Women Working. Abuse vs. Discrimination: Illustration & Analysis


In my last post, I described what it was like being a young female practicing law where my clients often assumed that I was either a paralegal, secretary or something very much less than a credentialed licensed attorney.  The facts and evidence that I was an attorney did not matter: I was wearing a suit, explaining complicated and/or technical legal concepts to my clients, and vigorously advocating for them in court, and still many of them at some point in our interaction would ask “So when is my lawyer getting here?”

I wrote about this experience in the context of my own work history as an unskilled worker where I was often verbally and even physically abused or neglected, including being subjected to sexualized harassment, overwork and dangerous working conditions; condescended and talked-down to; and generally dismissed and degraded for being a young female as well as a “worker” and unskilled worker under capitalism and patriarchy.  My objection to this treatment was not based in “worth” or status-seeking, rather, I found this obvious abuse so troubling and so damaging that it negatively impacted my ability and willingness to work at all and therefore seriously undermined my ability to support myself and therefore to survive.  Because I was young, inexperienced, uneducated (and not yet a radical feminist) I had assumed that I was being treated poorly at work because I was young, inexperienced and uneducated and I concluded therefore that getting educated, gaining experience and aging would be the solution to the problems that I had identified and that I could transform (improve) my experience as a worker by transforming (improving) myself the best I could.

In the end, I found working as an attorney to be a humiliating and unsatisfying ordeal that did not solve the problems I had identified with being a working female.  But why?  I was no longer literally sweeping up after men, I wasn’t being aggressively treated like shit like I had been before.  As an attorney, I never had a client or some middle-aged greaseball (or 19 year old punkass) supervisor who smelled like dirty underwear simulate cunnilingus in my presence or spit “My way or the highway” in my face for the slightest perceived transgression, where under capitalism and patriarchy both actions function as rape- and death-threats.  So I had that going for me.

So what exactly was I expecting by becoming a lawyer?  To be treated like a queen?

After writing my last post I asked myself what about my clients assuming I was “less than” a credentialed licensed attorney was so humiliating and degrading and this seemed like a fair question to ask (and one not explicitly asked or answered in the post).  Was it really so offensive and harmful to be mistaken for a secretary?  If so, why?  Of course, only a woman would probably ever scrutinize and minimize her own experience with workplace discrimination this way.  To everyone else, meaning to men — even racially or otherwise marginalized men — even nonsexualized or nonviolent discrimination at work would still be considered obviously discriminatory and therefore would be considered to be damaging on its face.  But I sense a teachable moment here, so I would like to expound on the issue of outright abuse versus discrimination, and how “mere” discrimination including misogynistic/male-supremecist assumptions and bias manifest in the workplace and how and why they are so damaging.  And for those who are wondering, workplace sexual discrimination is harmful on its face where women are present in the workplace because their very survival depends on it, and where undermining women in the workplace therefore undermines women’s ability to survive.

In short, I think the treatment I received from my clients as an attorney illustrates the difference (and similarity) between outright abuse — which is also often discriminatory — and “mere” discrimination that might not include overt sexualized, physical or verbal abuse.  While I was able to somewhat mitigate or avoid being outright abused in the work context once I reached a certain status, as a female worker I was never able to escape the deep sexist misogynistic bias held by both men and women.  As a lawyer those assumptions never caused or gave anyone excuse or reason to physically or sexually abuse me, but they were still demonstrably and insidiously hateful assumptions and had material effects on my career even when the message was delivered “politely” or unintentionally/unknowingly.  And I processed insidious hatred in the workplace similarly to the way I processed aggressive abuse — it made me miserable and non-functional and thereby thwarted my very necessary attempts to support myself by working, in other words, my ability to survive.  The experience and effect of these somewhat different treatments (abuse vs. discrimination) were subjectively and in practice very much the same and threatened to leave me destitute and vulnerable to additional and increased abuse — and that was even before I got sick.

What I mean by hateful in this context is this: against all evidence that I actually *had* become and actually was a credentialed and licensed attorney and all that entails/implies like being intelligent, hard-working, logical/rational, and especially for females also courageous, persistent and unexpected, it was assumed that I couldn’t do or be those things because I was and must be the opposite.  Because I was female.  See?  My clients didn’t just assume that I wasn’t an attorney, which is a status-thing.  They assumed I couldn’t be one, which is a discriminatory thing, rooted in the unassailable belief that I was and had to be stupid, lazy, irrational/illogical, cowardly, lackadaisical and boring, because I was female.

Those are hateful assumptions to make about anyone, are offensive and in this case wildly sexist (and untrue) but I’m not just talking about taking offense and I am not talking about sexism in the abstract.  In a work context this insidious female-hatred affected me in 2 ways.  First, being hated, othered and misunderstood sucks and tends to stress and otherwise undermine people mentally, emotionally and physically and interferes with anyone’s ability to function, including performing at their job.  That should go without saying and I will not waste words expounding on that here.

Importantly, in my case (and in all cases really) this insidious hatred also had direct, demonstrable, and material effects on my career: when my clients could not wrap their heads around what was happening and that I was actually their lawyer, they would call my office and tell my supervisors that no attorney was there to represent them!  Imagine this playing out: I’m standing right there talking to them, counseling them and preparing them for their hearings, and as soon as I walk away they call my office wondering where their attorney is and why no one had shown up to represent them.  In essence, the firm’s clients repeatedly told my bosses that I hadn’t shown up to work.  When made against an attorney representing a client at a hearing, that is a very serious accusation indeed because missing a scheduled court date is legal malpractice on its face.  Because of their own hateful bias, my clients were starting very serious fires that I had to take the time and energy to put out and this happened more than once.  This is just one example of how discrimination plays out in practice but it is a particularly illustrative one I think.

And as if I didn’t already have enough to deal with, and on top of everything else, my health was starting to fail.  My energy and ability to deal with anything were decreasing by the day and dealing with insidious hate and putting out unnecessary fires could only have been making everything, including my physical health, worse.  And all of this was negatively impacting my ability to do my fucking job, to support myself, and my ability to earn and literally to survive.  That’s what was so upsetting and damaging about what happened to me and why my attempts to “better myself” through education didn’t work.  Both before and after I started working as an attorney I wasn’t after “status” I was just trying to live, and outright abuse was antithetical to that and so was being subjected to insidious sex-based hatred in the workplace, otherwise known as workplace sex discrimination.  I also have to wonder what the effects were on my health of essentially lifelong abuse and discrimination both outside and in the workplace (but I can probably reasonably assume this was not health-increasing).  As a female in patriarchy, there was simply nothing I could do to be treated “well” anywhere, including at work, meaning in a way that didn’t undermine my very survival — and my ability to survive without men.  Which is, of course, the point of men doing it to us, and the reason it seems so difficult — impossible, really — to escape.