by Catherine Arjet, opinions editor & Grace McWatters, contributor
Although it’s 2017 and we like to believe that gender inequality in the workforce is a thing of the past — banished by the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s — women in male dominated fields still face a number of issues. We experience everything from small comments that remind us that we’re only allowed into the boys club if we act a certain way to us physically not being allowed in to these masculine spaces. This starts young, often before we’re actually in the fields as professionals. It’s something we, along with our female classmates, experience in our classes and internships across disciplines. Because we believe this is something that needs to be openly discussed more, we teamed up to discuss this issue.
Grace McWatters: Interning in the Mississippi Legislature
“Sweetie, you know you aren’t allowed to be in here,” said the Capitol Security Officer, hand on his gun, wearing a saccharine, Southern smile. My fellow intern, Emily Hussey and I were trying to find our first meeting on our first day of work at the Mississippi Senate as Legislative fellows.
I tried to explain to the officer, “We work here – We’re interns for the Senate Democratic Legislative – um” I stutter.
We were looking for our Supervisor, Representative Nick Bain, but he was nowhere to be found. We had no badges (the few Mississippi senate Democrat staff members don’t get these) and we were meeting our supervisor in the House of Representatives Lounge.
“We are interns for Senator Bill Stone – “ explained Emily Hussey, backing me up as I struggled to explain the strange circumstances that brought us badgeless and helpless in an employee lounge room on the wrong side of the Capitol.
“Well the Senate is on the other side, ladies, and if you really worked here you’d know that. You need to leave before I kick you out.”
That was my first experience as a Women’s Legislative fellow in the Mississippi State Capitol, foreshadowing a four-month long session filled with countless subtle, sexist undertones. I was an outsider as a woman in the Mississippi Legislature.
But that’s why I was there.
The Mississippi Women’s Legislative Fellow internship program through which I was employed, is a bipartisan program that aims to give women the opportunity to get involved in local politics. Mississippi is ranked last in (among other things) female representation in state politics. Of the 172 legislative seats in the Capitol, women fill 25, which is about 14 percent, despite making up over 51 percent of the state’s population.
The Legislature was a Boy’s Club and, during the time I spent there, women were never encouraged to speak up or draw attention. Emily Hussey, Kendall Hardy and I were chosen as interns to upset this gender parity and increase female representation. That first day, we were escorted out. The second day, we were followed. The third day we strolled in with no problems, just glares. Despite our protests, we were never granted floor access, no badges, no desks.
Progress can require an uncomfortable process. My presence was not always welcome when working for the Mississippi Legislature.
In committee meetings, where I was often the only woman in the room, I felt the eyes of old men on every curve, every inch of my dress. I was arbitrarily denied access to boardrooms while other male interns strolled through.
I learned that progress required patience, but that I also hate waiting. Progress requires pressure, and pressure yields heat. Female representation is only successful when we apply pressure, when we stir the pot, when we demand change.
I have no doubt women can handle this heat, after all, kitchens can get very hot. It’s the 150 male legislators who should worry about heat.
Catherine Arjet: Being a Female Business Major
“How’s it going? You had to beat them up yet?” Before I even look up from my textbook, I know my professor is talking to me, not my three male teammates. As the only girl in my group (a position I’ve been in many times) I know I’m expected to be the “responsible” one who “keeps the boys in line.” Over the years, I’ve gotten good at playing this role in front of our professors.
“Not yet,” I say. I assume this interaction is over, but one of my teammates asks, “Why would she have to beat us up?”
Our professor laughs, “well, I put her with a bunch of guys” as if it should be obvious that my role in our team is different than theirs based solely on my gender. I want to point out that I’m just another member of this group and that I should be expected to act the same way my teammates are; however, this professor, also a male, controls my grade so I bite my tongue and change the topic.
I’ve never directly been told that I don’t belong in business, or that my role in the business world is different from that of my male classmates, but during the four years I’ve been a business major, it’s been hinted at more than once. I’ve been told that I should consider changing my major from business administration to accounting because “it’s a great career for mothers” as if my career will radically change as soon as I have children, if I even decided to have children. I (along with all the other young women in my Principles of Finance class) was encouraged to apply for the finance team because the one girl currently on the team didn’t “think about numbers the way the guys do” as if my female brain doesn’t compute math the way a male brain would, even though I’ve taken the same required math classes they have.
I’ve also heard a lot of weird, sexist comments in the classroom, such as jokes about the number of shoes girls own, and how only men drive trucks. None of this is enough to make me feel threatened, but it’s enough to make me feel alienated and to know that my remaining a respected member of the business world will always be an uphill battle.
Sometimes it’s enough to make me want to give up. I could settle and join a field that’s more accepting towards women, or I could take responsibility for the men I work with and make sure they get their work done as well as doing mine and letting them take the credit. However I know that this is what I’m passionate about, what I enjoy doing, and what I’m good at, and I’m not going to let another person’s perceptions of my gender hold me back.