Can there be sexism at work when your entire office is female?

I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s salaries lately — a lot — both in light of recent events, and because I’m writing a feature story about the subject for a major women’s magazine. (More about that — including how you can help — here!) There’s a lot to unpack here, but one narrative/trope that seems to keep recurring when these issues come up is the idea that when men hold the power in the workplace, women are at a distinct disadvantage — if we advocate for ourselves, we’re seen as pushy or “not a team player”; if we try to bond with colleagues or be a team player, it can be misinterpreted as flirtation; if we’re really committed to our jobs, we’re seen as being deficient in our personal lives (“Yikes, I wouldn’t want to be married to her.“) (I’ve actually written about all of this before, too.)

OK, but here’s what I don’t see people talking about: What if men aren’t the ones in power? How does sexism factor in when you’re a woman who works with — and for — only other women? That’s been the vast majority of my professional experience, working at women’s magazines. I remember when I interviewed Lynn Cronin and Howard Fine for their book Damned If She Does, Damned If She Doesn’t and later read Lean In, I kept thinking, “Wow, thank god my bosses are all women.” I felt that way this week, too, when the rumors began swirling that Jill Abramson was let go because she’d tried to advocate for equal pay. I also felt that way as I read The Partner Track, a wonderful new novel by first-time author (and lawyer!) Helen Wan about an Asian female attorney trying to get ahead in an unsurprisingly white-male-dominated law firm. I’ll admit it: I think I’ve been way lucky not to have to compete with male colleagues or deal with male superiors*.

But that doesn’t mean that sexism hasn’t played a role in the female-dominated offices where I’ve worked. In my days as a full-time staffer, I attempted to negotiate for a raise a small handful of times, including a few times when I’d been handling more than twice my prior workload , having taken on the responsibilities of someone who’d had a much better title and salary than mine before she’d left — plus my own job. Each time, I was refused — and I got the distinct feeling that my advocating for myself was not appreciated. (OK, I was also working at magazines post-2008, so maybe it was just that no one was getting raises at the time.) In a previous position, I felt I’d been seriously baited-and-switched — the “minor” administrative duties I’d been told would only take a few minutes each week turned out to comprise about 75% of my job once I got started — I was basically told to just deal with it and to stop ruffling feathers.

I don’t know if this stuff kept repeating itself in my career because of sexism, or because it was the hallowed magazine industry (AKA land of “A million girls would kill for this job”), or because maybe I was just really not good and didn’t deserve whatever it was I was asking for. And I’m sure I have had to deal with far less bullshit than women working at banks or law firms or whatever. But I suspect the problems weren’t about me, or about the industry, and that in other industries they really aren’t just about the dudes in charge.

I’m interested to know what other women-who-work-with-women have experienced when it comes to this stuff. I believe that to a certain extent, the idea that women should just quietly and happily do whatever we’re told, without asking to be fairly compensated, has been so ingrained in our society that even other women are jarred when someone goes against the grain and asks for more.

Thoughts?

Update: I’ve received some really insightful comments via email, particularly from an industry friend who wishes to remain anonymous but was OK with me sharing this very good point about women’s magazines, which so often run stories full of advice for readers to get ahead at work: “It’s a sad, hypocritical situation. They tell women how to advocate for themselves, then refuse to help the women on their own staff advance or get more money.”

Update 2: Was thinking more about this on the subway and felt it was worth noting that in my six years in media, I have literally never gotten a raise. All increases have come from changing jobs. I think I once got a “cost of living” increase of 1 percent, which someone helpfully pointed out was lower than the inflation rate, so technically it was a pay cut.

*The major exception here is that my first job out of school was at a men’s magazine. I have to admit, I experienced sexism there in predictable ways — namely (1) two very memorable inappropriate comments and (2) what I referred to as a very un-ignorable concrete ceiling (i.e. at 23, I was the most senior female staffer on the print masthead; but that seemed sort of reasonable considering that most magazine staffs appropriately reflect the demographics of their own readership, at least to some extent. Ariel Foxman being a big exception, I guess). But in terms of dealing with my managers about issues like compensation, workload, etc., I actually never felt like I was at a disadvantage for being a woman. In fact, the times when I raised a bit of a stink about being passed over for an opportunity or about wanting more responsibility, I felt that my assertiveness was valued and rewarded. Sort of interesting.

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