But beyond these cases of extreme harassment, we also found that for many of the women of our cohort, routine sexist comments were the incidents that made them question their own talent and success potential. While it’s tempting to dismiss such comments as a minor annoyance, the fact remains that these regular incidents of sexism are still diminishing women’s professional progress.
One former classmate, whose first job was a management-training program that had her driving a Wonder Bread truck in Chicago, was approached by her gruff male union rep in a grocery store aisle after a delivery. He threatened: “This isn’t the right job for you.” She stuck it out for a year at the company, enough to look fine on her resume, and then quickly found another job. An insurance-company executive, when out-of-town (male) colleagues visited, was excluded from a planned work dinner with everyone (male) who reported to her. She called the team members on it, joking, “Maybe I can come next time,” and reminded them that she was the one who made decisions on the team. And Hana, who started a digital user-experience company 15 years ago, has been asked by (older, male) clients in introductory meetings: “Do you run that company all by yourself?” When someone poses a question like that, it’s hard not to pause for a moment and wonder, “Do I run it by myself? Am I qualified to do such a thing?”
But for others these incidents prompted soul-searching that ultimately led to more fulfilling careers. A prominent multi-specialty physician was called “little girl” during her cardiology fellowship at an elite northeast medical school, and told “this is what happens when you try to get a woman to do a man's job.” The “alpha-male” environment of the cardiology program wore on her, and factored into her decision to complete her training at another institution. That move also allowed her to broaden her focus and add on a second fellowship in a different specialty, and ultimately she feels her career benefited from the switch. “I am more successful and have more responsibility for administering programs and educating learners than I would have had in cardiology,” she told us.
Of our former classmates who said they’d experienced sexism or sexual harassment, most insisted sexism hasn’t held them back significantly in their careers. All of them continue to hold full-time jobs and many of them are at the top of their field. We couldn’t help but wonder, however, what and how these women would have achieved if they hadn’t been told, directly or subtly, that their job wasn’t intended to be performed by a woman. Two of the women who fought for promotions over their male colleagues, and received them, later chose to leave those companies. We felt guilty admitting we were disappointed that these women chose to leave the promotions they worked so hard to achieve, and then we reflected: Even if you are qualified, maybe even are the best and hardest-working employee at your company or within your department, what drives you to stay when you feel so dispensable?