Latent, Simmering Sexism…

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It’s an experience all too common for women in the workforce and it takes a fair bit of bravery to speak up about it: latent sexism. We have a brave colleague, who will remain anonymous for obvious reasons, that reached out to femails to share her story on this medium. We hope that it can spark more constructive dialogue on this issue.

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From: N
To: —–
Date: Monday, October 24, 2016, 11:34 PM
Subjt: i need your smart brains

Hi. Ugh. I’ve had kind of a roller coaster of a day intellectually, emotionally, and, er, spiritually?, and I need to parse it somehow so that’s why you’re getting this. For what it’s worth, several other people have heard this story via tipsy texts, and if I can’t drink with you in person, a sobering-up-email will have to suffice.

I rolled into work today pretty pumped. This was the week that my boss would either deliver on her promises of actually introducing me around to people and like, getting things going, or she wouldn’t, and I would have a “Talk” with her, because I’m not here to waste my time. I don’t think the past 7 weeks have been a waste, per se, but they’ve maybe been less challenging or demanding than I expected. I’ve been given like, one task a week. Maybe the fact that I deliver on them is astonishing to Ukrainians but it’s not enough for me and I have higher standards for myself.

Anyway, today I’m dutifully working on this training plan that I want to finish by the end of the week when a colleague comes into my office, and asks: “Did Sveta write to you about your meeting at 11?”

“Uhhhh. No.”

“Okay, well, you have a meeting in six minutes with the Political Director and the new foreign communications advisor.”

I had already been following this dude on Twitter and had had dinner with a colleague of his a few weeks ago, and we were planning to get drinks soon. So hooray, I was meeting him, and meeting my boss’s boss, and finally FINALLY getting to go to the main building where more than four diplomats work.

We get to the meeting, everyone is very nice to me, yada yada yada. Besides my boss I am the only woman there. The political director is very young and wearing a knit tie and glasses and says some encouraging things in his nice English about how we’re going to meet once per week and here are the themes for the week we need to be driving home.

And then. THEN. Patrick, the new dude, starts to talk. He is barrel chested and brash and pretty much everything you might expect from foul-mouth sailor (his colleague told me to expect this of him, so thankfully I am not surprised), and he launches into a long-winded explanation of the communications plan he has developed over the two weeks he’s been sitting at home, waiting for THE MINISTER TO SIGN HIS FUCKING DECREE SO HE CAN GET HIS BADGE TO GET INTO THE BUILDING (why don’t I have a decree? why don’t I have a badge!?). And in the meantime he’s traveled to Helsinki and Brussels with counterparts and worked on things of consequence like speeches and here’s what he thinks are Ukraine’s messages for the next 2.5 months in the leadup to sanctions renewal. He’s going to do a training for high ranking civil servants. THESE ARE ALL THINGS I HAVE BEEN WANTING TO SAY BUT I HAVE NOT SAID THEM.

I feel myself getting very verklempt. And then I stop myself. This is stupid. He is more than thirty years older than me. It is already clear he is a force of nature within and out of his home country. He clearly has access to both the Minister and people that outrank my boss. Back home he has a budget to dip into for initiatives he thinks are worthy. It is ok for him to eclipse me. I’m not here to make notches on my belt. And better yet, I can learn from this guy. I can learn A LOT from him. I’m happy to fill the space he creates. At least I think I am.

We go to a very nice meeting at the Cabinet of Ministers, we both say nice things and echo each others’ talking points, all is well.

We go out to dinner with a bunch of other embedded advisors, have a very nice time, drink a bit, and then after telling us how much work he has, Patrick runs away to go work on yet another speech and promises me we’ll meet and strategize about my situation, which I’ve discussed a bit with him over dinner. And I go home and reflect on how, again, I couldn’t really provide a concrete answer about what the fuck I’m doing here. And how I am the only young woman in this group of dudes who have done things like “psy ops” in the military. FUCK.

