Fresh out of my bachelor’s degree, I found myself at the Cairo branch of a multinational company, interviewing for what would soon become my very first real job.
The conversation between the interviewer and myself went more than smoothly. She was friendly and engaging, and clearly an expert on the position I was being considered for. I, on the other hand, felt the brand new and unfamiliar confidence that I was a perfect fit for the job. It seemed too good of an interview to be true. That is, at least, until she asked the question.
“Do you have children?”
Taken aback, I replied that I did not.
“Are you married?”
I was not, I told her, unsure how that was relevant.
“Are you engaged or planning on getting married soon?”
Though I once again responded in the negative, my unease must have been apparent because the woman smiled reassuringly, telling me that she herself had two children, and that she had been working at the company longer than she had been a mother.
Only a little comforted, I walked out of the interview certain in my knowledge that this question was not posed arbitrarily. There was, without a doubt, a preferred answer for those deciding my fate. Though my responses likely worked in my favour, I was not entirely comfortable with the idea that I would be working at a company that may be willing to choose me over someone more qualified due to my marital status and lack of children. I could not help but ask myself if this was an omen of the work environment I may find myself in.
However, alight with the optimism and ambition of a fresh graduate, I happily accepted the offer that I received later that night and a few days later made my way across Cairo to take the first steps of my career.
What I found shocked me.
From top managerial positions to my own freshly graduated peers, I was surrounded by women. Single women, married women, childless women, married mothers, single mothers, women engineers, saleswomen, and so much more. There were almost as many women as men at this office of a company that operates in one of the world’s most male-dominated fields. It was a feminist dream come true.
From my very first day on the job I vowed to let myself revel in that reality. To seek mentorship, meaningful colleagueship, and friendship with the women I was to be seeing every day.
But alas, it was not that simple.
Though I can certainly say that I managed to find those three things throughout my stint at that office, I was faced with situations that sometimes infuriated me, other times saddened me. The sternness of women in positions of leadership was openly subjected to criticism in a way I doubt that of men in charge ever would. Men would sometimes speak condescendingly of the women they worked with, even if they were the ones reporting to them.
But what left the deepest mark was what I heard women say about each other.
“I don’t know who she thinks she is speaking to me that way,” I recall overhearing a co-worker tell her friend about her manager; a woman I knew and admired. “She throws a tantrum when things don’t go her way. I just can’t handle a woman for a boss.”
It was women who said that other women were sneaky and irrational, women who told me that the women they worked with always communicated cryptically and never rooted for the success of other women on their teams. They would choose a man as a manager over a woman any day.
And the truth was that this male manager could be unreliable, disorganized, incompetent, even sexist or dishonest, but these flaws and immoralities would never be attributed to his gender. Whereas every woman in a position of leadership had to carry her entire gender on her back.
Knowing my views, many of my colleagues would sit me down to challenge my opinions, asking me with complete conviction how on earth I didn’t agree that women were more demanding and less rational when given positions of leadership.
Women I worked with would give me what they thought were airtight arguments as to why men were better for leadership, while male colleagues would nod sycophantically in the background, evidently feeling affirmed by women sharing in their misogyny.
“Women are losing their femininity,” said a female co-worker who was the same age as me. “They’re starting to act like men, speak like men. They don’t fit into workplaces like this.”
It took all my resolve for me to refrain from pointing out the obvious irony and hypocrisy in that position. What did these women think would happen when they eventually got promoted into positions of leadership?
Though these views were certainly not held by all the women in that workplace, at the time, these women were the villains to me. They were worse than the men who you would expect to have the bigoted and antiquated views that directly benefited them.
But in hindsight I am able to see that this attitude did not spring forth from a vacuum; it came as a result of families, media, and workplaces enforcing the idea that there can be only one. That a woman can only succeed if no other women are in the running. No matter how ridiculous that sounds written down, the spirit of comparison has been drummed into us and our mothers and their mothers before them for longer than living memory.
It was there that I truly realized the meaning of the words “women should support women.” It is not a sweet adage we repeat to ourselves to make ourselves feel like we are part of a movement. It is a mission to challenge the deeply ingrained notions of rivalry and competition that were instilled in us throughout centuries of sabotaging socialization.
Several years, a marriage, and a few jobs later, no employer has ever again inquired about my relationship status. But the surface rarely reflects the depths. Even some of the more progressive – and even woman-dominated – workplaces I have come across struggle with gender prejudices unseen, ignored, or sometimes even condoned by those in charge.
The road to shedding these prejudices and freeing women of the burden of representing their gender rather than themselves in every action they take in the workplace is long. But every conversation exposing double standards, every hand held out in cooperation, and every refusal to see the women we work with as rivals is a step towards the end of it.