I vividly remember the first time I was patronized in the workplace; I was fifteen. As I look young for my age being underestimated happens still. Women are supposed to want to look young, but it’s made it more difficult to be taken seriously in the boardroom. Many things can work against you in “the boardroom.”
So, when I was twelve, I wore some colorful socks to school and this was apparently a very big deal in America and the kids mocked me. Rather than retreat into mortification, I do what comes natural to sassy freaks and I started wearing two different socks intentionally, riotously, obnoxiously.
I kept this habit well into my late teens and was amazed by the number of times people made an issue out of it.
When I was almost fifteen, I worked a summer job for my friend’s dad who had a thriving physician’s practice. He was a well-respected member of the local business community and it was nice to work in an air-conditioned office. One day, he took me into an exam room to have a heart-to-heart. I hoped he would compliment me for always being on time, finishing tasks, working well with others, taking on more responsibility, and generally being of help to his business, so that I could take the moment to thank him for the job. Instead, he took this opportunity to tell me that my socks were “inappropriate” and that “no one would take [me] seriously at work” if I didn’t learn to dress like a young lady should. Now, I grant you he was older than me and I had plenty to learn, but on the other hand I was very well-traveled, intelligent, educated, and a hard worker. None of that matters, of course, when you’re in the body of a fifteen-year-old girl. Never mind that I was dressed modestly and professionally despite walking to work in steaming summer heat.
A photo of me on a class trip to D.C. the year before. I laugh at myself for my “business casual” sense of style. Loosen up, kid; let more than your socks and your face show your personality.
If he’d asked me why I wore wacky socks I would have explained that it was a deft method for weeding out assholes.
Instead, I pushed back. I asked him if my socks prevented me from doing my job. He said, no, of course not, but… and then he lectured me for a long time. He was wearing scrubs. He was also known for dressing up his work clothes by wearing a bow tie and being “the fun doctor.” He suggested that I should “become more respectful of [my] elders” as southern ladies are taught to say “ma’am” and “sir” during all interactions. Sure, I could do that for his workplace; code-switching is a useful life skill. He told me how to approach new people and get along with strangers. At this point in my life I’d lived in three countries and two US states and I spoke three languages and held several leadership positions at school but none of that mattered because socks and tone of voice.
Ah, my first mansplaining. You never forget your first.
He was a tall guy and had a habit of bear hugging his kids. As one of his kids’ friends he was perfectly comfortable putting his hand around my shoulder as we exited the exam room and hugging me and telling me I was doing a good job and not to worry . I was trying not to laugh and cry, somewhat in shock. I’m sure he thought he was being helpful and kind and I did learn a lot working there and I am grateful for the job.
But it wasn’t ever about socks. Just as it’s not about how I look young for my age. It’s about control and putting sassy people in their place. Unfortunately, telling me not to do something just makes me determined to do it more often; intentionally, riotously, obnoxiously.