Facing a Hostile Work Environment: Your Stories

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Many readers have responded to my callout last week about the kind of cultural norms and pressures that might be affecting the way women make career decisions—which in turn affect their pay in the short or long run.

One theme that’s come up in these accounts is that of a hostile work environment. Namely, that women are aware of them in certain industries and—no surprise—don’t want to work in them. This is just rational calculation, since what people get out of having a job is rarely just about money. Jobs not only give us meaning, they determine our schedules and time-use, give us colleagues (or clients or patients or customers) to interact with, and give us tasks to accomplish. For women, a hostile environment, or one that demonstrates a lack of opportunity to grow or rise through the ranks, is undoubtedly a factor in career decision-making.

Before getting to our reader stories, I want to share part of a testimony from Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers who was chief economist at the Labor Department from 2010 to 2011, from an U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hearing earlier this year (the bolding is my own):

Implicit discrimination has proven to be more difficult to eradicate than explicit discrimination has … Importantly, the 79 percent figure does not tell us how much discrimination is occurring. Even today, women have different educational attainment, work in different occupations and industries, and have different workplace experience. These differences have explained part of the wage gap in the past. During the 1980s and 1990s, women’s education and experience gains were the primary drivers narrowing the gender wage gap. Today, women receive more post-secondary degrees than men, so accounting for education actually widens the pay gap.

Over the past 40 years, women have also been increasingly entering occupations that were historically male-dominated. However, even with this progress, differences in occupation and industry persist.

Economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn have done a comprehensive decomposition of the gender pay gap, accounting for characteristics like education and experience, then accounting for additional characteristics like education, industry, and occupation. By these calculations, in 2010, a full 38 percent of the pay gap is unexplained by education, experience, region, industry, occupation, unionization, and race/ethnicity.

But such a decomposition may actually be overlooking important sources of discrimination. Many people point to differences in education, experience, occupation, and industry and call them differences in women's choices. But these differences are often due to differences in opportunities, not choices. While explicit barriers have been removed due to legislation forbidding discrimination, barriers continue to exist nonetheless...In short, there is no consensus among economists whether we should account for differences in industry and occupation when studying the gender wage gap. If these differences stem from preferences for different types of work, it is reasonable to account for them, but if men and women face different job opportunities because of discrimination, we should not account for industry and occupation in estimating the gender pay gap. In many situations, the delineations between discrimination and preferences are not clear. In fact, discrimination may begin early in life and slowly accumulate throughout workers' careers.

Sometimes, this discrimination is simply an environment that’s not welcoming to women, imposing a high cost of being in that environment. One reader writes:

I’m in my early 40s and have always known I didn’t want children (neither does my partner), so time for kids wasn’t an issue. Nevertheless, I still chose the typical “female” career path of starting out at a large law firm and eventually moving to a (significantly lower-paying) in-house counsel position.

The main reason is that big law firms are a very stereotypical “male” environment: Big egos, abusive work relationships, an expectation that every spare moment will be spent focused on a big bonus and making partner. There is a lot of competition and little emotional connection with co-workers. It’s not an environment I wanted to spend my life in (and I knew that going in, but doing a few years at a big firm is a requirement for eventually going in-house). I appreciate that it’s not the sort of environment that many men want to work in either, but I think it’s particularly distasteful to women.

Time for my relationships with friends, family, and my partner, as well as volunteer commitments and many hobbies, were also a factor, but the environment was the big one. I’m making much less money than the men who I started with who stayed at the firm, but I’m much happier.

This next female reader tried for a long time to break into an extremely male-dominated profession, with painful repercussions:

When I graduated from college, all I wanted was to be a firefighter. I applied at many different fire agencies in California, but I was always rejected. Very few women were hired in the fire service during that time.

I ended up as an insurance adjuster and did that for many years. At that time, there were also very few female property adjusters. My first boss was a misogynistic bigot. He called me “Lesbo.” That was my nickname. And he called my Asian supervisor a “rice eater.” But I needed my job, and quite truthfully, I kind of expected it. We basically had to suck it up or leave. We stayed because we had families and careers, and we knew that leaving doesn’t always make things better.

But I stayed in shape and went back to school to study fire science and emergency medicine. I applied all over the country to be a firefighter. I passed the CPAT [Candidate Physical Abilities Test] and kept it current. Now I was in my forties, and most fire departments have age restrictions that kept me out. At 48, I finally got offered work at two departments. I accepted employment at a fire department in Virginia. It was the proudest moment of my life.

I worked there two and a half years. During that time, I was assaulted. When I reported it, it was brushed off. Later I found out that this had happened to another female recruit. Personal attacks against me—because of my gender and age—intensified. I was loath to complain. Being a firefighter was something I had worked for my whole life. I wanted to be a part of something kind and good.

I finally gave my notice and left after I found out that two of my male coworkers had been given the answers to a paramedic practical exam. I failed it, but they passed. For over two years I had been subjected to physical assault, verbal assault, pornography, racist comments, and ageism. I thought that my dream was to be a firefighter, but in reality it took away my soul, and that final betrayal was just too much.

I reported the incidents to my supervisors and filed an EEOC complaint. Recently, I found that they have been giving me poor references when I have applied for other work. This is at odds with the positive reviews I had received during my employment. They are not just happy to have me gone; they want to take away my livelihood as well.

Realistically, I know it is improbable I would get hired at another department based on my age alone. It is time to give up my dream. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but this has been devastating.

I remember when Anita Hill was in the papers and her character was attacked. They said that there was no way Clarence Thomas would make a joke about a public hair on a coke can. They asked why she would stay with an employer if he did things like that? Trump thinks if we are harassed, we should move on. When I hear him call women bimbos and pigs, it breaks my heart. We’ve seen the same pattern with Gretchen Carlson. We’ve seen the same thing with the victims of Bill Cosby.

It is unfathomable that in 30 years, at 52 years old, I am still dealing with the same thing.

A third reader who has worked in several industries recounts how avoiding sexist work environments played into her career changes:

I can say with certainty that my gender has greatly impacted the jobs I’ve secured. I went to school to work in television and worked in both LA and NYC as a 20-something. After working endless hours at various companies for free (“internship”), I secured a job in NYC for a non-scripted production company where I’d work as both the receptionist and in development. I desperately wanted a job in this field and I desperately wanted any paycheck to get my foot in the door. It is for this reason I took a position that paid me $7.25/hr.

I initially loved the work and still love many of my former coworkers. When the day came for me to move up in the ranks and hire someone to replace me, my boss (a man) asked that I look only at female applicants; he wanted a woman sitting at the reception desk when he walked into work.

Sexism wasn’t the only reason I left entertainment, but it’s one of them. Of course, sexism isn’t isolated to entertainment. When I recently made the major transition to healthcare, I interviewed with a health insurance manager who made several sexual implications through the interview. He never asked me a single question but told me that that he “didn’t care how many people [I’d] slept with” nor did he think I “have a problem with self-confidence.”

So how has cultural norms dictated my profession? It’s made me determined to work with women. It’s made me determined to work with intellectual people, hopefully who can call themselves feminists or fight for the rights of women in and out of the workplace. After the health insurance interview, I accepted another offer with the company with whom I work now and am wonderfully happy and work under an incredibly inspiring businesswoman.