In retrospect, it seems like a skit straight from on of my favorite TV shows, Parks and Recreation.
Two weeks ago I was in Indy for a meeting with a brand development agency, part of my newly acquired job in the IU Digital Library Program. I had started the job a few days beforehand, so at that point I was still in the process of trying to figure out my role in the project. Upon arriving at the agency’s office (my closest Man Men moment to date!) we were graciously ushered into a meeting room. The agency hosting us had three team members in attendance; my team totaled four–myself plus three middle-aged men. The agency walked us through a process of learning about our product, asking us questions, saying, Is Avalon more this or more this? that sort of thing. Our three-hour meeting was about halfway over when the president of the company, who had been running the meeting, asked the late-twentysomething hipster creative assistant to fetch the post-its. I was paying attention to the president at the time but it was hard not to notice Mr. Creative dispersing the post-its, as he was directly to the right of me.
Here’s what happens next, as I remember it:
I am handed a standard yellow pad from the stack in Mr. Creative’s hand. My supervisor, seated next to me, is tossed a neon yellow post-it. Next in line is my predecessor in the role of Project Assistant. Mr. Creative is leaning over the table directly in front of me as he disperses the post-its, so what happens next is obvious: he glances down at the pink post-it next in the stack, ready to be passed to my predecessor, and instead reaches back over to my post-it and swaps the two. I end up with a pretty pastel pink post-it and my predecessor ends up with the yellow. Our last team member gets blue.
I remember staring at the pink post-it thinking, Did that REALLY just happen? I watched Mr. Creative in his plaid shirt slouch back over to his seat as the president walked us through various exercises where we gave more opinions on the product, scribbling them down on the post-its. Mine didn’t feel like just a post-it anymore, though. I felt marked in some way. I recognized that he wasn’t maliciously intentioned, just oblivious–but in that oblivion he marked me as other: young, unimportant, a girl in a room full of adults. That’s exactly how I felt, and I silently seethed for the duration of the meeting, imagining the ruckus an indignant Leslie Knope would cause in such a situation.
I try to consider why it’s not that big of a deal. It was just a piece of paper that happened to be pink. It was a split-second decision. He thought that me having pink would help the agency distinguish my answers from the others’. He didn’t want to offend my predecessor–a burly, middle-aged man–by handing him the pink post-its. I can comprehend the reasons why it might have happened, and honestly, I’m a reasonable person. I get that the post-it swap was forgivably mild, just tactless. And yet I am still thinking about it, and I will be honest when I say that in the moment after it happened I felt like breathing fire down that table. I was instantly offended and if I had been in a higher position within the meeting, boy, he would have heard from me. As it was, I held my tongue. After the meeting, as I was driving back to Bloomington with my colleagues I shared the story and they, thankfully, were appalled.
My intuition tells me that the post-it situation was a byproduct of my perceived status in the meeting rather than my gender–although of course gender plays a role. I was there to soak in more information about the product and the process, as someone who will be creating content for the website they design. But I wasn’t expected to be a decision-maker. I doubt that Mr. Creative would have swapped a yellow post-it for a pink post-it if I were at the leadership level, because if I were I would be perceived as a woman. As it was, he saw me as a girl so whatever self-censoring voice that might tell him not hand me a pink post-it after I already have a perfectly good yellow one never emerged. Or maybe all of that is just in my head, and maybe he has no idea why that swap would offend someone because females and the color pink are, you know, naturally bound together in sweet, docile harmony. I won’t ever know. That’s fine.
As I think about the pink post-it scenario I’m also thinking about the other gender dynamics at play during the meeting. For instance, as we went through the process of coming up with personas for our target audience, our group was asked to specify the gender of our average “Director of Library Technology” or some such job title. Verdict: male. Next, the same was asked for “University Librarian,” with the same verdict: male. This answer was given with some mildly embarrassed shrugging, it wasn’t being bragged about, but that was the consensus. On the other side of things, something I haven’t mentioned in this post is that the founder and director of the creative agency was a woman: a young, attractive woman. She ran the meeting wearing a hip outfit and a statement necklace that I coveted the entire time (not pink but a close cousin: coral). She was maybe in her late twenties/early thirties; she was Mr. Creative’s boss, as well as the boss of the late middle-aged man also sitting in the room. So I was thinking, “I will lead the next generation of female directors of library tech departments!” just as I was thinking, “I want to be her!”
Just note: I have never felt that my gender holds me back. I have plenty of role models in the digital library and related fields, sharp and capable women that inspire me to work my way up to their level. An abundance. So I’m not feeling isolated or anything like that. Mainly it just kills me to have to let this guy get away without some sort of verbal annihilation. I’m not used to being voiceless in the face of pointless idiocy, but the situation called for it. An exercise in restraint–probably a good thing for me to try on occasion.
So there you have it, the tale of Mr. Creative and his mysteriously intentioned post-it swap.