Expressing femininity in the workplace: ‘I am not like other girls’

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The first time I worked in construction was 2018. I was supposed to be issued black safety boots. I immediately called the company that supplied us with protective clothing and asked if they had a pair in pink. They had a beautiful black and pink pair and I insisted that I be ordered that one.

The response I got from my colleague was two-fold. The women were a little annoyed that I did not just take what was offered but insisted on something as trivial as colour; I was actually called a “Slay queen”. The men were more indulgent, paternal even. They were like, ‘Oh, look at our little girl playing at work.’

A year later and a different workplace. I again got standard black boots but this time I procured a new pink pair, different style, on my own. The response was still pretty much the same. While everyone agreed that I looked pretty, it was almost the consensus that I was a pretty face focused more on fashion than anything else. None of these responses were cruel, or even mean except one time when a woman told people in her department, who later conveyed the message to me, that I looked like “those girls who studied social sciences and would be lost in a mathematics class.”

That was not tied to the boots incident but I think to the pink glittering key holder or some other overtly expression of feminity that I had been guilty of. She was right, I do prefer social sciences and I do hate maths but I hardly think that is something one can and should infer on the basis of my feminity or my insistence on its expression.

A few weeks ago, my friend Joanna won a landmark case against the Lesotho National Broadcasting Corporation. If you don’t know Joanna let me explain her like this; she is almost always wearing heels, long heels that even I would not be able to walk in. She rarely leaves the house without lipstick and looks like she just stepped off a fashion magazine.

Her winning the case led to statements like, “Wow! She is so smart, atleast that weave isn’t on a domkop” or “She isn’t just a slay queen after all.” This was a woman with an LLB degree. Had she been a man, just the fact that she had the qualification to begin with would have validated her, or sadly had she been a woman who wasn’t overly expressive of her feminity.

Award winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie speaks of an incident where she had gotten her first teaching job and agonized for hours on what she should wear to school. She did not want to look too pretty in case her students did not take her seriously. I am sure she is not the only woman who worries about it. To be too feminine at work is like holding a banner saying, “NO NEED TO TAKE THIS ONE SERIOUSLY, SHE IS JUST A PRETTY FACE” 

So you have women who go out of their way to proclaim to anyone who will listen, “Oh, I am not like other girls.” Or overly pretty women being accused of having slept their way to the top because no one can fathom that you can be pretty and smart. The rest of the women then try to downplay their feminity as much as possible lest they be accused of the same thing.

I always want to ask women who proclaim, “I am not like other girls” what exactly makes them different from other girls. Don’t you have breasts? Is your genetic makeup any different? Also what is this great sin that other girls have committed that makes it so important for you to distance yourself from them? But I understand how hard it can be as a woman to be taken seriously in the workplace so as much as it irks me I let it go.

I still work in construction, I still wear pink boots, sometimes a pink reflector vest and I have been fortunate enough to be taken seriously where it matters despite my very feminine behavior. It really is on you. The more you try to hide your feminity under a bushel the more the corporate machine will make you pay for it. After all if you have a problem with it, why shouldn’t they?

Do not even get me started on the vile treatment men who have “feminine” traits experience. That is a long topic for another day but the consensus seems to be ‘Feminine = Bad’.

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