I got my first taste of life as a professional adult when I took on a marketing internship for a department store chain back in my native country of Korea. The job was a point of pride for me, and as the company's primary interpreter, it provided me with an opportunity to become even more fluent in Korean-English translating.
But, the good feelings didn't last. On my very first day there, my supervisor instructed me to wear red lipstick. "It makes your smile more impressive," he told me. "Our interpreters need to look their best every day."
Harmless enough, right? The trouble is, it didn't stop there. After the lipstick, I was told to wear sheer tights underneath my skirts. Again, it was because it added to my “professionalism.”
Then, trips to the breakroom began to shed something else to light: overt sexism. One day, as I was making my morning cup of coffee, I overheard my manager saying to one of the other higher-ups,“Her legs look especially fine today, don't they?”
Yes, they were talking about me while I was in the room. It wasn't some far-away woman on the television, but me, standing just a few feet away. I was told to “get used to it” when I opened up about the incident to some of my female co-workers.
“They're always like that,” they said. Are they, though? Is this really business as usual?
I did the only thing I could think of doing: I started wearing pantsuits to cover my legs, which were clearly distracting my male co-workers and hurting their productivity. Plus, pantsuits look quite professional, don't they? It should have made everybody happy.
My manager disagreed, however, and he let me know by sending me to the head office for a little talking-to. The only female manager in the whole outfit kindly loaned me a spare skirt from her locker — apparently skirt-related emergencies were common there — and laughed off the whole incident.
After the laughter died down, I was handed some spending money to go buy more tights to wear around the office. Finally, the last shreds of professionalism finally fell away.
“Why do you think we hired you? You're young and easy on the eyes.”
Needless to say, I began my next job shortly after. But, things didn't really improve. After being turned down for a raise twice, I overheard a rather matter-of-fact conversation between two of my co-workers about their own raises, which seemed to have been rubber-stamped by management without much hesitation.
So, what's a girl to do in this man-centric world?
1. Create records of everything you do.
Women have to work much harder than men to be taken seriously. Case in point: After these disappointing experiences you read about above, I decided to keep a permanent record of everything meaningful I did while gainfully employed by these companies.
I made logs, took screenshots and archived emails that had any relevance to my career and my accomplishments. I never again wanted to show up to a meeting without a comprehensive answer to the question, “Why do you deserve this raise?”
2. Foster meaningful relationships wherever you can find them.
I also realized that a few bad eggs at the company shouldn't be enough to totally ruin the experience for me. I learned to build — and still enjoy to this day — a good handful of meaningful relationships from my time at these jobs. One of my old bosses, for example, was especially vocal about equality in the workplace, and that helped me feel more confident in my role in the company.
In other words, I built a supportive and enjoyable social life in spite of the toxic influences that were present. We built a small community where we could share our work experiences as well as enjoy life outside of the office. Simply having somebody else to commiserate with can go a long way.
3. Keep your eyes on the purpose of your work.
We don't go to work to make our bosses happy or to appease the quarterly earnings targets. We go to work to get paid, and to hopefully derive some self-worth from what we do there.
I've realized, of course, that gainful employment is a gauntlet of toxic experiences and troubling influences. For many modern women, it's filled with leering faces, jeering comments and thinly veiled commands to dress more provocatively.
What does any of this have to do with bettering myself and the world? Absolutely nothing. The kindly guidance I received wasn't designed to make me a better citizen of the world. Its sole purpose was to subjugate me and turn my presence into something that could be tittered about in the breakroom.
I resolved that the next job I held — and the next, and the next — would be a position where I was free to remember why I work in the first place. It would be a position in which I could invest in my skill set rather than in my wardrobe.
But wherever life takes me next, I've decided I'm going to stand up for my own dignity when I get there. Because as a woman, you'll waste a hell of a lot of time waiting for somebody else to do it for you.