My freshman year of college was filled with great awakenings.
I immersed myself in women’s studies courses and read feminist theorists like bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa for the first time, I voted in my first presidential election, and I started to chase my passion by writing about the intersection of current events and social justice. I did what a lot of college students do: I learned new things and became who I am.
These moments of realization didn’t stop after I left my first year on campus either. The following summer I accepted an internship at a right-leaning daily newspaper in New York City. At the time, it was the internship I thought I needed, but by the end of the first week, I knew I had absolutely no future there.
On our first Friday in the office, all 10 of the summer interns were scheduled to eat lunch with the newspaper’s publisher. We sat in a large conference room around a big, mahogany table in black leather chairs and made small talk while we poked at our elaborate meals served by waiters. My white napkin sat on my lap, and I couldn’t help but think about how much money was going into all of this — I would’ve been happier with a slice of cheese pizza.
I was slightly preoccupied, thinking about everything else I had to finish by the end of the day, and even though I sat all the way at the end of the table my ears perked up when the publisher started to give out “helpful advice,” as he called it.
“You should be networking all summer. Every day, you should talk to the person sitting next to you. Guys, you have it easier than girls do.”
I looked at the intern next to me, clearly shocked that someone would make such a blatantly sexist accusation in a room full of impressionable young people, but she didn’t meet my gaze.
“Boys, you can just turn to the reporter next to you and strike up a conversation about sports,” he continued. “You can say, ‘Hey, did you watch the game last night?’ Girls have to be more worldly and cultured to be taken seriously and build relationships. Girls, you can’t just talk about sports with the guy sitting next to you, so you have to try harder and make up for it in other ways.”
I couldn’t tell if it was my general feeling of discomfort or the building’s excessive use of central air, but chills ran down my spine. The conversation went on without skipping a beat, but in that moment, my brain completely froze; my body was physically present but my mind went somewhere entirely.
I turned into a victim of my own thoughts: Did anyone else hear him? Maybe they didn’t realize what he said was sexist? Why would he assume all girls don’t like or watch sports? Why would he assume all guys do? Why would you call a group of young adults GIRLS? Is this normal behavior for the world of journalism?
That’s the thing about sexism in newsrooms and workplaces in general; it’s so inherent and ingrained in our institutions and cultures that often, your boss doesn’t even realize they’re doing it. But when we talk about things like equal pay and opportunity, it starts with these kinds of attitudes, stereotypes, and assumptions that can hurt both men and women.
The publisher said those things because he genuinely believed them, and the more he said them, the more true they would become. To this guy, it was a casual comment that he probably never thought twice about, but it’s something that had the potential to stick with us forever.
By the time I came back down to Earth and rejoined the rest of the group, the publisher was wrapping up his ego-inflated diatribe. He asked all of us if we had any specific questions for him, seemingly anxious to give away some more pearls of wisdom, but I didn’t have any interest in seeking advice from someone who subscribed to such antiquated ideologies.
Dessert was served as other interns took turns asking more serious questions about the new media transition from print to online and weighing the importance of local versus national news coverage. I thought about the case studies and hypothetical instances of inequality I dissected all year in classrooms, textbooks, and readings. As the questions slowed down, I took advantage of my chance to put theory into practice.
“Did you watch the NBA finals game last night?” I could feel every set of eyes staring in my direction. It was the beginning of June, so I had a few different sports to choose from, but I rationalized that talking about basketball would allow me the most room to shine. “Who are you rooting for?”
After a few moments of hesitation he responded, “The Lakers.”
“Me too.” Under my calm surface was a raging fire of anger.
“That’s nice,” the publisher politely replied. “Any more questions?” He seemed to have just about as much interest in talking about the NBA with me as I had tolerance for his ignorance, but I kept going.
“I enjoy watching the Lakers play as a team. Pau Gasol is my favorite on the court, especially when Kobe’s on a good run.”
It was like diarrhea of the mouth; I couldn’t stop myself from blurting out any and every thought that came to mind, because I knew I had to maintain my momentum.
“The referees have been calling an ugly series and last night’s game was the worst of all, especially when Howard was called for a questionable foul on a drive by Bryant. It just goes to show that stupid calls make the difference in every game.”
That’s when the real magic happened. My remarks and persistence sparked the rest of the table to chime in. Within moments, the whole room was in the midst of a thriving and informed conversation about the NBA Finals, all of the interns arguing and agreeing with each other about specific details within this series. The publisher remained suspiciously quiet for the most part, only chatting with one of the male interns sitting directly next to him.
After everyone settled down and the room fell naturally quiet again, I mustered up enough bravery to bring the dialogue full circle.
“I just wanted to show you that girls can talk about the game last night too.”
He gave me a nod, then concluded our session like it never happened. A part of me hated myself for even feeling compelled to entertain his comments and overcompensate with a discussion that otherwise wouldn’t have happened; but the other part of me, the bigger part, was too pissed to care.
Initially after our lunch was over, I was on a high; addressing one sexist publisher as a summer intern felt empowering beyond words. I also knew, however, that the solution to underlying sexism in the workplace and discriminatory mindsets wouldn’t be solved by just one conversation between two people. I may not have changed any major structures or shifted the entire landscape for female journalists. I may not have even changed his mind. But it sure felt great to prove him wrong.
Later that afternoon as I was walked around the newsroom, I caught a rare glimpse of the publisher standing inside the editor-in-chief’s office — the two most powerful people at the paper besides its notorious CEO. They were all white men above the age of 50. I didn’t think he’d recognize me — after all, I was just one intern out of the hundreds of employees who worked under him.
But he looked through the glass window and we made eye contact. He saw me, which was all I really wanted. To be seen.