Welcome back to Work Harassment in the Sex Place, a series where we explore what it means to work passionately with the one you’re passionate about. If you missed our series introduction, you might want to read that before digging in here and hearing how women are treated differently in the workplace.
Joe and I were in Wisconsin for work, in a beautiful hotel built by Frank Lloyd Wright. We’d had a long day of travel from Massachusetts and, with an even longer day of consulting and teaching ahead, we were looking forward to crashing together in a plush space with fresh cotton sheets. At the check-in counter we got the usual request for a credit card to pay for incidentals.
“I’ll need your credit card as well, Ms. Schley.” The clerk said without looking up from his computer screen.
“Oh you’ve got Joe’s, that’s good enough.” I was travel-weary, but patient to explain.
“No, I’m sorry.” He said, now locking my gaze. “It’s our policy to take one card per room.”
“You’ve given us two rooms?” I said, a bit confused.
“Well yes, of course, one for Ms. Schley and one for Mr. Laur.”
Joe and I both laughed, recognizing the all-too-common mistake. Before we got married, I decided there was no way I was going to give up my last name and hard-earned professional reputation. Hyphenated, Schley-Laur sounded like some kind of unappetizing German hot dog. So, we decided to keep our respective names.
Now whenever we go to pick up the dry-cleaning, or the car, or to check into a hotel room, and they ask for a name we hesitate. And then give two. “Schley or Laur, better check them both.”
“Oh, now I understand,” I said to the clerk. “You see, we’re married. We’ll only need one room.”
Compliment, coincidence, or microaggression?
The clerk’s stern demeanor that day in Wisconsin reminded me of a less pleasant encounter during our first professional excursion five years earlier. We were new loves then, still in the blissed-out honeymoon phase—before marriage, mortgage and kids—and we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. One older single woman in the group, Rose from New Zealand, told me that she found our behavior outrageous, unprofessional and offensive.
Three years later, to my surprise, the same woman invited us to come to her country to teach The Natural Step—a systems approach to ecological sustainability. A mutual colleague told Rose that if she wanted people to teach organizational learning, systems thinking, dialogue and sustainability frameworks, we were the folks who fit the bill.
When we arrived in New Zealand, Rose went out of her way to be our gracious host as is the tradition in her country. Rose it turns out, is a famous social change agent in her country, and her contacts range from business, to politics, to academia, to Maori leaders. She scheduled several professional sessions for us—with local sustainability teachers, with the President of New Zealand’s version of Wal-Mart, with students. All the while, she acted as our tour guide and chauffeur. When we were guests in Rose home, we were careful to be very discreet. No sex. Or exceedingly quiet sex.
Rose paid us a great honor at the airport as we headed home. “I’ve hosted people from all over the world for decades,” she said. “You two are the most impressive couple I’ve met in work and in love.” Now that’s different.
Later at a training Joe and I did at Shell Oil Company, another woman in the audience took Joe aside at the break. She was middle-aged, with plenty of makeup and hairspray, and dressed in a black suit with a high-collared, white ruffled tie.
She noted our age and gender difference and then told Joe, “Sara ought to show more respect for her superiors. She should not interrupt you and offer different points of view.” What she did not know was that I had several years more experience in our profession, had brought Joe into my business, hired him as a sub-contractor on this project, and trained him in the work.
If anyone had slept their way to the top in our company, it was Joe. Of course, this audience member didn’t know any of those details. But I couldn’t help but wonder, what else were people saying about me? About us? About our professionalism, or lack-there-of?
As it turns out, researchers have proven time and time again that women are treated differently in the workplace as a result of bias, not differences in behavior. And that their superiors or potential investors, and others in positions of power may describe similar behavior—speaking up in a meeting with a question, for example—as positive for men (“promising,” “knowledgeable”) but negative for women (“inexperienced,” “worried”).
Is it all worth it?
In this snapshot of Joe and my unlikely work-love affair, we came up against a very real concern for many couples choosing to walk a similar path to our own—in particular, hetero-sexual couples, where women are perceived to have less power and less potential than their male counterparts and women are treated differently in the workplace.
While a man and woman in business together may never be seen as equal, I’d do it all again, just to keep flipping the script on its head.
Why? Because with the inner and outer work of sustainability comes equal parts hardship and possibility. My experiences of how women are treated differently in the workplace have helped me tame my inner demons and claim a woman’s voice in the world: the voice of mother and lover and daughter and visionary. Now, it’s my responsibility to use that voice to imagine new possibilities. A level playing field. Systems that work better for all of us.
“So what’s it like to work with your husband?” colleagues often ask. Their assumptions about this are usually unequivocal and polarized. Either—“I’d go nuts or kill him—how do you stand it?” or, “Wow that sounds like heaven—you get to work and travel with your beloved and the clients pay for it?”
You can say that again.
Next time on Work Harassment in the Sex Place, we’ll get into Soul Work, Shadow Work, and why it’s hard—but so very worthwhile—to let your guard down in work and in love.