This conversation actually took place at my workplace…. Ok so it was a while ago. But it still makes me laugh. My desk phone rang.
“Hello. Is that Catarina?”
“This is the buildings management office”
“It has been reported to us that you are removing letters from the names on the office doors”
“The thing is, we are running out of Ms and Ss and we need you to stop doing it”
“Will you stop?”
“Well how about you stop replacing them, and then I won’t need to keep removing them?”
“I’m sorry miss but we can’t do that. It’s company policy”
“To identify female employees by putting Miss or Mrs or Ms in front of their name.”
“And what about male employees?”
“We don’t need to identify them miss. They’re normal”
“Ah. And why does it matter?”
“Well the thing is, you can’t see through the office doors, so if someone is opening the door they need to be warned that there might be a woman in the room in case they have a problem with it.”
“That’s seems entirely reasonable. Women are quite shocking. Here’s the thing though. I have a problem with people with beards. Could you maybe put B in front of someone’s name if they have a beard? Just so I am prepared for the shock when I open the door?”
“No we couldn’t do that”
“It doesn’t really seem fair does it? Why would you warn us about some things and not others?”
“It’s company policy miss.
So are you going to stop?”
“Then we will have to report you miss”
“Fair enough. For what though?”
“Stealing company property”
“Well I have the letters here in my desk drawer. I haven’t taken them off the premises. You can come and collect them if you like. Or I can send them to you in the internal mail.
So they’re not really stolen are they?”
“So shall we leave it at that?”
“I’ll have to talk to my manager”
“I think that’s a good idea”
I never heard another word on the topic. But I did notice that they also stopped putting Ms in front of my name on the door. A small victory for equality. A very minor protest. No blood was shed. But at least a nudge in the right direction. A year or two later, following my polite request, they also changed the phone book to first and second names. So no need for Miss, Ms or Mrs there either any more.
A couple of years after that however, another poor administrator had the misfortune to run into my failure to accept out of date bureaucracy.
I had recently married (a short lived episode as it turned out but that’s beside the point) and they had received my application for my husband’s membership card of the company’s extensive sports facilities. They wanted to know my ‘new surname’ I explained that my ‘sir’-name had not changed. I was still who I had always been. They struggled to process that information. Surely I can’t have been the first person in the company to marry and not change her name? Apparently so. And worse, there was no way the system could accommodate two different family names in one employee record. It Was Impossible. Tricky. I wondered aloud what was to be done about this situation.
They wondered if maybe I would be prepared to change my name in order to facilitate the company’s record keeping system? I explained that I would not. They regretted that.
In the end, the solution they came up with was for my husband to adopt my family name. At least as far as the company was concerned. They could then issue him with a card and he could avail himself of the sports clubs, so long as he remembered he was not who he thought he was. Luckily this amused rather than offended him.
Like most casual sexism it seems a harmless example, a little amusing. Unlike the situation a few months later when my posting to Australia was cancelled by a senior manager because he was “not prepared to believe that any self respecting man would be prepared to take a two year sabbatical to follow his wife“. He was just trying to protect my marriage he explained kindly (that proved to be a fool’s errand). My husband was disappointed to lose his planned two years of improving his golf – it might even have saved my marriage. And of course I was gutted to lose the job that offered a promotion and an interesting posting. It never occurred to me at the time to issue a formal complaint. I let it go.
That situation is less likely to arise today. In lots of countries at least. But as every working woman knows, we are still tripped up by ‘good intentions’. It’s easy to overlook them. To not quite register the way we are stymied by the assumptions and protectiveness of others. Nor is it always easy to challenge them with grace and humour – without earning an unhelpful reputation. But we do need to be awake to what is happening – even if we then choose to accept these situations as status quo. If that takes a small hoard of Ms and Ss locked in an office drawer then so be it.