The Women in Housing series is a month-long project featuring the voices, stories, and experiences of women who currently or formerly work in housing and residence life. Today's post was written by an author who asked to remain anonymous.
As a woman, working in campus housing, I see opportunities to set the tone, be the example, and lead the conversation. Me. I get to be that person that will leave my environment better than how I found it. I have an opportunity to mentor women who will follow in my footsteps. I am empowered to challenge frameworks that silence our voices.
Sounds great, right?
Reality check. Sometimes, all that can be really hard.
I am a thirty something married woman living in the south, but I grew up on the west coast. I moved to the south because I wanted seasons. I wanted to experience something different. However, since moving to the south, I have faced situations that I was simply not ready for. Maybe I was not prepared for the real world. Maybe I was struggling with moving to a different region. Maybe both.
Since I moved to the south, I have had peers challenge me for working and not starting a family. It was strange for me to defend what I thought was a personal decision between my husband and I. Somehow, I was placed in a defensive position for a decision that should have had no impact on my work. Somehow, I was not achieving a goal that was expected of other women of my age.
In this new environment, I found myself to be the only female in most meetings. Sometimes, I was joined by one or two other women. Yet, we were greatly outnumbered. I became accustomed to seeing five men to every woman in a room. It was weird at first, but it became normal. I was surprised at conferences when I saw so many women around me. Not to mention minority women. That was rare.
I had male colleagues who publicly dismissed my role, walked away from me in the middle of critical discussions, and accused me of rising too fast.
What does that even mean? How can someone rise too fast? Accomplish too much?
When I tried to address it, I was accused of being too emotional.
There were office jokes. Sometimes, those jokes were daily and introduced tiny tears in my resilience. They weren’t inherently awful, and often they were made by the few colleagues that I relied on the most. But, I couldn’t help but think that those underhanded comments, those jokes, they were how those colleagues actually viewed me.
Our leadership was dominated by men, where aggressive communication styles were preferred. If your voice wasn’t as loud as the four men you are arguing with, you were not heard. You were not relevant.
For the first two and a half years in my new role, I was the only female in my office space in a professional position. I was outnumbered. This wasn’t to say that I wasn’t successful. I achieved a lot in that position. I am really proud of the program I built. But, I was completely out of my element. I thought about moving back home, a lot.
Then, by a stroke of luck, my department hired another woman around my age, to work across the hall from me. When I heard about her hire, beautiful angels started singing. Warm sunlight came through my office window and highlighted her new desk. A miracle had just occurred.
I rejoiced in the thought of having a colleague that I could share this environment with. I would have things in common with her, and we could face the issues as a team. Together, we could make our environment better than how we found it. This was going to be the change that would make a difference. Super women. We were going to rule the world.
That’s not what happened.
Somehow, I had allowed myself to fall into a trap where I distanced myself from the very person that needed to have an ally. I overheard the jokes they made about her. How young she was. How she dressed. How she spoke. The quality of experience that she brought to her position.
The men in our office even changed their tone of voice when they spoke to her. They were careful. They treated her with kid gloves, afraid that she will somehow shatter under their pressure.
I distanced myself.
She was a liability. I had spent two and a half years fighting for legitimacy. I wanted my colleagues to respect my work, to listen to me when I spoke, to consider my positions as thoughtful input. Aligning myself with her would only jeopardize that hard work.
It was politically strategic for me to distance myself. I had to.
Today, I am still appalled by my behavior.
Sure, I was nice to her. I’m not an inherently mean person. But, I could have done more. I could have been better. When I look back and think about it, I am horrified at my behavior (or lack thereof). I, along with every woman who is reading this, has engaged in critical conversations about making our environments a better place for women. We discuss mentoring the women that follow us, so that they may feel empowered in their own roles. We talk about speaking up, and challenging those frameworks. We have been to the conferences, joined the advocacy groups, researched the trends, and encouraged and supported female students.
I’m here to tell you that in real life, it is sometimes easier said than done.
What does it mean to be a woman in the housing profession? It means living by your words. It means that no matter how hard it is, or how inconvenient it is, we need to be allies to those who need us. It means that I needed to do better.
I vow to do better. To be better.
Hopefully, the universe will award me another opportunity. The planets will align and place another woman in my world that I can support, can mentor, and can sponsor. I can challenge the frameworks to create a better place for her.
I have the power to say that this is not going to be how my story will end. I will keep looking forward.
I will leave my environment better than how I found it.
The author of this post requested to remain anonymous due to the content of her story.