Patrick did not hesitate to push our counterparts on a lot of things. Is it because he’s a man? Is it because he’s old? Is it because his foreign minister mentioned him in a recent press conference he held with his counterpart here?

I certainly come with less backing and support. John Kerry does not know me personally. Neither does Obama. But should I be less empowered to say what’s on my mind? Am I just less empowered because after four weeks at work, today was the first day I actually felt like part of the team, and even then only just barely, or is it because I’ve fucked up and missed my chance to assert myself? What is even worthwhile for me to try and fix in terms of the problems I see? (Patrick’s strategy seems to be to mention everything that is wrong and see what sticks, which I’m not sure I agree with.) Should I even trust this guy, who has no background in Eastern Europe, or was my (admittedly somewhat forced) strategy of trying to observe and figure out the path of least resistance the right one?

Great job on reading this email, you are already my hero.

x,n

To: Two senior female diplomats
From: N
Date: Wednesday, May 31, at 8:57AM
Subj: Flagging an Ongoing Issue

Hi,

Hope you’re well and enjoying the weather.

I wish I were writing to you under better circumstances, but I wanted to loop you in and get your advice and help on an ongoing issue with Patrick that I would like to bring up with his Embassy, as Patrick’s project has just been extended for a year.

As I think I’ve mentioned to both of you, Patrick’s behavior is often inappropriate and sexist. In December he screamed at me and Sveta in a small meeting in which we were the only two women among the group of high level officials, then threatened to kick me out of said meeting (despite him not being my supervisor and the meeting being about a report that I wrote).

This sort of behavior has continued for the past six months, but yesterday I feel his it crossed a line. Sveta and I were discussing an upcoming training with him, and Sveta requested that he include me as a trainer. We were discussing an exercise about pitching stories to the press when Patrick said to me, “you could play that bitch from the Wall Street Journal.” Sveta was immediately taken aback and asked Patrick not to use such language. When she was out of the room later he claimed “she misunderstood him” but there’s nothing to really misunderstand.

This is not language anyone should be using in an work setting at any time or place, but particularly as a western advisor in a culture as patriarchal as Ukraine’s. Unfortunately this behavior is typical for Patrick and I do not doubt it is worse behind closed doors when he is with the male colleagues with whom he works more closely.

I wanted to flag this for you and give you a chance to decide whether this is something the Embassy should take forward with your counterparts in his government. However, I feel strongly that they need to be informed, so if the Embassy does not want to be involved, I am happy to speak with them myself.

Thanks for your help and wisdom. Hope to see you both soon.

From: N
BCC: 60+ family and friends
Date: Fri, Jun 30, 2017 at 5:23 PM

Heyyyyy.

I’m currently on a plane to London, writing what will probably be my last missive before returning home. Three weeks from right now I will be somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, headed home to DC in a baller business class lie flat seat that I probably won’t get much use out of since it’s a daytime flight. Maybe it will help me hide my tearstained face from other passengers. (Even if I wanted nothing but to leave this place – which is not the case, obviously – I would probably still cry on the flight. I would say my tears-to-flights ratio is probably pretty close to 1:1. Apparently there’s science behind this. I’m not questioning it.)

Anyway, I’m going to London to give my first paid presentation as an expert on disinformation. I got the gig thanks to a connection I made at the conference I attended in Prague in May, and I’m not one to turn down a free trip to London, though the past few weeks have been pretty grueling and show no signs of letting up any time soon. That’s probably good, because every time I have a spare second – usually walking the green streets of Kyiv in the early morning or late afternoon, when it’s bathed in a golden light and, while quiet, still full of an undeniable energy of a city that’s up to something – I get a little weepy.

