Can stereotypes about single men sideline an otherwise promising career?
From a woman’s perspective, my former job was a social justice utopia. Most of my workers were female, as were my supervisors, and in five years I never once witnessed an act of discrimination against a woman; the infrequent violations we heard about were summarily dealt with. For better or worse, I spoke to women differently, I was more deferential, less assertive, and painfully polite to eliminate the possibility I harbored anything but mutual respect for women in the workplace. Sadly however, I didn’t feel my female counterparts afforded me the same courtesy.
One day I stood in a circle of friends in our massive cube farm listening to two co-workers recount their trip to Europe: the food, the people, and a nightclub they visited. A co-worker, Stephanie, looked at me, smiled, and said, “I bet you wish you were at the club.”
It was just a joke, meant to get a laugh from the group, not a big deal at all … unless it reflected my true reputation in the office. Stephanie had never seen me at a club, and really only saw me once outside the office, at a work happy hour. Clubbing was far from my routine except for the occasional birthday party.
But she knew I was single, 34-years-old, and an extrovert from working with me for three years. I shuddered to think that similar comments from her would paint me with negative club-goer stereotypes: hard-drinking, promiscuous, self-destructive, misogynistic, and wholly unreliable. Any of these could kill my career, especially as I prided myself on professionalism. I got scared that an errant comment in the wrong ear could torpedo the legitimacy and respect I’d built with co-workers and bosses, and hurt my chances for promotions, advancement opportunities and leadership positions.
I heard other comments like hers during my career, from Stephanie and others, mostly good-natured quips about a fantastical life of excess and depravity I led outside the office, which I assumed everyone knew was a huge exaggeration. I was social, yes, enjoyed going out and went on the occasional date, but there was no bottle service, womanizing, or weekend flights to Vegas.
Even if I was oblivious to how debaucherous my lifestyle appeared to those around me at work, making public comments about it seemed to exactly mimic the behavior we expect men in America’s workforce to avoid. A man making a public comment about a female co-worker’s promiscuity, for example, would be unthinkably inappropriate.
I played along, but my worries about my career grew. I confided in a good friend, Lindsay, who explained: “People are jealous of you. They’re jealous you’re single and can do what you want, that you’re happy, socially adept and have no strings attached. They want to live vicariously through you.”
This made decent sense. I was one of two single guys in an office of over 100. Jeff and I, both extroverts in our mid-30s, shared stories with friends of awful dates and our plans for the weekend. The thought that others overheard these conversations, drew their own exaggerated conclusions and shared them with others like a game of telephone, terrified me.
I went to an actual authority. Steven was a 39-year-old manager with a wife and two small children, but more importantly he understood our industry better than anyone and was brutally honest on the topic of office politics. I told him my concerns–the fact that I was a single male over 30 in an office where almost everyone was married–could hurt my legitimacy with co-workers, bosses and partners from around the government.
To my horror, he completely agreed. “People assume bad things when they see a man in a suit without a wedding ring on. That ring comforts people, they know he’s responsible, trustworthy and respectful.”
“But, that’s not fair,” I said.
“Yep!” Life’s not fair. That’s the way it is.”
Twice during my five-year career I was passed over for promotion. Both times my teammates and I was shocked. There’s no way to know it happened because of the perception I feared was following me, but there were few other good explanations. I scored flying colors on development reports, broke a record for awards received from partner offices, and had multiple offers to become a manager. But when it came to my own office, I was stunted.
I moved on from that job on good terms, explaining to everyone I was naturally antsy and excited to try something new, but I’d be lying if the double-standard I experienced didn’t add to my dispassion for the job. Few are bigger proponents of women’s equality than me, so moving on I sincerely hope, in offices across America, that the incautious treatment of men isn’t adulterating the gender equality we’re all working so hard to achieve.
Photo: Getty Images