“Culturally Incomprehensible”: Thoughts on Gender Performance and Work

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For the last decade I have been more-or-less a full time adjunct faculty member, cobbling together a career anchored by teaching positions at the highest of the high (Rhode Island School of Design) to the lowest of the low (New England Institute of Technology), including along the way several schools that best embody the concept: “the triumph of mediocrity” (Bryant, Salve Regina, Curry, and Assumption). On the side, I have worked as a freelance editor, a Census Bureau enumerator, a vendor’s assistant at craft fairs, a sales associate at the Home Depot, and a cashier in a liquor store.

Adapting to the gig economy in this way was necessary after quitting my full-time position as Director of Community and Government Relations at one of the aforementioned colleges. I had been warned off of taking that job by the President of a large and well-regarded public university. “It will destroy your career,” Lois said. I didn’t care at that point. I had been imprisoned in upstate New York for too long: I longed for the ocean. And wasn’t this why I declined my one tenure track job offer, after all? To have more freedom of mobility?

By the time I took up residence in Newport, RI, I was damn glad to see the ocean, but Lois had been right: the job destroyed my career. Not so much because I was in such an extreme  academic backwater, but rather because it was here that I realized the extent to which higher education in the US had sunk to appalling depths of mediocrity. By the time I overheard the Provost speaking of student as “income generating units,” I was no longer surprised. But when I found out that the college had been lying to me about its long-term campus development plans, and thus had I been an unwitting accomplice in an albeit low-stakes land grab, that was the last straw. 

So in 2007, I quit my day job. 

And I have been struggling to figure out why it has been impossible for me to get back on the career train. [To be clear: this is the first time I am publicly acknowledging some deeply held opinions about previous employers.] I have been thinking about this for the past decade—all the while applying for jobs in the non-profit and higher education sectors in Providence, RI. That is to say that the question of my employability is not a new one for me. But this summer, it reached a new sense of urgency. When my unemployment benefits were unexpectedly cut-off in the first week of June, I immediately went on Medicaid and food stamps and moved in with my mother. I won my appeal with the Rhode Island Department of Labor and now I am significantly less stressed since I have a few months left of unemployment benefits. I have been busy this summer and not just with worrying. I have applied to 140 jobs, ranging from dog-walker to board secretary at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I can actually do, and am qualified for, every position for which I have applied. I am not exaggerating the numbers either: I have kept excellent and updated records in a spreadsheet.

The fruit of my labors have been face-to-face interviews at the Apple Store in the Mall, a wine bar in downtown Annapolis, and a Doubletree Inn near another Mall; a synchronous video interview for a full-time assistant professor position at a dubious for-profit college for which I would have been starting in less than a week;  two asynchronous video interviews; numerous boilerplate rejection emails from Johns Hopkins; and the uncovering of two employment scams that have left me SMH.

Part of what I know about this difficulty in getting a job has already been addressed by economics and human resource professionals. The vicissitudes of the job market for certain fifty-somethings are well documented.  I also have friends and family who have made a number of suggestions. One friend recommends getting a life coach, another suggests joining the local chapter of a group of folks who will teach you to re-tool your resume, many suggest teaching in public school (possible, but I challenge anyone to find me a K-12 teaching job that doesn’t require me to relocate at my own expense, pay my own tuition for a six-week “teaching fellowship,” with no promise of a job at the end and no promise that I will not be kicked out of the program at any time with no reason given). Other advice: How about Catholic school (most want certification now while they continue to pay lower wages and evade unions)? Private school (even more difficult than Catholic school if you consider the plethora of unemployed PhDs on the job market)? Why can’t you just get a full-time job teaching college? (Answer: Because only 35% of teaching positions in the entire country are full-time at this stage of US history)

My sister-in-law is C-Level at largest hospital corporation in the state.  She thinks I should take up medical coding. My oldest brother is C-Level at a pharmaceutical company. He thinks I should look into doing online surveys while sitting around collecting my unemployment (I did. it took me two full days to earn a $10 PayPal credit). A friend in computer software could not find a job in the Boston area. One of his closest friends hooked him up with a job in Washington, DC. Now he commutes home on weekends. So he suggests “networking” above all. He recently spoke of another mutual friend: “Now there is a competent person. I would hire her in a heartbeat.” I said, “What about me?” And he said: “No, actually. Hunh. I’m not sure why.” I had stumped him.

To these three people I sent a copy of my full resume with the hope, I suppose, of getting some help in finding a job that befits my experience and education. I understand that they are trying to be helpful. But I cannot help but feel like however well intentioned, this type of advice is at best ill-informed and at worst, insulting.

I think this is the last time I will ask for help. Not out of pride, but out of self-preservation. Because I am not sure anyone knows exactly why I have not found a suitable job not only this summer, but for the last ten years. Until recently, I myself did not fully understand. And now that I do, simply put, my heart is broken.  

I am well-aware of the many macro-level forces that have made this a “tough time” for fifty-two year old job seekers (including the commodification of education, the Great Recession, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, anti-intellectual fervor, the rise of the gig economy, the destruction of labor unions), but the interactions I have had this summer with friends and family have given me pause. Is there a particular impression that I convey which allows those who know me to think of me as an incompetent and preciously idealist flake? To be sure, I am a non-conformist. But I have come along way from my hippie days, my punk rock days, my union-organizing days, and my drinking days.

Around the house, I am likely attired in aging shorts and tee-shirts splattered with paint (I make art on the side too). But when I have worked in high level capacities, with direct reporting to C-Level, I have dressed the part: ironed shirt, great Italian shoes, and a suit. I match my socks to my shirt. I let my hair grow out a bit more and even when short, I use copious gel to keep it conservative rather than spikey-funky.

