Recently, I was interviewing a guy for a job in our department and faced an interesting choice halfway through. We were talking about his work experience, when he suddenly stopped and said, “I hope I’m not out of line, but how old are you? Because you look 18!” Yes, I get it. I look like the students I’m teaching, which is funny since I’m also in charge of the teachers now. So I had to decide whether to tell him he was out of line and end the interview, or move on. I’ll tell you my decision in a minute.
Very interesting choice for this guy, by the way, a guy who was about my age and was trying to impress me with his professionalism. Before proceeding, I had to answer a question that women probably ask themselves ten times a day. In fact, men are asking this question too: Was that just sexism? So many things smell like sexism these days, and we gals enjoy the double pleasure of not only experiencing sexism but also listening to other people try to explain to us what is or isn’t sexism, as well as what qualifies as feminism.
I’m glad that men want to know what sexism is and how to avoid doing it. In truth, not every act of assholery a man commits against a woman is sexism. For example, cutting me off in traffic is just shit behavior in general. Some men will interrupt women and men during meetings. Those people are assholes, not that I approve, but at least assholes are consistent. I have male friends who’ve had similar experiences as the one I described above. On the one hand, the age question can certainly serve as a microagression, especially when someone is trying to belittle someone else in a position of authority and equalize the power dynamics.
But context is crucial in deciding what counts as a microagression. In this instance, I quickly considered our interactions so far. He was a very outgoing, bubbly person. His body language was very open and friendly. All told, I wasn’t sensing any strong misogynistic vibes. If anything, this was an example of a generic, innocent unprofessionalism that I see pretty often. Let’s also consider that my 20s are history, so to hear that I still look 18 is a most welcome kind of compliment, when that’s how it’s truly meant. Hey, maybe he even thought complimenting my appearance indirectly would help his case.
Consider a counter example: not so long ago, a friend of mine attended a university-wide function at her new job. Her department chair introduced her as “the new girl,” who “looks like she just got her driver’s license!” Still not exactly mean-spirited, but rather careless! Did the department chair think about how that remark might embarrass her, infantilize her to fellow colleagues? It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as junior faculty, especially for women. And this guy had just made a joke of her circumstances.
Unfortunately for any men reading this blog, there’s no rule book (that I know of) on how to avoid pissing off your female friends, coworkers, or prospective mates. You’re going to have to listen to them. Ask them about times when they felt belittled and why. Over time, you’ll learn. Seriously, not even much time. I’ve seen guys turn their acts around in a few weeks. A simple way to start: How would you feel if someone said or did a particular thing to you?