Sexism's Low-Grade Fever

Last week, many in the D.C. elite were chattering about Ron Suskind's new book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. While I'm not going to weigh in on the merits and demerits of the book as a whole -- too many people have done that already -- I was fascinated by a conversation it triggered about workplaces that are unfriendly, even mildly hostile, to women. Here's Politico's reporting on the quote that ricocheted around the Beltway:

Former communications director Anita Dunn is described by Suskind as feeling she worked in an overwhelmingly male environment at the White House.

"[T]his place would be in court for a hostile workplace ... Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women," Suskind quotes her as saying. ...

Dunn told POLITICO: "This is not what I told the author, this is not what I believe and anyone who knows me and my history of supporting this president as a candidate and in office knows this isn't true" -- a flat denial that will put pressure on Suskind to publicly document what she told him.

The correction came; the original quote mentioned that Obama did step in. But whether or not Anita Dunn meant to say that the White House atmosphere was legally actionable, here's what's important: Every day, smart, hard-working, and ambitious women are dismissed, derided, marginalized, ignored, and sidelined in ways that are hard to pinpoint and document. In these workplaces, no one is stupid enough to say (or even think) that women simply can't be engineers or economic advisers or comedy writers. No one actually grabs them as they walk by, or corners them alone in the women's bathroom to demand oral sex. 

The unwelcoming workplace isn't a deadly cancer; rather, it's a steady low-grade fever that wears you down by degrees (if you'll forgive my pun). You can diagnosis this illness through one critical measure: Women rarely stay long enough to rise up through the ranks. Or because they rarely rise, they leave. That's a loss of momentum for women's careers and energies -- and a loss of energy and talent for the organization that derides, diminishes, and disparages their work.

For instance, I'm reminded of a major nonprofit that produced an impressive, in-depth project related to violence against women. When I congratulated the women who'd produced it, they told me that their bosses had been openly hostile to the project -- and had ignored, undermined, and belittled their efforts at every turn. They'd never have been permitted to do it, but they'd wrangled a grant for it on their own. The project made an enormous splash and got critical White House attention. But within months after they'd finished the project, all but one of the women who produced it were gone; they were either pushed out or departed on their own. The women had to work on creating successful careers within different organizations -- a real loss of momentum for them and talent for the organization. The men who'd rolled their eyes at the project were left to collect the awards.

So how do you diagnose or describe such a workplace before all the women leave? Over at TheAtlantic.com, Garance Franke-Ruta cautions women not to be too sensitive to male habits like tossing around footballs or using foul language. She writes: "White House revelations notwithstanding, office football is not an actionable offense. It is a stress habit for men, like smoking or biting nails."

But as the estimable Rebecca Traister explained in a private e-mail, which she gave me permission to quote:

When people try to describe an atmosphere they feel is sexist, especially in a progressive context in which no one is likely to say (or perhaps even consciously think) "I am not listening to you because you're a woman!" they are describing a feeling, a vibe, a suspicion, a conviction that is rarely if ever concretely expressed or made manifest.

It's incredibly difficult to persuasively describe your gut feelings, or your impressions of someone's attitude based on their tone, or a subtle pattern of interaction, so you feel pressure to come up with examples -- like people throwing footballs and saying fuck you a lot -- that by themselves sound pretty weak. But those things wouldn't even likely register as unusual if they weren't somehow, in a small way, emblematic of what you see as a larger atmosphere of hostility or exclusion.

Mark Schmitt, formerly the Prospect editor and now a senior fellow at The Roosevelt Institute, agrees with Traister:

One of the things I've learned to notice is who focuses on who in a meeting. I remember once on the Hill, I was in a meeting with a female colleague -- it was really her meeting, I was secondary, and we were peers. The two men we were meeting with focused on me entirely, even when my colleague was talking. I remember playing a little game to see what kind of body language might make them recognize that she was there, and that for their purposes, she was more important. I spun all the way toward her, leaned forward, but still couldn't redirect their attention. That was such a blatant incident that ever since I've been, or tried to be, attentive to that kind of dynamic in a room. But it's hard to describe, except by reference to other things.

While it may be difficult to describe, I would submit that its effects can be quantified. Submitted for your consideration: the wage gap. Women working full time earn about 77 cents to a male full-time dollar, and that gap has stopped closing. That means that millions of women in this country are raising their families and children on less than they deserve, falling into poverty more quickly, and retiring into a diminished quality of life. There are a number of causes -- occupational segregation (women shunted into low-paying pink-collar jobs), sexual harassment, and the like -- but some is because women's careers are too often slowed by this low-grade fever.

So what? Why should the organizations that undervalue women care? If women can't play with the big boys, that's their problem, right?

Wrong. Women are working -- and organizations need their ideas. If these talented workers are treated as if they should be seen but not heard -- as if they were Playboy bunnies -- frat-boy-fever workplaces lose out. And so do the rest of us. One senior editor, who prefers not to be named, writes privately: "If you're going to have women in senior positions and then not listen to them it really undermines the efficacy of the institutions they are charged with. Diversity plus persistent biases (or gendered preferences, if you prefer) is a recipe for some serious institutional dysfunction, because people in critical roles are undermined, weakening whatever the institution is supposed to be doing."

Which brings us back to the key point of Suskind's book. If Christina Romer hadn't been sidelined by masculinism -- if the innovative Karen Kornbluh hadn't been shipped off to a post in Paris instead of remaining a key part of Obama's White House team, for a related reason -- would the U.S. still be such an economic disaster?

As my eight-year-old likes to say, the world may never know.

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