I have always been a feminist. I am a girl, and I am also logical, so the concept that I should have the same opportunities in life as my brothers always made sense to me. I love being a lady-person, and I love the women who have made unimaginable sacrifices to create a world in which I am equal to menfolk. Moving to Iceland, the nation with the highest gender equality on earth according to the World Economic Forum, has taught me a lot about what a culture of equality means in practice.
A difficult side effect of living in the feminist utopia that is Iceland is that I am cursed with a new perspective. The sad truth is that through working in Iceland, I see rampant sexism on a daily basis.
I work in an industry dominated by men. Old-school men. When they were my age, they were cowboys, and they still tend to think that way. They distrust me, a young foreign woman. What value could I possibly bring to a conversation among experts who have been in the field since before I was born? I have never been explicitly propositioned or assaulted at work. Men are wise enough (likely with the help of a comprehensive series of workshops on sexual harassment) to know that isn’t allowed. The daily in-your-face sexism I encounter is subtler than that. It is often wrapped in a messy tangle of “humour” at my expense, or at the expense of women in general. This kind of institutionalised sexism is a rotten puzzle. Laughing at bad jokes feels wrong. Speaking up makes it look like you don’t have a sense of humour. It is usually not a “big enough” insult for me to complain to the higher-ups and demand action. But all the same it eats at you until you feel like your voice doesn’t matter.
Male colleagues interrupt me constantly. Not just me. I will never forget the time my office was visited by a high-ranking official from an important partner company, who, after being interrupted by one of my male coworkers repeatedly, leaned over to me and whispered, “Good God! I can’t get a word in edgewise!” Once I told a coworker that I would be working with him on a project abroad, to which he responded, “Are you coming along to get us coffee?” Another time I walked to the coffee machine in my socks (like a lot of people do) and one of the old men at my work asked me if I was planning to start dancing on the table. And then there is the time I was giving a colleague critical feedback and was interrupted by my colleague who said, “Don’t listen to her. She is just being difficult. She is so hard to handle when it is that time of the month.” I was so shocked, I couldn’t speak. What year is it again? Did I just spontaneously teleport into a ‘Mad Men’ episode? Where I am from, people get sued for saying shit like that.
I recently attended a founding meeting for an Icelandic association of women in science. The organisers were unsure how many people would show, but they should not have worried. I estimate we were 150-200 women, who were determined to take two hours out of our busy Thursday nights to attend to what we all saw as an important issue. The subsequent lectures were fascinating. And disturbing. Women working in scientific fields in Iceland, as with other disciplines in other places, are grossly underrepresented in leadership roles. While roughly 60% of science undergrads are women, the number of female professors in the field is more like 26%. The gender ratio in science and engineering is abysmal. At one point, a presenter asked us to think of the reason why we were there. It occurred to me that all the women sitting next to me likely had a collection of nasty stories similar to mine, bubbling under their skin. It made me angry.
My biggest takeaways from my time as a working woman in Iceland are important, and I think of them every time I walk into the office.
- Call it out immediately.
Don’t ruminate on inappropriate comments in the office. Don’t let them bother you for months before you speak up. If something feels wrong, say so in the moment. This is easier said than done. When you are embarrassed, you blush. You get a lump in your throat. You may feel like bursting into tears. Your voice will falter. You will worry that you are making a scene. Make a fucking scene. You are doing everyone a favor, I promise.
- If it isn’t funny, don’t laugh.
This is also harder than it sounds. You want to feel like you are one of the team. You are in the club, so you can roll your eyes and snicker along, right? Nope. I have found the phrase, “Wow. That isn’t funny at all” can do wonders. So can, “I hope nobody ever says something like that about your daughter!”
- Defend other women.
If you find yourself in a situation where a woman’s voice is silenced, interrupt. Bring the conversation back to her. If you see bullying or sexual harassment, speak. If you feel you can, talk together afterwards, and encourage her to practice asserting herself. Remind her that her presence, voice, thoughts, and opinions are valuable.
- Occupy space.
This sounds funny, but I swear it is a blast. Men I work with spread themselves over any available surface. They put their feet up on desks, sit with their legs spread, and sometimes even do this silverback gorilla posture on my desk—knuckles down, leaning in—when they are saying something reallllly important. I have started to pick up this useful habit. When I need to tell my boss something difficult, I consciously put my hands on my head, lean back, and let my legs flop, taking up as much space as I can. It feels ridiculous, but it really works. You become dominant… like the powerful mammal you are.
- Remember your worth.
There is strength in diversity. You were hired because you have something valuable to contribute. Shout it. Even if you have to interrupt, stand like a gorilla, and throw a couple of elbows to break into the boy’s club, do it. Otherwise, nothing is going to get better.