Don’t get me wrong, I am looking forward to literally everything about being back in America, even the annoying and the stupid and the Trumpian (at least I can start going to some of these weekend protests outside the White House and call my representatives during business hours), and very much looking forward to leaving behind screenless windows, and my oven buzzer that goes off at random intervals no matter what I do, and the rocks and dust that still sometimes cover all the surfaces in my kitchen when my upstairs neighbors continue their seemingly endless renovations, and the fact that now that it’s open window season my floors get covered in an indescribable grime that I can only assume I’ve been breathing for the past ten months, despite all of that, I will miss this place terribly.

Sunday, when two of my friends, a married couple who met in Ukraine on Peace Corps and are now U.S. diplomats here, asked me what I’d miss most about Ukraine in hour eight or nine of an eleven hour road trip, I couldn’t really answer them. I don’t know if I was just zonked from our adventures that day or if I was just having trouble articulating, but I was kind of dumbfounded. I will miss my friendly baristas (two of them who work at the shop across the street from my apartment were visibly sad when I told them I would be leaving soon, which, of course, made me tear up) and the people who give me really over the top compliments about my Russian or Ukrainian. I will miss my colleagues who never balk at any of my weird questions (the most recent of which was: how does one get permission from the Ukrainian Border Guards to go hiking in the Mamarosy Alps [which border Romania… don’t worry, I picked a mountain range farther from the border]) and go above and beyond to help me get answers. But most of all I will miss – and to some extent, worry I will lose – what Ukraine has given me intellectually and personally. I am empowered because of this experience. I still doubt myself a lot, but I feel fiercer and stronger and hopefully more prepared to deal with whatever is waiting in the future.

Besides all the thinking and reading and writing I’ve done, I’ve had to stand up for myself and my beliefs in ways I never did before. Do you all remember Patrick, the loud, older guy who is also a communications adviser at the Ministry? Well, his loud, older guy schtick got old after a while. It became clear to me that he was driving a wedge between me and my boss, who, despite everything, I have really come to respect, because her job as Spokesperson of a government ministry in a democratizing country-at-war is really fucking difficult. Doing it as a woman makes it even more so. And for some reason – actually, I know the reason, it’s because he doesn’t understand Ukraine and is a man – Patrick got it in his head that she was the problem and tried to make me think that, too.

He almost succeeded, until I realized that the lack of integration of not only me, but of Sveta and our entire team into his work was just a product of his latent, simmering sexism. Being an old gay man doesn’t mean you can scream at two female colleagues in a room full of men who will never defend them (yes, this happened). It doesn’t allow you to choose a young Ukrainian diplomat who could be, I don’t know, helping her country? to be your personal secretary, despite there being plenty of men who she outranks who could help you with your admin. And it certainly doesn’t permit you to say something to me like “Oh, and you can play that bitch from the Wall Street Journal” when discussing a role-playing exercise on pitching journalists at an upcoming training.

That episode was when I drew the line and decided that with less than two months left in Ukraine, I couldn’t let this behavior stand. In the grand scheme of things, you may think that “bitch” isn’t so bad, particularly when he’s just insinuating that I am one and not telling me I am one. Women deal with a lot worse, sure. But it’s our acceptance of this low-level sexism that allows the other stuff to proliferate. It also reflects poorly not only on the Ministry, but on Patrick’s government and the entire foreign assistance paradigm, not to mention the fact that it exacerbates Ukraine’s ingrained sexism. So I went through diplomatic channels to raise a complaint against him.

A whole lot of nothing came of it, pretty much. Patrick was admonished and he almost certainly knows I raised the complaint, because he hasn’t spoken to me all month. I started to feel guilty, because when he wasn’t busy being a turbo dick, Patrick was okay. But the only times he was okay were when he wanted my help with something (for which he would later claim credit).

In America, I may have let that saga slide. But I’m supposed to be here building mutual understanding. And if the mutual understanding I bring to Ukraine – even if that’s only to the female colleagues who knew about my complaint – is that women do not deserve to be called bitches at their place of employment, then I have fulfilled my objective.

And that’s the kind of fire I hope I’m bringing back to the States. I may have to sleep for two weeks when I get home to recharge my batteries, though.

xo,
N

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