I was sitting in a meeting at a days-long confab and I happened to raise my hand and offer some training possibilities to the speaker for a problem she was describing. The speaker thanked me for the offer and turned to talk to someone else, when this grey haired man behind me, leaned in to snarl-whisper at me that I knew nothing about anything and how dare I offer training when that was /their/ responsibility and blah-blah-blah on and on.
In a previous life, before widowhood, before the dark changes, I would have been alarmed, upset by this unprovoked attack on my knowledge, and indeed, this attempt to frighten me and demean my dignity. I looked him in his angry, angry eyes. It was surprising to see such hate in the face of a stranger.
Now, years of pain and trial later, these eyes, this hate, it was well, trivial on the scale of the challenges I have met. It was literally, nothing, just mildly surprising. I inclined my head and murmured a dignified, “Yes, sir!” –what else can you say to someone who appears to be coming unhinged?
Also, well, I can say yes sir and mean effyou-thoroughly-and-the-horse-you-rode-in-on without missing a beat. 🙂
I looked around the room. I was not the only woman there, but just about. There were four women and two people of color (if you count one of the women twice) in a room of about sixty people. In short, it was a sea of pale maleness. I was a specially invited expert in the field to this meeting, someone whom the organizer had already publicly thanked for attending, so there was no question that he was out of bounds, like, waaaaay out of bounds–but all the leaders were at the moment, concentrated in the other half of the room. At that moment, I was a bit isolated where I was sitting. He had the opportunity. But still, his behavior was shocking, and the people around him tried to pretend to stare fixedly at the other side of the room, where the speaker was answering someone else’s question.
What was his problem?
Well, he was old. Maybe five years older than me, in sixty-something land I’m sure. In innovation land? Ancient, like dog years old. Hey, I’m old but not ancient. I was there representing the young innovation crowd, the people with skills they don’t have in this organization–needed skills and talent. I recognize what the attack was — an attempt to harass a woman, to tear her down so that she was not his equal. Or perhaps, as he must deeply fear, his better.
This type of behavior happens to women of a certain age and stage, when we are no longer the young potential bedmates of men’s domination dreams. When our capability becomes clear, we are seen as threats. And perhaps we are. We often bring fresh perspectives and much greater knowledge and capability. We did not have a ladder to success. We got to the top floors by scaling the outside of the freaking building. We come with skills.
Was he merely protecting his own patch fiercely, like my dachshund, savagely growling at the foot of my bed? Did he have problems with his wife? Or was there something else, some gnawing anxiety about his own place there that prodded him like a thorn?
I thought about how other women might have cowered. Or said something inappropriate. Or sat there, humiliated and fumed in rage. Instead I smiled and turned back to listen to the leader–another woman–one of the four in the room and one who, like me, was leading the show. It was a beautiful feeling, watching her work the room and shine so bright, another woman leader over forty. Perhaps that was his fear, that she and I had that kinship, that mutual recognition that he no longer could count on. No wonder he was frightened and angry–mostly angry because that felt better, I’m sure. I was where I was supposed to be, doing what needed to be done, and I knew that I was very welcome here. It’s not like I’m totally over being insecure, but not today, no, not today. 🙂 .
It kind of sucks having to be the bigger person, but in the end it’s best for me if I can manage it. One can’t, always. Yes, people who behave like this have maturity issues, issues of privilege and a huge, huge problems in their moral being. They are giving energy and encouragement to their worst selves. They build their own hells and try to suck other people into them. It cannot end well for them.
For me, it helps to see the reality behind the snarl–the hidden fear and likely self-doubt, impotence, and self-hate projected out to unsuspecting targets. This is the sort of thing that creates toxic workplaces and horrific pain. Sexual harassment is just one variety of this kind of pervasively toxic behavior that attempts to dominate, demean, and discourage. I’ve seen women do these same kind of demeaning behaviors with horrific effect on entire departments. I’ve had to call it out and it’s a hard, hard process–and I’ve had to become stronger.
It was a good day to see that indeed, I am that stronger person today.
Just my thought for the day for female founders over forty: Stand strong.
By the end of the day no less than three people, including the leadership, thanked me for my coming out to the meeting and for all my help. It was a good day. But when I saw WordPress’s word of the day, I thought, “Oh boy. Well… I have this story.”
For you female founders over forty, a salute from the land of carpeted floors. You too can be dignified, fierce, and fabulous. It takes work, it takes grit, it takes a calm heart and confident spirit. You go, girl. Keep it up. You will shine, you will fly, you will reach the stars. ~ With blessings, Lola