I don’t normally get up-in-arms over matters of sexism. I should, but I don’t. I’m more concerned with the over-arching rejection of anyone mildly different from ‘normal’ than I am with gender-based discrimination. I don’t really understand the concept of gender, either… it seems very arbitrary to assign people a stereotype of traits based upon their biological construction.
Who I am, and how I am, is entirely separate to my reproductive functions.
That said, I encounter casual sexism almost every day I work. Since I began working in a shop that sells electrical components, AV equipment, computer supplies and other marvellous gadgetry, I experience it all the more.
Here’s a conversation I have at least once, if not twice, a shift:
Me: Hey! How can I help?
Customer: Oh–I don’t think you can. It’s okay, I’ll wait for one of the boys.
I have to smother the urge to roll my eyes, bash my head against the counter, and shake people by the shoulders. No matter how many times I hear those words, it never gets less maddening.
A few days ago, I approached a customer in my usual, bright way. Here’s what he said to me:
Customer: You won’t be able to help me. I need someone who knows electronics. You don’t look like you know electronics. If you know what I mean.
Sigh. If I know what he means? Honestly—I wish I didn’t. I wish there was actually some visible presentation for ‘electronics specialist’ that I clearly don’t have, because otherwise his judgement was entirely based on the fact that I am a 5’6″ petite female.
He was right. I’m not an electronics specialist, I wouldn’t have been able to confidently answer his question. But being right about what I don’t know doesn’t make it right for anyone to assume I couldn’t know it–not without asking me.
Fun fact, the staff member who did help him ended up using Google to find what they needed to know. Pretty much what I would have done.
Then there was this fun moment from Friday night:
Me: Hey! Anything I can help you with?
Customer: Probably not, I’m okay waiting for one of the boys to free up.
Me: Are you sure? He might be a while yet.
Customer: Yes… I’m sure. It’s a computers question, I think a boy is best to ask.
Anyone who knows me will here applaud my restraint in not screaming. I explained that I do have extensive computer experience, including certifications, and that I was well qualified to answer any questions.
I am. Computers is what I know. I’m no genius, and there are certainly those out there with more knowledge than me, but I could safely say that I have a greater amount of computer knowledge than the average person. Including the ability to spot a missing molex power cable from a fuzzy photograph and recommend it as the required component for the machine.
I shouldn’t have to justify my right to serve a customer by flaunting my certifications. I shouldn’t have to begin sales by explaining why I am able to make the recommendations I do.
What I don’t understand is what must go through people’s minds when they see me in the store. Is there some assumption that I was hired as an ornament? Like a vase of flowers to pretty up the place, or do they assume that I am there as some nod to gender equality?
While the company does love that this particular branch is finally not an all-male store, that’s not why I was hired. I was hired because I’m a nerd.
I was hired for my love of computers. I was hired because I knew the difference between a HDMI and a USB cable. More importantly, I was hired because I was eager to learn about the wide range of interesting items that the shop stocks.
And I have learned, let me tell you! From someone who thought that all power adapters were essentially the same, to being able to select the right replacement based on required voltage and amperage. I’ve learned the names of, and can identify, most common connectors. I know that the backup battery in your NBN box is a 12v 7.2Ah. I can talk you through the pros and cons of a wired or wireless security surveillance system.
None of this knowledge came harder to me because I’m female. Nor do my managers expect me to know less than my male colleagues. I have sales targets based on the exact same metrics as they do. I am held to the same standards. So why is it so hard for people to accept that I am exactly as capable as the others hired beside me?
There are two especially annoying points to the computer knowledge example. One is that the male staff member I was working with has no clue when it comes to computer components. He has other areas of special interest, but computers confuse him. Nothing wrong with that! Except when people assume he knows because of his male appearance.
The other is that the customer who assumed my lack of knowledge was also a woman.
It’s far more common than you think. In my experience, women are far worse for assuming my capabilities than men are. Perhaps they assume because they don’t know, I shouldn’t either? I don’t know, but it’s disheartening.
I ended up talking to her (and her son) for a while about the problem they were trying to solve, and I think I well and truly proved my point—I know what I’m talking about. But again, I shouldn’t have to do that.
People should just assume that I’m talking shit because I’m trying to sell them things. You know… how you treat every other salesperson out there.
Oh well. One day at a time, one customer at a time… slowly proving them wrong and bringing a little more belief in girl nerd power? I guess that’s what I’m here for!