Cupcakes. Lately, I’ve been dwelling on the matter of cupcakes. Not because I find red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting irresistible (although this is true), but because it’s come to represent an insecurity of my role in the workplace. At a recent job, I realized that I had gradually and unknowingly assumed the role of “birthday cupcakes organizer.” The role was passed down to me from another female colleague and after speaking with other female friends, I found that many of us held similar responsibilities at our jobs. Harmless as it may seem, my honorary cupcake title has made me reflect on the experiences of young women in the professional world today.
It has been difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the national reckoning of sorts going on right now around the issue of women’s sexual harassment. Personally, it’s led to conversations with female friends where stories that were once buried deeply and compartmentalized are shared. Without fail, every time this exchange occurs, one of us will say, “I never knew that happened. Why didn’t you tell anyone? Why didn’t you tell me?”
1 in 3 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace alone. Over 71% of these incidents go unreported. Why is that? The numbers are staggering, but if you look at the larger system of inequality in which we live our day-to-day lives, you can understand how it could be so difficult to speak out or to be heard.
Being a woman in the workplace can often feel like navigating a field of subtle and not-so-subtle sexism. Recalling some anecdotes I’ve collected from peers, the experiences range from being the assumed note-taker in every meeting, to being given formal feedback that her tendency to touch her hair is “juvenile and distracting”, to being unable to fit into an office culture where phones are answered with a “What’s good bro”. It can mean smiling along when male colleagues joke, “Careful, there’s a lady in the room”, to wondering if a comment a male manager made about her legs was inappropriate, all the way to being sexually assaulted by a male senior executive after a night out on a work trip.
What was common throughout these stories is that none of these women spoke out. Some even wondered if there was any issue at all – asking themselves, “Am I being dramatic?” And in this way, so many of these incidents, whether they are seemingly insignificant or life-altering, are swept under the rug. And in this way, young women put their heads down and get back to work, because that’s what many of us were told we have to do to get ahead in the “real” world.
This brings me be back to cupcakes. I’m happy to report that I am no longer the cupcake girl, not because I think I’m above it or because they’re not great gifts (they really are), but because I was unsettled by the fact that the role was assumed mine, and before me, other women, despite the fact that we were surrounded by male colleagues of the same rank or below. I spoke out and I wish someone had told me sooner that speaking out was okay. I wish someone had told me that no matter how subtle or not-so-subtle the situation, I shouldn’t feel a need to appease or fear retaliation – because how else will change come about?