And surely, my friends and family know I clean up well: there are pictures of me all over my mother’s house from my halcyon days. Here with the Governor of Rhode Island, there with Senator Clinton, here at a gala fundraising ball, and . . . ah, yes . . . there, at my brother’s wedding. As a bridesmaid, I wore a full-length green velvet gown. My hair was blown out of recognition into a bona fide hairstyle, puffed up and lacquered into place. There are pearls around my neck, a bouquet of flowers in my hands, and presumably, underneath, a bra and a pair of comfortable but clearly gendered women’s shoes.

And suddenly the words that my mother had spoken to me a few days ago flooded back in an entirely different light: “I know it’s not fair, but for some reason, I think some people think you are still very defiant.” And I get that . . . or at least I thought I did.  I used to think that my intelligence is read as arrogance no matter how diplomatic I try to be. This, despite the sheer amount of time I have spent in my life (after the age of twenty-five mostly)  sucking it up and shutting my mouth. I have learned, at least I thought I had, to blend somewhat into a world that does not appreciate loud women, smart women, drunk women, or foul-mouthed women. I have tried to  appear to be less of all those things. And if I had a nickel for every time I refrained from rolling my eyes and shouting down some ridiculous mansplainer trying to define (inaccurately) the difference between a tornado and derecho, I would be hanging out with Bill Gates this weekend. If I could title my life’s work, one phrase that comes to mind is this: Toning it Down.

So why this impression of defiance? What is this unnameable but powerful aura that hangs about me making me simultaneously the life of the party and the village incompetent?

And here is my simple and heartbreaking conclusion: It’s how I dress. Or put another way: my lack of a dress.

I rock a suit. Men’s suits, with men’s shoes, shirts, and even underwear. I own a wonderful collection of ties, but I’m not an idiot: I only wear them when I know that being a fashionable dandy will be if not appreciated, at least not cause me to be fired from my position. I also rock office casual with a fine collection of collared golf shirts, chinos, and loafers.

Then I thought about how, at the Mac store interview, the manager called to me—“Mary”— when my back was turned. He then said: “Oh, I’m sorry” before I even had a chance to say “Yes, that’s me.” He was apologizing for mistaking me for what I am: a cis woman. The interaction descended into a awkward (for him) series of mumbles and scuffles. I did not get a second interview.

I thought of all the customers who called after me in the aisles of the Home Depot, “Excuse me sir?” and “Hey, buddy!” I thought more about my managers, most of whom were young enough to be my sons, who called me “bro” and “dude.” I requested a promotion. Denied. I requested a full-time position. Denied. I requested a transfer. Denied.

I thought of the day I was fired from an adjunct faculty position at Salve Regina. It was the Friday before I was to start teaching in the Spring semester in a Graduate Studies humanities program. My chair implied that someone higher on the chain of command had told him that he had to let me go. He implied it was political. Of course, I thought immediately that I lost the job because I taught post-Marxist, feminist, and critical race theory. I was furious at the erosion of intellectual freedom in the classroom. But then I thought about all the times I showed up in class or at faculty functions dressed to the nines—in men’s garb. So now I don’t think my syllabus did me in at Salve Regina. I think it was my tie.

I recalled the numerous double takes I have experienced in the last two or three years—more than at any time in my life: women open the bathroom door and see me at the faucet. They check the bathroom door sign. No, not at the Home Depot. At Whole Foods, at Starbucks, at the Brown University bookstore.

I recall the time I went to get running shoes only to find one single pair of adult women’s running shoes that was not pink or purple. I saw perfectly respectable athletic shoe brands festooned with sparkles. I thought: What self-respecting female athlete wears this shit?

I thought of how I really dislike wearing scoop neck tee-shirts, and how shitty I look in teal, bright pink, purple, or green. I do not like darts in my shirts—what is the point, I have teeny boobs. I no longer own a skirt, dress, bra, or stockings of any kind. I do not wear makeup, ever. 

And this, I have begun to consider, is the tipping point at which this bad job market in this down economy renders me “unemployable.”

I know I am seen as defiant but I used to think that it had to do with my intelligence regarding a large range of topics and my strong opinions. But now, I think I am seen as defiant mostly because I do not wear women’s clothes. Moreover, I do not identify as trans. So I do not belong to a movement. For me, bathroom laws are irrelevant. No policy can legislate whether and to what extent my gender presentation is interpreted as defiant, nor can any act of law force employers or supervisors to admit that I make them uncomfortable. Home Depot does not give a shit that I unsuccessfully tried to organize a labor union 35 years ago. But they are uncomfortable that in addition to my clothes, I hold none of the other symbolic currency that has allowed the world to accept people like me into their midst: I have no children, I am unmarried, and I own no property. 

So I could go to a consultant to fix up my resume. But once I am on the job, I expect that it will not take long for me to blow my own cover. And sooner rather than later, my defiance will become evident. If not the cut of my suit, the cut of my hair will give me away. One of signal differences between a women’s short haircut and a man’s short haircut is that women’s haircuts leave slightly pointy tips in front of the ears while men’s haircut’s are cut straight across to the ear. I cut my pointy tips off.

I am kind and compassionate. I can converse intelligently (or otherwise) to just about anyone for as long as they desire or allow. I can turn Baba Yaga into the tooth fairy. I can teach those deemed unteachable. I can type nearly 50 WPM with 4 fingers. I can write full sentences. I can deliver charismatic presentations. If it were not for my scruples, I could sell you sand in the middle of the desert.

And most of all, I can suit up extremely well.

The only problem is that I am not wearing the right suit.

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