The Perniciousness of Benevolent Sexism

I realized something today that had not occurred to me in the thirty years since it had happened. Despite the intervening thirty years, it is remarkable how much the realization stings today.

There is a meme circulating on twitter today, #askthemen. Women are posting the kinds of questions that are asked of them in job interviews, performance assessments, and on the job that would never be asked of men in comparable circumstances. I didn’t have to think long before I posted my first example:

“I didn’t think it was appropriate for you to be away from your husband and baby for this short term assignment in London.” #askthemen

Ok, so it wasn’t so much a question as the rationale I was given for why I had not been selected for a plum assignment for three months in London.

It occurred when I worked in an Army laboratory. I had just completed a six-month executive trainee assignment in the office of the laboratory director and with one of the Deputy Chiefs of Staff for the Army in the Pentagon. The whole purpose of the trainee program was to prepare us for assignments like the one in London, where in-depth knowledge of the laboratory and its role in the Army was key. There literally was no one better – or more freshly! – prepared for that assignment than me. But because the director of research felt it was inappropriate that I be away from my husband and child, by myself in London, he decided to select one of my male colleagues for the assignment instead.

The individual who was selected had been the beneficiary of unmerited good fortune before. When I applied for the job at the laboratory, I had graduated from Dartmouth College with a major in chemistry, and from Duke with a doctoral degree in theoretical quantum chemistry. I finished my doctoral degree in a relatively blistering four years; a colleague who graduated the same year I did in the same field had been there for seven. When I left, I had offers of two prestigious fellowships from AAAS and NRC, and the job offer at the Army lab. With my background and degrees, I was rated by the personnel system as a GS-11 for the position. Meanwhile, my colleague – a year older than me – had attended a local, academically unremarkable college for his bachelors degree. He stayed there and attempted to earn a doctoral degree. Unsuccessful, he completed a terminal masters degree. He then enrolled in another local university, equally unremarkable academically, and completed a doctoral degree. When he applied at the laboratory the same year that I did, he was rated as a GS-12… because he had three degrees and it had taken him five year to complete his post graduate work. His higher rating was not sexist, it was just unfortunate. The personnel rating system was better with assessing numbers of degrees and years passed than quality of degree granting institution. With that higher rating he went on, not surprisingly, to have an unremarkable career path – no publications, no proposals written or funded, no awards or outside recognition, no executive trainee experience.

When I found out the reason I had not been selected for the London opportunity, and who had been selected instead, I did the only sensible thing I could. I pulled out the latest copy of Science magazine, flipped to the job announcements, and applied for what turned out to be my next job at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. There were over one hundred candidates for the job, and I made it through three separate interviews in the selection process. It took over a year from the time that I applied until the time I learned that I had gotten the job. During that year, my husband had applied for a job within the Army at a  location about 350 miles away. I got my new job, he got his new job, we shuttled the baby back and forth for a year or so before the separation took its toll. Eventually we divorced and went our separate ways, tethered by our daughter.

That was 30 years ago. Our baby has grown up just fine. Sadly, my ex-husband passed away at 47 from colon cancer. Life has gone on.

And today, 30 years later, I have just realized for the first time that the same manager who decided that it was inappropriate for me to be away from my husband and daughter for a few weeks, had to have given my husband a glowing recommendation for the permanent job he got that took him 350 miles away from us. Maybe he thought I would quit my job and follow my husband. He was half right.

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before, and I don’t know why it makes me so angry now, but it does. It makes me livid. Thirty years later.

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