The interview process is a singularly humiliating experience of self promotion. Showcase your talents concisely and humbly. Prove you are an appealing person. Adapt to your interviewer, gauge their responses, anticipate their questions, laugh at their jokes.
I had a Skype interview not too long ago with the general manager of a hip, up and coming start-up in Santa Monica. My interviewer, who I’ve named Pierre, was a casually dressed, white, thirty-something, British male. He was direct, a clear leader, knowledgeable about his industry and mostly friendly. I got the feeling he enjoyed putting interviewees on the spot.
Naturally, a good portion of our chat revolved around the contents of my resume, which highlights a mixture of my professional and academic experience. I attempted to focus on my very relevant work experience, but Pierre seemed genuinely interested in my studies. We chatted gratuitously about history in general. He asked about my dissertation on international adoption and I may have mentioned an interest in gender and women’s studies. A sampling of academic papers I presented at conferences hid at the bottom of my resume. Topics included international surrogacy, female transnational smugglers, and turn of the century “passing” women – we did not discuss them.
About ten minutes later in our hour + call, Pierre interjected that he had a question he just had to ask me. He built it up. He didn’t know how to say it and he didn’t want to offend me but he simply had to know.
Pierre: “A good part of this position includes attending frequent networking events where you’ll have to deal with all types of people. Let’s face it, this is LA, you will be surrounded by superficial people at these events – superficial women. Many of them didn’t necessarily get where they are through their brains. Maybe you’ll end up at an event at the Playboy Mansion. How will you handle that? Basically, I’m wondering, will you be walking around hitting these women over the head with your Birkenstocks?”
This question/scenario was posed to me in a supposedly professional interview. Luckily, we’d turned off the video on our call because of a poor connection so I had no audience for the several shadows that quickly passed over my face as I processed what I’d heard. There was utter surprise at this unexpected question, confusion about why he thought I would do that, and wonder about what I’d said to give him the impression that I might. Shamefully, I felt relief that the question hadn’t been worse. I suppose I also felt glad for the chance to set the record straight. To him, I blithely laughed the comment off – Oh haha, of course I wouldn’t! But underneath I felt completely misunderstood. I needed to hang up in order to define how I really felt about his words.
If Pierre had wanted to know, and I did half heartedly try to explain, I am actually deeply interested in gender and the human body. I want to know how people, particularly women, use their bodies as a resource and as a tool to navigate specific gender roles. I’m interested in the ways people commodify their bodies, which might mean selling a kidney, sperm, eggs, the use of one’s womb, or sexual organs. It might also mean selling one’s labor, or looks or athletic ability. It’s a tangled mess and it’s fascinating. There’s no hierarchy between choices and I certainly don’t go about moralizing, or abusing other women.
Pierre wasn’t asking me a question though, he was testing me. The word “feminist” never passed either of our lips but I had mentioned that buzz phrase “gender studies.” Pierre had quietly labeled me and then began attaching the prejudices that he associated with a skewed, radical version of that scary f-word. He tried to turn it into a joke but he was putting me in my place. Check your feminist antics at the door missy, that’s fine for university but there’s no space for it here. It was trivializing. Would he have asked the same question to a male who mentioned an interest in gender? No. But in my case it was a perceived part of my background that possibly needed management.
Of course if that was his guess he was right. Naturally, I am a feminist, but isn’t everyone? Or more realistically, why isn’t everyone? Feminism means supporting equal rights for men and women. I’m a woman and a human and I want equality. How is that controversial?
The whole Birkenstock smacking scenario was a crystal clear window into how Pierre thinks about women. I was offended and confused about why he would turn me, ridiculous cliché weapon in hand, against other women. But what about those girls he was aiming my arm at? How the hell did he know how they got where they were? Talk about judging women, take a look in the mirror man. I suppose Pierre was trying to be blunt and edgy, but his candor revealed his misogyny and I don’t think he was even aware of it. My short answer to him should have been: No, I won’t be hitting any women at parties… but will you?
But all of these thoughts came later. During the interview I was complicit in the conversation. Swept up in my own defense, I wasn’t quick enough on my feet to bring attention to what was going on. I was still jumping through those interview hoops – Like me! Hire me!
With reflection this experience continues to astound me. I was busy hitting my interview talking points, working in bits of company knowledge, and tying in my experience. Pierre wasn’t listening. His ear was a colander straining my words. They all fell inside but only a few sifted out. The thing is, in other respects Pierre wasn’t a jerk. That’s part of what so deeply saddened me about our conversation. It was a depressing reminder of the accepted ways men and women speak to each other.
If I could go back in time I’d handle this conversation differently. I’d turn the questions back on Pierre. I’d listen to him try to explain why he thought he needed to ask me that and why he felt it was OK to do so. I might also advise him that feminists wear all kinds of footwear, they even wear spike heels and attend parties at the Playboy Mansion – he’d be wise to reserve judgement.
In case there was a shadow of a doubt in anyone’s mind, I miraculously did make it past this interview stage but was not ultimately offered the position…. That’s OK, my guess is it wouldn’t have been a culture fit.