“Atmospheric discrimination”

Dear President Trump,

For a few days now, I’ve been chewing on something to tell you about, trying to figure out how to frame it, what to include, what to let stay shadowy. This morning while I was getting some exercise I finally decided I was ready to tackle it (I’ll tell you what “it” is in a minute, so just hold on) so it felt like another of those “universe things” when I came across an article in my go-to source, the WP, about Elizabeth Drew, a journalist who was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Washington Press Club Foundation. The Magazine (aka “lifestyle” section) article recounts how Drew used her speech to lambast journalism for its historical and ongoing poor treatment of women in the field. (I called attention to the section of the paper because I can’t ignore the irony of putting this article about her critique in the “lifestyle” section and because it pisses me off that it turned up there even though it’s better there than nowhere.) Anyway, in the speech she used the awesome phrase “atmospheric discrimination.” (Another side note: I was tempted to make sure it was original to her, but decided not to since I don’t think it would have occurred to me to check such a thing if it had been attributed to a man.)

Drew had already tackled the obvious, structural stuff to include unequal pay, maternity and paternity leave, when she went on to say:

“But something else is going on, and I don’t think it’s been recognized, but I sure have been seeing it. It’s what I call ‘atmospheric discrimination.’ Men who treat us with condescension, unkindness, rudeness.”

Apparently this was met with silence, likely of the stunned “Did she really just say that?” variety, which was followed by a standing ovation. She didn’t slay the dragon but she sure as hell got its attention.

“Atmospheric discrimination” – it’s pretty f*cking perfect; discrimination that’s everywhere, is inescapable, clings to your clothes and hair like cigarette smoke, literally the air we breathe and the water we drink, contaminating everything we consume. And since it’s absolutely ubiquitous, we can’t help but take it in, can’t help but have who we are in the world and who we are to ourselves, how we are in public and how we are in the private of our own minds, shaped and molded by the social atmosphere within which we exist.

Of course none of this is brand new insight, but having a catchy phrase that distills things well can still help. A lot.

The related thing I’ve been chewing on that I want to spit out now is that I’m in the process of preparing to lead a committee at work that is to come up with solid recommendations, as in “actionable” recommendations, to address the inequities for women in my workplace with regards to leadership positions that enjoy real power.

As part of this process I had a conversation with a couple of men who are leaders (with real power) about my sense that the committee is going to first need to figure out ways to gauge the climate (I really have been using this term). We’ve had some large group meetings on the topic where the same few people, mostly women, spoke up while most everyone else, including the handful of men who showed up, were mostly silent and mostly inscrutable. In making the case for the need to do some initial serious discerning, I pointed out that one of the things we’ll want and need to hear about is what’s happened for women when we’ve expressed interest in leadership roles. I noted that the couple of times I have done so, I was actively discouraged (by powerful men) and that I’m quite certain I’m not the only one. They nodded sagely and one of them said something about how there are always lots of factors in these decisions and yes, it will be important to understand any patterns that exist, but that of course we need to consider individual inadequacies.

I felt like I’d just been slapped. Hard. It still makes my heart beat faster/harder/horribly uncomfortably to revisit the scene.

I tried to carry on the conversation while processing whether to say something about the timing of this comment and whether he meant to take me down, but I lost the train and floundered through the rest of the meeting. I was angry and hurt and felt ashamed of being too weak to say something right then and there in this damn meeting about a committee on women in leadership. Shit. It tapped right into that well of insecurity that was overflowing before I knew it with nit-picked bits of worry about my various faults that militate against my leadership potential. I couldn’t see that I’d fallen into the trap (whether intentionally laid or not) of zeroing in on myself and my particular-to-me inadequacies. Fortunately a friend who is younger and wiser gave me a reality check and pointed out that “individual inadequacies” are routinely weaponized to explain why women and minorities are passed over, while white men get to pretend they completely bypassed the individual inadequacy department.

With my newfound insight tentatively layered over my still raw feelings about the interaction, I called the man who said this to me. I figure if I’m going to lead this committee, I have to stumble through confronting these situations, be grown up about them and deal constructively. So I didn’t attack or blame – I just pointed out that the timing was tough, that it threw me off, that if I’d been another man I’d probably have called him on it right then, that I needed to clear the air, and that this is the kind of crap women and minorities deal with all the damn time that is largely invisible. After saying that he hadn’t meant anything personal towards me (what else could he say, really? but it’s helpful to believe him so I will) and noting that this is the “likeability” deal that gets thrown at women, he did a good job of listening and getting why it was important that we have the conversation. I felt tons lighter afterwards, having realized that I was mostly upset with myself for not having spoken up in the meeting. I also felt proud of myself for not just burying it and “moving on” and of him for not being defensive and for grappling with the implications of such interactions with me.

So now I’ve spit out a lot more about all this than I intended, but since you don’t read these letters it’s no skin off your nose – it just means more times through your darn contact page (which is not auto-populating properly anymore) for me to get it all loaded, and that’s ok.

May we all be safe to be imperfect.
May we be willing to give everyone grace and the benefit of the doubt; not just some of us.
May we strive to have healthy, respectful exchanges about the hard stuff.
May we make peace with the halting, jaggedy process of making meaningful change.

Tracy Simpson

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