I am a petite 27-year-old woman. My whole life I have looked younger than my age, and my size has always been a defining characteristic. I’ve always been “cute” or “tiny” and people took to calling me “Little Britstix.” In one of my first temp jobs, my boss called me Ant because I’m tiny but I can lift heavy things. I am strong and smart and capable, but somehow my age/size/gender continues to eclipse those other achievements.
I spent the first eight years of my career working in the theatre as a stage manager and I faced a lot of gender discrimination. Despite years of formal training, internships, and hard work, the men who ran the theatres (directors, technical directors, designers, master electricians, master carpenters) still did not believe I was capable of changing a lamp, climbing a ladder, moving furniture, or understanding the machinations of their designs. With every new show, I had to re-prove myself to my new colleagues as a competent theatre professional. It was exhausting. My decisions were constantly challenged as if I were some green intern.
For the past three years, I’ve worked at a biotech company that is overwhelmingly female-staffed. Over 60% of the upper level management is comprised of women and over half the company itself is female. Up until recently, I hadn’t experienced any condescending discrimination at all. I’ve been a valued member of the company and people have respected me for my knowledge base and my work ethic. I was so sure that this was directly related to the number of women in the company and I was so proud of my company for being a great place for women to advance their careers.
The other day I was in a meeting with some upper management. My boss introduced me to a new employee:
“This is Britstix, my project coordinator par excellence. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t know what day of the week it was or where I was going without her!”
Her boss (the Senior Director of our group) then jumped in, “She certainly doesn’t let us forget anything! Such a little person helps us do so much!”
I thanked them both for being so kind, finished introducing myself to the new employee, and waited for the meeting to begin.
But her comment burned in my brain. “Such a little person…” A little person? (Please note that I do not mean to offend anyone who identifies as a Little Person.) Does my stature have anything to do with my ability to work? Is the amount of work I do more astonishing because I am small? The worst part is that the comment had come from a woman. Shouldn’t she be supporting me instead of knocking me down?
I talked to my fiancé about it when I got home. Initially, he didn’t see the problem with the comment. “Oh, she was just complimenting you. It was actually a double compliment because you’re tiny and also good at your job. I’ve heard people say stuff like that to women all the time. It’s supposed to be a compliment. I’m sure she was only saying it nicely.”
I was stunned. How could he not see how condescending that was? So I asked him if he’d ever heard someone make a comment like that about a male co-worker of his.
“Nope. Never. They would never say something like that to a dude. That would be humiliating.”
So… how is it less humiliating for me? How is it less embarrassing for a woman to be told that she is somehow less than a whole person? I felt like an intern again. Like my experience and abilities were secondary to my appearance.
When do I get to just be a normal adult woman? When I’m married will people start treating me with respect? When I have kids will I no longer be just a little person who miraculously does a lot of things? When will I be given the respect that I feel I deserve as a woman closer to 30 than 20?
I felt completely legitimate and like a successful adult until those words came out of her mouth. Then suddenly I felt like an impostor. Like some little girl just playing pretend. Like no matter what I achieve, I’ll always be that cute tiny girl who also does things.
I know this might seem like a complete first world problem — why would anyone object to being called cute and tiny? But it just feels discriminatory somehow. As if my stature is being used against me as a modifier to my experience and skill level.
Has anyone else experienced this kind of condescension at work or in life? Does anyone know when “adulthood” starts?