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The Hidden Prejudice

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s I heard every day from my mother and sisters about the treatment of women in the work force. I was brought up with the notion that if a woman can do the same job as a man she should be allowed to do it and be paid the same. The work force I was going to be joining would have equal rights.

As a kid this seemed very simple. We were equal in school. For the most part, if a young girl and I did the same assignments and got the same test scores, we would receive the same grade. I was sure that this would carry on into the real world.

My first couple of jobs as a kid were primarily traditionally male-based; detailing cars, gas-station attendant, stacking firewood. After finally graduating high school I decided to see the world and join the Navy. Again, there were women in the service, but the numbers were few, and not on combatant ships. Eventually I was sure that I would work side by side with women and would be proud to treat her as a fellow sailor.

I spent my tour of duty on a destroyer stationed in San Diego. It had 336 souls on board; all of them men. We had all had our sexual-harassment training and were, for the most part, respectful of women, whether they were visiting the ship when we were in port, relatives of the crew, or the occasional dignitary.

That all changed in 1993.  Our ship had been selected to be a pilot program for women serving on combatant ships. We were to receive around 40 female sailors on board, as well enlisted and officers. They were all qualified in different fields, ranks and job skills. I remember looking forward to finally working along women in the job force, to prove to myself that I could be fair.

What I witnessed in next 30 days opened my eyes up to how hard of a task this was. There was bias, prejudice, and favoritism, but not the way I’d expected. The prejudice was not toward gender, but appearance.

I saw female sailors who were perceived as unattractive work very hard, but with very little praise.

I saw female sailors who were perceived as more attractive and seemed to always get the lighter duties and the easier watch station.

When I was assigned to work with several subordinate female shipmates I would try to give all the women the same workload. Many times the more attractive ones would seem shocked that I would ask her to mop a floor or carry out the trash. When their concerns were carried to my superiors, the duties would be lightened, or more senior crewman would help them, if not complete the task for them entirely.

This was shocking to me. No one had ever lightened my work load based on my looks, or any other man I worked with. Typically, we were judged on work ethic, attitude or general knowledge.

At the time, I felt that what I’d observed had to be isolated to my division. In 30 days I was finally able to test that assumption. At the end of the tour 10 of us from my ship were picked to speak to a dignitary from Washington who was coming in to ask us what we thought of the gender experiment. We were asked to be polite and speak the truth, as this would be how they trained for the future of women in the military. Before the motorcade arrived on our pier, I had a chance to speak to my fellow shipmates as to what I’d observed. They mostly agreed that this was exactly the way things went in their divisions, too. Some had different opinions regarding whether or not what we’d observed was wrong, or whether it was just normal behavior between men and women. I told them that we should let the person from Washington know about what we’d noticed so they could discuss it more. Most agreed, so we sat and waited.

As the row of our superiors came through the door I watched as my shipmates looked uneasy. The Washington dignitary that was sent was a woman; I believe a senator. The captain of my ship and the commander were sitting next to her. I watched as all of my crewmen gave similar statements.

“I believe it was a great learning experience for both sides; male and female.”

I sat there trying not to judge them. Most of us in the room were either up for a recent promotion, or awaiting some disciplinary action. There was a lot of pressure to toe the line. I kept thinking of one particular engine apprentice in my division. She was very knowledgeable, and worked hard, yet never got the breaks that the more attractive women in my division received. If I didn’t say something and stand up for her, then who would? When it was my turn to speak I chose my words very carefully. I spoke of what I’d witnessed, and my concern that it was more widespread, and if so, that there needed to be training to resolve this problem.

I remember my captain’s mouth almost hitting the floor. My lieutenant stared right through me, wishing I could be silenced. When I was done the female dignitary asked me several questions, which I carefully answered. Upon leaving she handed me her card, and said that if I ever felt threatened as a result of what I’d said that day, that I should call her directly.

The next couple of weeks there was a lot of pressure upon me to change my statement, or to say that I was confused. At times I felt my Navy career was over. In the end I was able to avoid captain’s mast,  and my upcoming promotion was approved. In part I believe I was protected because of the phone number I carried with me on the little card the dignitary had given me.

Although it’s been 25 years since I’ve left the service, that was the first time I experienced that kind of gender bias. Ever since, I’ve noticed the same prejudices I did back then.

As a man, typically I am judged on my job for my skills. How attractive or unattractive I am plays a very small part in how I am judged. But I fear that women pay much higher price for their appearance. I know that when it comes to sales positions and customer service, where you deal directly with the public, there will always be a bias in favor of the more attractive, but why does that seem to extend to other occupations, too?

I can’t help but wonder what effect this prejudice has had with regard to sexual harassment later on in life.

Back on my ship I was asked what I thought the solution was. My answer still remains the same.

I have no idea.