A Speech We Wish We’d Given, A Speech for All Women

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Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the House floor on Thursday. The New York Times, Inc. House Television, via Associated Press

This week Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a speech in Congress many of us wish we’d made rather than fretting alone in our cars or the women’s room. She said what so many of us want to say, only better. Ocasio-Cortez is member of Congress so we expect her to be collected, measured and smart and she was, but she included all of us, speaking for any woman who’s ever been diminished, trash talked, or on the receiving end of harassing words from a man, because to quote her, “all of us have had to deal with this in some form, some way, some shape at some point in our lives.” Ocasio-Cortez was responding to remarks, and then a subsequent public apology, by Congressman Ted Yoho.  He called her a f***ing b**** on the Capitol steps where Yoho’s remark was overheard by a reporter.

So if you’re still working in the museum world and not among the formerly employed, and you identify as a woman, what do you do when this kind of gendered anger comes your way? As we’ve said, the museum world is still hierarchical, patriarchal, and traditional. In cultures like that women are expected to be kind, collegial, even motherly, but definitely not strong and especially not angry.

Yoho called Octavio-Cortez crazy and out of her mind. Research tells us when men get angry it’s associated with power; it’s even seen as courageous. In an article on women’s emotions and the workplace, the Gender Action Portal says that male job applicants expressing anger were more likely to be hired than those expressing sadness. With women, on the other hand, emotions, and particularly anger are inexorably tied to hormones, to centuries of tropes and metaphors where emotion comes from some dark, crazy, peculiarly gendered place.

So what should you do if someone at work name calls you in this gendered way? It’s unlikely there’ll be a reporter nearby to make the interchange viral, and equally unlikely that the name caller will stand up in front of all your colleagues, and frame an apology while invoking his own wife and daughters. So here are some things to keep in mind: 

  1. First, keep your composure. Channel your inner Michelle Obama, and go high, rather than low, and your inner AOC by stepping away and collecting yourself.
  2. Know your rights. If a colleague or your direct report calls you a f***ing idiot, that’s different than if you identify as female and that same person calls you a f***ing b****. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) classifies the latter as abuse because it’s tied to your race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin or genetic information. Be sure to document every incident, preferably in pen on paper with date and time, the old fashioned way.
  3. Assuming your organization has an employee handbook, know what it says. Very few organizations tolerate abusive language in the workplace. Whether they enforce their own rules is another matter. Do remember that HR’s primary purpose is to protect the organization so if you approach them, make sure you are calm, unemotional, and frame what happened not only to you, but its spill over effect on your team, program or department.
  4. Don’t let anyone–your boss or HR–describe what’s happened as a clash of personalities. It’s not. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, which is a fount of information, the he said/she said scenario is an easy go-to for HR because they can shrug their collective shoulders and act as though it’s impossible to legislate.
  5. Know when you’ve reached your limit. In hard times like a global pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, it might seem like madness to walk away from a job. But bullies are masters of serial behavior. If you’ve been name called once, it’s likely it will happen again. Dodging someone’s targeted anger can affect your health and well being.
  6. Consider whether you have the will to press forward with legal action. If so, follow the steps outlined by the Bullying Institute.
  7. Last, if you’re not the target, but instead the witness to this kind of behavior, for the love of God, stand up and help your colleague. Don’t avert your eyes while giving a silent thanks that it’s not you. Comfort them. Validate what’s happened to them. Write down what you observed and share it with them. Ask others to do the same. In theory, HR is far more likely to pay attention to a group than an individual.

The museum world isn’t a very happy place at the moment. Too many are out of work, and recent articles report that the fiscal downturn and pandemic closures may take out one in three museums. Yet rather than caring for their staffs, museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Akron Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Erie Museum of Art spent last spring as poster children for organizations who failed to acknowledge workplace bullying, gender harassment, and racist behavior until it was too late. What AOC demonstrated in her measured and inclusive response is to make clear that for her Representative Yoho’s remarks weren’t personal, but instead another instance of the type of targeted language used by men against women. She’s a busy person. She could have turned away and forgotten about it, but she didn’t. You don’t have to either. #MuseumMeToo.

Joan Baldwin



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