Becoming ‘Everyone’s Little Sister’ to Deal With Sexism

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

A reader with a Ph.D. in physics has been working in the tech industry for many years, but she’s struggled to cope with the huge gender imbalance at the start-ups she’s worked for. She feels she can’t fully be herself—or a mother:

When I entered the office for my interview, I saw every head in the glass-enclosed conference room pop up and look over at me. I’ve trained myself to have a sort of small, permanent smile plastered on my face, and I hoped, as the room was looking me over, that my smile looked natural, approachable, and genuine.

That is the persona I’ve settled on: Approachable and genuine. Everyone’s little sister.

In that way, I can inhabit a special place, still allowed to be feminine, someone everyone roots for but no one is sexually attracted to, or intellectually threatened by. Everyone wants his kid sister to win. Everyone will defend his little sister from bullies.

Sure, you may forget she is a girl; you may leave her out of some things because you forget about her; but you are not going forget her all together. And you certainly aren’t going to want your friends to sleep with her.

Every face that turned my way that day was a male face. At this late-stage start-up, the engineering office had never had a woman in a technical role work. I know, because at the end of my interview I asked: “There is no right or wrong answer, but I was curious. Are there any women who work here?” No—aside from the office admin—but they sincerely hoped to hire more women.

I accepted the job because I was desperate. The start-up I had previously worked for had failed to “start up” and they stopped paying their employees. I hoped, during my tenure at the new start-up, that I could push for more women to be hired and that I could make the office a better place for them to work.

Being the only woman at the whiteboard isn’t an entirely new experience for me. Earning my Ph.D. in Physics, the field wasn’t exactly overrun with women, but at least there were women. I learned in graduate school how to be everyone’s little sister—how I need to repeat myself over and over again, and then send an email, to get my point or idea across. I learned to let the guys yell themselves hoarse over a problem, take notes, and come back with the answer. Even when you have the answer, they still might not listen to you. But I learned not to take it personally.

At one research internship, I was put at a desk at the opposite side of the building from the rest of the all-male research group. I was given three pages of handwritten notes and told to get to it. The other intern, male of course, was placed with the group and worked side-by-side with the others on projects.

Towards the end of the internship, my adviser, who was only a few years older than me, took me out to lunch, and proceeded to proposition me, even though I had only been married a few weeks earlier. I learned that, perhaps, I dressed too nicely. Wore too many skirts and dresses. I learned that men early in their careers don’t necessarily know how to communicate with their female colleagues. It is a skill you have to learn.

So at my new job, I had a bit more experience under my belt (since I now generally only wore pants to work). I had learned what to expect, and how to better navigate the workplace. I had learned that you will be expected to open the door when the doorbell rings, to wash the office dishes and clean up the office kitchen. (Not that others won’t, but that obviously you, the woman, will do these things.) I learned that if a man comes in and shakes everyone’s hand, he will not shake yours; that you will be expected to answer the phones so that it “seems like we have a receptionist.”

When I recount my workplace adventures, I find myself saying “Everyone is very nice, but …”. And to give my boss credit, he is fantastic mentor, who knows how to communicate with everyone on his team. He is observant and approachable. When, for some unfathomable reason, the topic of discussion in our company chat room was “Should Pregnant Women Be Allowed To Make Their Own Decisions,” he put a stop to it and reprimanded the instigators of the conversation.

I, as Everyone’s Little Sister, am able to selectively dish it back to everyone. But not all the time. I have to pick and choose my moments. And it’s exhausting. And maddening.

My blood is still boiling about comment a colleague made a few weeks ago, saying “I fully support paid maternity leave, but you have to admit, pregnant women are a huge inconvenience to businesses.” And even though my company offers four months of paid maternity leave, I know I can’t stay here if I want to have a baby with my husband. I cannot be pregnant here—I know, because one morning, a coworker mimed to us what happens in a miscarriage, saying “miscarriages only happen to certain types of women.” I know, because if my shirt is a little too thin, and it’s cold, and my nipples peak through, people will stare at my breasts. (Now I add extra padding to my bras to prevent this from happening.) I can only imagine how they would handle a pregnant woman. I know, because there is no closed-off room in this open-concept, glass office to nurse a baby. I know, because in the two years I’ve worked there, they haven’t hired any women in the office.

Diversity is not important to them. So I need to go. To someplace bigger, where there are more women around. Where I have some more protections and some more anonymity. Because it is pretty damn hard to be Everyone’s Little Sister when you are just wanting to be yourself.