworker's wife has bought into this notion that respectability is a shield against prejudice pretty hard. She wants to give you the pamphlet on how to fit in and be a "good" Woman in Tech.
The ugly truth is that sexism, like racism, runs deeper than that, and that white men will say terrible things to protect their sense of superiority and privilege no matter what you actually do. She shouldn't ally with them against you, and doing so won't protect her if they decide she's gotten too competent or excellent for their comfort. The beautiful truth is that you are already "human enough," whatever that means, and that you don't have to make choices that everyone recognizes as correct in order to deserve respect from other people.
If the wife brings up the subject again, turn some of the respectability stuff back on her in her own language, as in, "Thank you for the advice, but I'm not comfortable talking about my private life at work" or "Thank you for the advice, I'll think about what you said" (you WILL think about it for at least a few seconds before discounting it, so it's not a lie, and this phrase is pretty magical for making busybodies shut the hell up because you've given them nothing to argue with).
As for your coworkers, since what they are saying is true (you did sleep with the boss and obviously it's not secret knowledge), you can remove some of the sting by being like "So what?" or "Yeah, have you seen his hair? It has magical debugging powers. You should totally try it," and then doing your work. Keep taking up space in their world, without apology. But start documenting when and how they make ugly comments to you. And if you ask them to knock it off, document that, too.
Sometimes bro-speak is so automatic, and the bro is so unused to being challenged by anyone, that saying "Hey, that's insulting and obnoxious, knock it off!" is enough to put him off at least temporarily. But sometimes that is really, really not enough, so if you need to take the issue to Human Resources at some point it's good to have a record of what they did and how you spoke up. It removes their plausible deniability that it was all just funny jokes that everyone enjoyed, as opposed to a systematic pattern of trying to wear you down so you'd leave, giving them another story about how girls can't hack it in their precious clubhouse.
Jennifer Peepas is a Chicago-based filmmaker and film teacher. She answers questions from non-fictional characters at her blog, CaptainAwkward.com.