This summer has been my first taste of the real world. They say there is no better teacher than experience, and interning for a high-end residential interior design firm in a fast-paced city has taught me more in one summer than an entire year of school could. So much learning makes me feel unsure of myself at times, but I am surrounded by an amazing team of women who are well-equipped to walk me through the very necessary steps of learning to be a real deal designer. They've taught me how to respectfully handle common struggles within the field, such as anxious clients, or difficult vendors, or... sexism in the workplace?
Yep, sexism in the workplace. It's 2016 and I'm still having to understand—and somewhat oblige to—sexism in the workplace.
For every powerful woman I've had the pleasure of learning from this summer, I've also been met with twice as many male contractors, construction workers, electricians, plumbers, etc. who also offer their fair share of input (some of which I really did not ask for).
Look, I understand my role. I'm 22 years old–a spring chicken in the eyes of many of my coworkers. I'm an intern making $60 a week. I just graduated college and, frankly, I need all the help I can get. My ears are always open to useful advice from those within my field. This post is not to whine about my lack of authority, nor my hatred of men. I am incredibly thankful to the women of the past, present, and future who have paved the road for today's fight for equality. The issues of today seem almost trivial compared to the many generations before me. This is just me, expressing exhaustion, confusion, and annoyance with some of my surroundings.
The other day, an electrician was asking me if I had seen a chandelier piece that was missing.
No, actually let's back up a little. First, he yelled, "Hey, ladybug! I got a question for you!" Unfortunately, I knew he was talking to me, because this pet name is exclaimed multiple times a day. After catching my attention, he asked me if I could help him find a "little spinny topper thingy" for a chandelier.
"... A finial?" I asked.
To which he replied, "Wow! I didn't think you'd know that word!"
Unfortunately, the scene never ends! I am met with these microaggressions pretty much daily, and while I do feel that a big part of it is my age and my position (or lack thereof) within the firm, my very powerful bosses are nowhere near excluded from these situations. When the firm's lead designers walk into a demo project, they are always greeted with one or more of the following:
• ladies (this one can be OK, but is sometimes a gateway for any of the below)
• girlies (these are grown women who pay your bills, but whatever)
• ladybugs (ugh. why?)
• "designers" (this would be great if it were not accompanied by very belittling air quotes and other weird hand gestures)
The authority-stripping word choice is just the beginning for my bosses; there is a complete lack of understanding of who runs the show during these big projects, and I am going to go ahead and say that it is absolutely due to the actual show runners' gender.
Some of these men simply will not tolerate being bossed around by a bunch of ladybugs: plumbers offer their input on furniture selection, lighting technicians pull me aside to state that the wall color is wrong... I've even had to stop a painter from rearranging a bedroom because he disagreed with the spatial layout.
THESE ARE NOT THEIR JOBS. They have jobs, they are good at their jobs, and the women they are working for allow and encourage them to do their jobs. So why the need to infringe upon another person's job?
What we have here is a fine example of mansplaining. If this word is not already in your vocabulary, feel free to add it now.
gerund or present participle: mansplaining
(of a man) explain (something) to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as
condescending or patronizing.
"I'm listening to a guy mansplain economics to his wife"
I have been hyperaware of the mansplaining that goes on within the design industry since one of my first large projects in undergrad. My interior design studio (mostly female) was partnered with a landscape architecture studio (mostly male). Within my assigned group, the other girl from my studio and I were having difficulty being heard by our male group members. We were essentially told that they, the men, would do the big, scary, challenging stuff, and we could come in at the end and make sure everything was nice and pretty. Yeah, that was insulting.
I spent four years studying interior design from all aspects. I am familiar with footcandles and double rubs and volatile organic compounds and any other fancy word a construction worker throws at me in hopes of making me feel inferior. I'm very proud of my education and my career path, and I am very tired of being greeted every morning with some term of mocking endearment.
This problem is absolutely not exclusive to the design world—in fact, I'm sure the world that I've chosen to live in is much better than a number of other professions. Women more or less invented interior design (shoutout Elsie de Wolfe), and still it remains a fairly female-dominated career path, just as fields of construction work and other manual labor professions remain male-dominated.
These two fields of design and manual labor will never stop overlapping... at least I hope not, because I am very scared of power tools. All that I ask is that we find a way to respect each other and understand each other's roles and boundaries.
This post doesn't have a very conclusive ending. I'm still exhausted, confused, and annoyed. I have no advice for how to best navigate the dangerous tightrope that is Equality in the Workplace, because I'm still trying to navigate it myself.
I do want to say to all my boss ladies out there doin' your thang and not receiving the respect that you so deserve: I HEAR YOU. And if you figure out a way to be heard by anyone besides me, please tell me your secret!
***I can't be alone in this, and I would love to hear your stories, both good and bad, dealing with sexism in the design industry (or any industry for that matter.) Let this be a space of encouragement and education for everyone facing similar challenges in their careers. Comment below!