The “Dear Sugars” podcast is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at email@example.com. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).
I’m a woman who works as a cable installer-repairperson. I love the days when I’m a force for gender normalization in tech. By simply walking into a stranger’s house, my presence opens the mind of a young girl to new possibilities, or causes an elderly woman to rejoice at the representation she never got to have. On a great day, every action I take in my job screams: “Women are capable! We can do it!”
But for every positive encounter, there are three terrible ones. The man who won’t let me in the door because he doesn’t believe I can fix the problems. The man who touches me from behind without my permission. The woman who eyes me suspiciously from behind her screen door because despite the van, the badge, the hat and the tools, she thinks I’m trying to trick her. People show me every day, consciously or subconsciously, that I’m not what they wanted or expected. I have to work twice as hard to prove myself to customers as my male counterparts do, while fielding ludicrous questions and comments about my appearance and my personal life.
After three years on the job, I’m growing weary of these interactions. Each negative experience breaks me down further, and the positive ones don’t lift me up like they used to. I’m also the only woman in my shop and I feel isolated. It’s difficult to share my experiences with male co-workers who don’t understand my experience because they don’t have it. Is it time to hang up my boots? Should I leave this job?
The Cable Girl
Cheryl Strayed: I’m the first one to say that you should do what makes you happy, Cable Girl, and maybe right now, for you, that means finding a job that’s less isolating and less deflating. The feminist revolution doesn’t depend on your ability to endure the sexist things people say to you while you work. There are plenty of other jobs that will give you a sense of satisfaction and pride without constantly reminding you that when it comes to gender equality we have a long way to go.
And yet, you wouldn’t have written to us if you felt sure you were ready to leave this job. I think you still have hope you can fix this problem, and I want to encourage you to give it a try — not by changing yourself to conform to the sexism that still prevails in our culture, but by bending your work culture to better conform to you.
Steve Almond: One thing that might help, in terms of your work in the field, is to depersonalize some of these interactions. That is, to recognize that you’re being paid to perform a service, not to satisfy the sexist, or misogynist, assumptions of your customers. It’s not your job to convince anyone that you’re qualified to hook up their damn cable. It’s your job to hook up their damn cable. If a man won’t let you in the door because he can’t fathom that a woman could hook up his damn cable, that’s his problem. He can wait for the next service staffer.
Same deal with the woman who thinks you’re playing a trick on her. If a man touches you without your permission, leave his home and contact the police. Period. Being in the service industry is hard enough, given the monstrous sense of entitlement most Americans exhibit. You’re not additionally responsible for battling the bigotry of your customers. Their hangups are their problems, and their behaviors — particularly unwanted touching — are a matter for law enforcement.
CS: I agree with Steve that a bit of righteous anger would do you a world of good. Those sexist customers will get the point if you take them at their word the next time they proclaim a woman can’t do the job. Instead of trying to persuade them otherwise, offer to call your supervisor to have them reschedule their appointment and request a man. I think you’ll be amazed at how quickly their confidence in you will grow once they realize they’ll have to go another week (or three) without watching their favorite show.
This approach will be more effective and less potentially job-threatening if you have your company behind you. I strongly encourage you to go to your human-resources manager and tell him or her what you told us. Your employer is obligated to establish a workplace that’s fair to everyone. Enlist your human-resources team to come up with ways to address both the sexism you experience in the field and the isolation you feel as a woman in a male-dominated workplace. It isn’t on you alone to change your work culture, but it often takes the voices and perspectives of people like you to incite employers to consider how they can create a more equitable work environment. You write so joyfully about being a force for gender normalization among the customers who feel inspired by your presence; you can be that kind of leader within your company too.
SA: As I read your letter, Cable Girl, I thought so much about Hillary Clinton. I don’t mean Mrs. Clinton as a political figure so much as a woman who has, like you, chosen a path that subjects her to the slings and arrows of a world that remains ruled by patriarchal prerogative. You write: I have to work twice as hard to prove myself to customers as my male counterparts do, while fielding ludicrous questions and comments about my appearance and my personal life. Replace the word “customers” with “voters” and you’ve just described the experience of many a female candidate.
That doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to a miserable work life. But it does mean that you should recognize the value in what you’re doing. Every day you’re out there, you’re forcing people to rethink their idiotic assumptions about the sort of work men and women can do in the world. There may be dents in your shield, in other words, but there’s also an army gathering behind you.