I’m Not His Girlfriend: Sexism in Leadership

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By Rhonda Bayless

As a community leader, you’re blessed to enter many different spaces and come across various types of people. This is the joy of doing the work in the community and of being a servant leader. When you enter into some spaces, as a female leader, it’s unfortunate that you have to be aware how sexism will play out right in front of you. You really want to cuss a mofo out and say “What are you looking at?” or “Address me in the same manner as you do my male colleague.”

I found myself having to navigate conversations and direct them so that I wouldn’t have to make such a scene. Having someone continuously trying to sexualize the conversation through gestures, smiles, and positioning reminds us how deeply sexism is rooted. Women must learn how internalized sexism presents as well.

After my friend’s speech, a woman approached me and addressed me as my friend’s girlfriend. The look on my face spoke volumes. Linking me to my friend did not offend me, but he clearly introduced me as a leader with my own accomplishments. Her tone told me that she thought it appropriate to call me his “girlfriend” and that I should respond as such. I didn’t. Another person responded and corrected her.

I deserved to be addressed as an individual since my friend introduced me to the group based on my work, not my connection to him. The questioner’s sexism easily set itself in front of me. It concerns me that we don’t see what we do to each other as women. Too often women we do the heavy lifting in the community, pushing through racism and sexism, a wearying battle.

Sometimes committed female leaders become bitter, tired, and hot-tempered, the product of constantly defending your leadership and hoping that things will change. It also comes from a lack of self-care and of self-reflection. We lick our own wounds, finding a way to deflect sexist remarks at the same time that we learn how to cope with racism.

If my résumé didn’t indicate my gender, you’d still call me a leader, a servant, or an organizer as a matter of mutual respect. Even in the most professional of settings, we find oppression. Both women and men need to understand how sexism breaks down communication and adds undo stress for women who are already oppressed because of racial bias.

Let’s create safe spaces for us all to do the work that needs to be done.