I wanted to say “fuck you,” but it came out as, “Nice to meet you.”
I had popped into work earlier than everyone except my boss — Dad — that day, which is normal. I work in a startup. We’ve got four people, some money from an investor, and we could use more of both. We’re new enough that we are submitting our business plan to competitions to see if we can get additional funding for the things we plan to do because we haven’t done much yet.
That’s why I was hired — to manage the biggest show that we’re doing. If handled well, the company I work with could win 200,000 dollars with an additional 75,000 in vouchers for product testing. And winning that money could open the door to us for an even bigger prize.
People don’t give away that kind of money for free, to get it there’s a lot to do and with a startup, no one to do it.
I get started at 8:00 and the office I work at doesn’t normally have anyone in until 9 so when the door flew open at 8:30 I was as surprised to see the man who walked in the door — someone I had never seen before — as he was to see me — a 17-year-old freelance writer with the dress code and haircut to match.
He talks to my boss for a bit — glancing my way every few seconds, probably to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating — but eventually turns and asks who I am.
I stick out my hand and introduce myself — he told me he works with my Dad in a partner company. For a second or two he continues looking at me then addresses my Dad and says, “She’s pretty, where did she come from?”
Looking back, this should have made his final comment more expected, but instead of following my instincts I lowered my hackles. This was fine. The comment was meant to be a jab at my Dad, not really a comment about me vs my value.
Everyone was good friends in the company and I was new. I was the freelancer who just happened to have the skill set, connections, and just-starting-out rates that this company needed for the prize they wanted to apply to.
I laugh with them. We banter about Neopotism. He asks if I am just here as a favor or if I’m actually getting paid. I play it off as just another note about how I’m working for my Dad. The two men in the room return to whatever they were planning on talking about.
It doesn’t take long for my boss to turn to me say there were going to be meetings all day and that I might want to find a quieter place to work.
The new guy goes “No, I like her here. She’s a nice ornament.”
I laugh it off. Ha ha so funny. Nice to meet you. Bye.
I walk into the next room fuming and quite sure of what had just gone down. I was almost equally angry with myself for not doing anything about it.
Was I for real? I just walked out of a room and said “Nice to meet you,” to a guy who called me a fucking ornament. I wasn’t quite the bad-ass broad I had thought I would be when this happened.
After all, I knew it would happen eventually. I am a 17-year-old woman. My age is startling enough in most professional work environments then you add my gender and I am a target just waiting to be hit.
Then it happened. I did nothing.
In my mind, I wanted to go back, look that man directly in the face and tell him, “Fuck you and your misogynist, demeaning ornament. You don’t get to judge my worth on my gender.” Then there was the other part of me. The one that said I’m probably just butthurt about the ways in which females are unequal and I see it even where it doesn’t exist.
I nudge a coworker and ask what they thought of the guy, they said he could be dominating at times but was fine in the end.
Dominating. That wasn’t the word I would have used. Enthusiastic, quick-witted, misogynist… Those are things I would’ve said. Not all bad.
I sit down. I get back to work.
He walks in to my new workplace.
I’ll get to say my piece now I think. I was just surprised before. I think.
He starts talking about how the college I’m going to — Minerva Institute at KGI — sounds really fantastic and that he thought it was awesome I went to India. He said he knows what I do now.
It wasn’t an apology. There wasn’t even a hint of “I was wrong.” Only really, “I couldn’t have known.”
I couldn’t have known you were smart.
I couldn’t have known you were being paid for a reason.
I couldn’t have known you weren’t an ornament.
I talk with him about his time in India. I talk with him about Minerva a bit. He leaves.
Once again, I didn’t mention the ornament.
Somehow his “I couldn’t have known,” act made me feel like he knew he was wrong now. Saying my bit wasn’t compulsory anymore.
I’ve always joked that I am Gollum: the wretched creature in The Lord of the Rings that is torn between being Smeagol — pleasant, trustworthy, and eager to please — and Gollum — murderous, intelligent, and loyal to the Ring.
I sometimes refer to myself in the third person, I almost always talk about things I have done by saying “we” have done them. When people ask me who the others are I begin a particularly bad rendition of “Me, Myself, and I.”
My Gollum isn’t only found in my verbal ticks. He is found in the fight I fight with myself every day. Someone will say something and part of me wants one thing, part of me wants the other. Either the two reconcile or one wins.
When the new guy came into the office, my nice, don’t-rock-the-boat, easily vindicated, subservient, Smeagol came out. I stuffed the raging, anarchist, won’t be silenced, feminist Gollum down where only I could find him.
That second part of me that would fight to the death for justice to be done was itching to be let out. It wanted to be let out because it realized, “I couldn’t have known,” was not nearly enough.
It realized that even if I was a dead beat who was sitting in this office because her Dad was funding her pity party if I hadn’t made it through high school or gone to live in India and teach — I wouldn’t have been a fucking ornament. And he certainly couldn’t have judged me as such on the five minutes he had known me.
I am not an ornament until proven otherwise.
Actually, let’s broaden that. Women are not objects until proven otherwise.
When you imply you were wrong to call someone an ornament not because you were wrong to judge them on their gender, but instead, because you discovered that they were actually intelligent and that your judgment was wrong because she broke the mold of what you assumed she was. You have gotten the whole system mixed.
Women are human always and after you’ve gotten that out of the way, you can get to know them and judge them from there. Just like you do men.
It finally happened. A man told me to my face that I was useless not because he had spent time trying to get to know what I was doing, but because I was a woman.
It wasn’t even an asshole. The guy who walked in the office had enough respect to come back and hint he was wrong — more than many would do. He did have a sense of humor and when it wasn’t pointed at my femaleness, he was funny. He was nice. And a misogynist.
If I had gotten my Gollum and my Smeagol sorted I would have tamed my “Fuck you,” with my “Nice to meet you.” Instead, I might have said:
“Nice to meet you, I think we will really enjoy working together so long as you don’t ever call me a fucking ornament again.”