One of the things said to me during the September 5th phone call with the owner of Harrison's was that maybe his employees didn't want to work with another "strong woman". This was in response to my asking why I was fired. At the time this statement slid right past me, something I now realize was a bit of internalized misogyny on my part. I've become so used to this sort of rhetoric in the workplace that it didn't even register. All I focused on was the word "maybe" and I moved on because I was looking for a definitive answer, not a maybe.
In the weeks since then I have, of course, mulled over the entire situation on a near daily basis, questioning myself, questioning the future, and wondering if I've done any good at all by coming forward with my story. Like a bubble slowly rising to the surface, his "strong woman" statement has risen to the surface of my mind and I can't help but feel that this sentiment may play a very important and unfortunate part in the professional environs of his business, as well as being something that many women the world over struggle with and face every day.
In order to unpack this properly I feel I need to go over some details.
When he said "another strong woman" he was specifically referencing his former manager who had recently quit, and was also specifically referencing that at the time the Salem store was comprised entirely of male staff save one female employee. He cited his staff as having been uncomfortable with the former manager's strong personality and expressed that they may have been concerned about having to work with another strong woman. He also cited my initiative as an example of coming across as "strong".
At the time, this was not something that had occurred to me. I had not thought of my presence there, and my working style, as something that might be interpreted in terms of gender, and certainly not in terms of any kind of gender competition. At most, I thought my presence as a woman might make some female customers feel more comfortable shopping there which to me seemed like a good thing. Now, looking back, I realize that I may have been an unwitting participant in something much more insidious, something I did not even realize was happening.
As I have also mentioned previously, this was not my first time working at Harrison's. I worked there once before, in the 1990's, without incident. At the time the business was much smaller and as such only had a handful of employees. If my memory serves me correctly, there were five of us in total including the owner and of which I was the only woman. Back then I thought nothing of it but now I can't help but wonder. Were no other women interested in working there? Or was this a subconscious (or even conscious) gender based decision on the part of the owner?
Fast forward to now, over a decade later, and only using the Salem location as I have never stepped foot in the other locations. As a frequent customer I only ever saw two women working there, the one who quit, and another who is still there to the best of my knowledge. During my two days working there this time around I was introduced to six male employees (and told about a seventh), not including the owner, so that would be eight male employees altogether in the Salem store and one female employee. I am not including the new hires (male or female) in this because new hires don't set up any sort of precedent nor do they have any impact on the store in terms of statistics (other than statistics related to hiring which I am not privy to) due to the fact that it was clearly stated that most of them would be weeded out and I have no idea who ended up staying.
I feel it is important to note, though unfortunate, that during my short time there I was warned repeatedly about the one female employee. This should have been a red flag but at the time I took it at face value. I was new and I was learning and I assumed the men training me were merely trying to look out for me. Her name was spoken with obvious trepidation. I was warned that she had very specific ways of doing things and that it was best to stay out of her way and that if I messed up something that was "hers" there would be some kind of repercussion meted out by her. From the way they spoke I took this to mean either verbal repercussions or ones displayed through attitude. It is maybe also important to note that I received no such warnings about any of the male employees.
So now, when we combine these things, the former "strong woman" manager and the current female employee who appears to be disliked by her coworkers, I feel like we start to get a picture of something larger at work. We can see when we try to step back from this a landscape in which "strong" is actually code for difficult, or perhaps even threatening; in this case threatening to the very male centric dynamic of his business. And it's perplexing to me, to be honest, because from what I have seen of these women they are hardworking individuals. They take initiative, they are dedicated, innovative, intelligent, and independent, all qualities you would think would be rewarded. But sadly, in business, these sorts of traits are still often frowned upon by men. We are labeled as b*tchy or cold or aggressive while these same traits in men are often praised and help them rise within companies.
It's funny to me that in this case the word strong was used as a negative because when I think of strong women I think of positives. I think of women like Aung San Suu Kyi, Harriet Tubman, and Malala Yousafzai. But strength isn't just reserved for those who make history. Every woman is strong every day. From juggling family to careers to personal enrichment, and continuously navigating a world in which we are still considered lesser, we each show strength every day, whether it's by simply getting out of bed in the morning or if it's by choosing to be a voice and to speak out as I and many others have done.
So my point? My point is the same as it has been since the beginning of all this: to shed light on sexism and to create dialogue about the issues women face in the workplace and in the world. Yes, I am using this store as an example but not because I have a vendetta against it. Rather, because it is a recent page from a time in my life where I feel comfortable speaking out due to our current climate. There's a change in the air, a sort of uprising if you will. Between the #heforshe campaign, the Gamer Gate situation, and recent revelations in regards to certain Youtube stars, more and more women are being brave and coming forward with their own personal stories of sexism, misogyny and abuse.
It is my hope, as it has been all along, to see a day where these things are no longer an issue. I want to live in a world where women are safe, where men don't think rape is funny, and where being a strong woman is something that's lauded instead of feared. I don't want any woman, ever, to be fired for doing her job with the same energy and enthusiasm as her male counterparts. We deserve equality, we deserve safe spaces, we deserve to live free from harassment and gender driven violence. If you're reading this I hope you'll do your part. Speak out. Create change. You have the power. We all do.