My first year in the workplace was rough from a gender perspective. Three of the five men, all senior to me in the company I worked for, made a pass at me: physical, not verbal. I was working in what was then the Soviet Union, and the head of my firm decided it would look like we weren’t serious if he allowed a young woman to live in the house provided for us by the Soviet government. The young men were permitted to stay, and I had to find my own place at a time in Moscow when it was illegal to sublet or rent apartments. I found one on the grey market, and was almost immediately visited late at night by a policeman with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Still, I was determined to make a go of things in Moscow. I had studied the history of the country enough to know I was there at a fascinating time. I’d been in the streets during a coup and watched as the Evil Empire collapsed surprisingly peacefully. I wanted to be there as a new Russia emerged. Clearly, though, I needed to find a different job
My third interview with a NY-based firm was with a man I admired immensely. He was a Holocaust survivor, and had read even more history than I had. He was also a successful businessman and wanted me to help him develop and implement a strategy for what his firm should do in Moscow. Towards the end of the interview, he asked me a question.
“Russia is a very sexist society. How will you deal with that?” I was tempted to cave. All the harassment of my previous job and the soldier with the scary rifle came back to me. What was I doing there alone in Moscow, anyway? Maybe I should just come back to the States. But then I thought of the funeral procession for the people who’d died in the coup that I’d marched in. No good thing happens without a struggle.
“Russia is also a very anti-Semitic society, but I know plenty of Jews who are very successful there,” I answered. He looked at me hard, and for a moment I wanted the floor to open up underneath me. Had I just said that to him? Then he burst out laughing and gave me the job.
Everything in my upbringing had taught me that being too combative in the face of sexist assertions was dangerous. Indeed, when those words came out of my mouth, I assumed that I was killing my chances of getting the job, but I no longer cared. I wanted the job, but I wanted to express the pent up anger over poor male behavior over the past two years even more. I was stunned – and pleased – to learn that what I’d said had actually helped me get the job.
My takeaway: Never be afraid to call bs, especially when it’s sexist bs.