I should not be here because I am a prospective English major. I am an English major who doesn’t know what she wants. So I’m here to find out what banking entails since, in all honesty, I have no idea. I talk. I network. I try to blend in.
But I don’t. The first representative I talk to asks my major, and I say English in a way that’s almost apologetic. He loves it. He was a history major and hadn’t taken a finance class until graduate school. He tells me it’s great that I’m doing what I love instead of taking that one fast track to Wall Street.
My English major becomes a talking point with more than one representative, and I receive nothing but support and advice on how to make the major work in banking. I start to speak up in groups, ask questions. To my surprise, things are going well.
My friend and I are speaking with a representative whom I can only describe as the stereotypical Wall Street type, at least the way I envision these self-confident, intimidatingly ambitious men in my head. I ask him a simple question about what he does on a day-to-day basis to start conversation, and he begins to answer. Mid-sentence he pauses and says, “You know, you should probably talk to a woman. You’ll get a better idea of what goes on that way.” And he directs me to a well-dressed woman from the same department and goes back to talking with the group.
My first instinct is to be offended. That was sexist, right? My friend and I certainly act offended when we later tell the story to our roommates. How dare he brush us off because we are women. Stereotypical Wall Street, we say.
But the more I tell the story — which now seems like hardly a story at all — the more I feel like I’m fishing for sexism. When the representative said “woman,” feminist alarms went off in my head with the bleating sirens of “glass ceiling” and “unequal pay.”
He certainly hadn’t shoved my face against any sort of glass ceiling. The female representatives were no less impressively titled. They held their own positions of prestige. In hindsight, the comment could have been no more than an attempt to be genuinely helpful. He very well could have believed that I would be better served by talking to a woman because I, too, am a woman. Or perhaps he was simply trying to pare down the group that surrounded him. He had eight students around him; Kelly had one. Can I ever be sure of his motivations?
Nonetheless, I was immediately defensive. I wanted to be seen first as a potential candidate for an internship or even an English major before being seen as a woman. But I am a woman, and there is nothing to suggest that he put that fact first and foremost, only that it was acknowledged. He could have just as easily directed me toward an English major in the business. So why was being identified as a woman such a bad thing?
There is undoubtedly sexism in the workplace. Female managers are earning an average of 73 percent of the salary of male managers. Women account for only 3.8 percent of Fortune 500 chief executive positions. Yet, it is the overwhelming prevalence of these facts and figures in the media that has turned every gender-related comment into a matter of sexism. Men have been pitted against women in a war of sexes. Women are expected to stand against the patriarchal establishment.
But when there was no glaring patriarchal establishment to combat as I had expected, I found myself looking for any indication of its presence. When the representative suggested that I might get a better idea of the field from a woman, there were immediate red flags simply because he’d voiced the division of the sexes that I was so ready to rebuff. However, it was a division of men and women on equal footing, not of men superior to women.
I am sure somewhere along Wall Street the misogynistic male exists — maybe in greater numbers than I am willing to believe — and perhaps I will face him at another information session down the line. However, the representative who directed me to his female colleague was not this man. He is only a man whom I would like to take issue with but simply cannot when I look objectively at the conversation. Not every mention of the word “woman” is an offense, and not every man is an enemy. To search for sexism where there may be none is to undermine the very efforts made to rectify the inequalities actually present. If every comment leads to uproar, the protests become pushed aside as nothing more than an overreaction. Feminism becomes synonymous with “crazy” and “overblown,” which it certainly is not. The real fight gets lost in the dramatization of the nonexistent offenses. This is not to say that sexism does not exist — it does — but rather that we must not imbue sexism into every ambiguous statement of gender. We must refrain from turning the movement toward equality into the story of the Girl in the Pantsuit Who Cried Sexism.
Chelsea Jones is a sophomore from Ridgefield, Conn. She can be reached at email@example.com.