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July 27, 2008 / Amy Bradney-George

Cold, Hard Truth of the Workplace?

“Amy, you’re going to have to realise soon that your looks will get you further than your smarts.”

I tried not to look as shocked as I felt. We were sitting in the lunch room of the workplace where we were interns – both of us from the same university, but working in different departments. I think we both felt out of our league – we knew the theory behind the work, but it can be overwhelming to go straight from university into the workplace. I’d been lucky enough to have someone in the department I was working in decide to help me out. He’d worked there for years and before that had been an intern himself, so he said he knew what it was like. All I had to do to get other peoples help was ask.

Jerry (the other intern) didn’t seem to have it as easy. I’m not sure if he was ignored by the people in his department, or if he didn’t want to ask for work. He could see I was getting stuff to do, and perhaps that annoyed or frustrated him. At any rate, a few days before his opinions came out in the lunch room, he started making snide comments about the help I was getting.

I was aware of Jerry watching me when the guy helping me out came to check on me, and I was aware that he thought I had it easy compared to him, but I didn’t know if he thought there was a reason for that.

Grateful that I was being helped, I tried to help Jerry out when I could. I suggested he ask someone to introduce him to people working on something that interested him.

“You can talk about the technicalities and show that you have some knowledge of what they’re doing,” I suggested. He kind of smiled and I persevered.

I told him I believed it was all about the language that you used to try and get things. When I’ve wanted something from someone I’ve tried to adapt my language to suit the person I’m talking to, like working within a different discourse. He laughed, and I asked him why he thought it was funny. That’s when things got ugly.

I know the theories that girls can sleep their way to the top, that we “have it easy”, especially if we’re pretty. But any compliment I could take out of Jerry’s statement about my looks versus my intelligence was soured by the notion that I’m only getting help because I’m a girl. But to add insult to injury, there was more Jerry had to say.

“It’s so much easier for girls,” he lamented, unaware of how offended I was. The truth is that easiness is relative. Within both my fields of interest – drama and journalism – it’s probably easier for men because there is more demand for men. Girls have to look “right”, sound “right”, seem dependable (there’s some kind of idiotic idea that once we’re secure in a job we’ll go into nesting and start having babies straight away). As well as have the right personality (that goes for both men and women though).

I don’t think it’s easy for anyone. I think it depends on the person, and perhaps I have to believe that to think I’ll get a job when I graduate at the end of the year. I think interpersonal skills, communication skills, intelligence, initiative and determination are the values that will get people jobs, regardless of their sex or attractiveness. Otherwise why do people get on with me when they’ve only ever dealt with me over the phone? Oh, don’t tell me, I have a “pretty” voice, right?

Do people really still think that girls only get help if they’re pretty? That they couldn’t just be nice people who are getting help from other nice people? That empathy from professionals is impossible for interns unless they have long hair, nice eyes and curves in the right places? I still can’t figure out what offends me more – the assumption that I’m getting help because of my gender, or the fact that all Jerry seems to find validating is my looks.

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