The most aggravating compliment

Sorry folks. This is a dreaded women in STEM post. It’s sad that #ILookLikeAnEngineer is a thing. People still do not get it.

So, a true story.

A long time ago, in a job in my past, there was a week of BIG MEETINGS. It was a huge deal, with very important clients who we *had* to impress. The culture of the office was lax, and the usual code was ‘get in for some time, do all your work, and wear what you want’. For this week, we were asked to be in well on time for the BIG MEETINGS, come in suited and booted, and above all, behave.

So, I spent a week turning up to the office, wearing a nice skirt, blouse, and killer heels. Literally, killer. When the clients had gone for the day, I’d kick off said heels and start sticking plasters on all the bleeding bits, longing for my comfy trainers or boots. I kept my mouth shut, and smiled when spoken to. I didn’t really achieve much of my own programming work that week, in-spite of only having to attend a couple of the meetings, as the entire team was on tenterhooks with how said BIG MEETINGS were going. Things were going on that made it too difficult to concentrate.

I received three compliments that week. Take a guess which one infuriated me.

  1. Please don’t take this as harassment or anything, but you look stunning like that. I wish we could see it every day!
  2. I won’t sit next to you in meetings when you wear a skirt any more, as your legs are too distracting.
  3. I’ve been really impressed with your professionalism this week. Great work!

If you haven’t already guessed that the third compliment was the one that annoyed me, you still don’t get IT. So, I’ll explain further.

The week where I can honestly say that all I did was turn up, look pretty, and not share my professional opinion, is the one where I got complimented on being ‘professional’. This sent the message that I am only valued as a professional when I’m making an effort to look nice and keep my mouth shut. So for what reason had I been turning up and busting my arse all those years before?

I didn’t say anything, of course. I really do, even now, still get that the compliment was meant as just that – a compliment. It wouldn’t be right to give the complimenter a hard time over it. I do not believe that anything bad or insidious was meant by it. It was genuine, and not meant as a put down in any way. Normally, I’d be happy to hear it. But as a woman working in a male dominated field, where I have often felt that I’ve *needed* to shout out and dress down to be taken seriously, it really stung. It still does.

I subscribe to the saying ‘You don’t give offence, you *take* offence’. But before anyone shouts me down for this post, maybe try wearing those killer heels for a week in a similar situation, only to be hit with the reality of what counts higher up as ‘professional’, and tell me you wouldn’t be spitting fire about it to. This really does tie back to my earlier post. As much as I can look back on this incident, and know that logically, I took this in a way that was not intended, it just underscores that perception is an absolute bitch.

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