I was asked recently while on lunch with a colleague why so many single women at our organization, and particularly at our office, come into the service young and promising, then turn slowly over the years into embittered, old, and tired spinsters. He put his question rather politely of course, using words like “seem not to find their way to a proper private life”, and did not use any offending adjective to describe their outcome.
Aha, I thought to myself. So the men actually do notice these things. I have contemplated this phenomenon with my girlfriends. Privately, I called these women the Organization’s Brides. I also watched with trepidation the way my working life has sapped my energy over the past four years and turned me from a tanned, healthy and happy woman into a pale, wrinkled and somewhat flabby woman, who has firmly set foot on the threshold of middle age. Yes, this type of workplace does exist, even in a highly esteemed organization. Because unfortunately, you do not work for your organization, you just work with your direct boss. And this boss (or supervisor) comes with the complete package of his culture, upbringing, and education. Regardless of whether they are men or women, these bosses also come with the scars of all the past abuse they endured, and seem to mete it out indiscriminately upon their underlings.
I do not know whether my colleague’s question about the single women at our office was a general or particular one, but I honestly answered it from my vantage point as observer. I do not count myself among the brides of the organization. I have a very fulfilling life as a mother, and I do not let work take over my free time.
I devoted a lot of thought to the question of why women suffer so much in our workplace, and it all boils down to culture. Not organizational culture but our own brand of regional patriarchal culture. Women who are born into this culture are usually unaware of abuse or bullying from male counterparts, until they grow a backbone. Sometimes they never realize the wrongdoing of others until it is too late.
So a young woman like this arrives here, faces up to her predominantly male colleagues, and tries to prove herself capable against their prejudices. Meanwhile, she carries with her the baggage of conservative thinking, the deep-rooted fear of doing wrong, disgracing her family or being classified as a slut. Moreover, there is a trap waiting to swallow workers with lower self-esteem. In my office these people are invariably women, who are starving for recognition in this male-dominated arena. They are desperate to please and prove themselves capable, so they take on all the jobs that nobody wants, rush jobs, weekend work, and sometimes night duty. After all there are no children at home, and no husband who would mind. Work becomes a respectable alternative for partaking in the pleasures of life. They first resist the temptation to live, then they totally forget about living. Work becomes life, and takes over. Depending on the age of these sad women, the male boss takes on either the role of a dominant husband or all-powerful father. They are incapable of contradicting this type of authority.
The experience of female Arab students at university abroad is another example. Their male colleagues from the same background are prepared by their culture and upbringing to take one of two roles, either the protectors, or the conquerors. After all an Arab young woman is too proper to have a relationship outside of marriage, unless a person from her own background becomes her mentor in the ways of love, then it is okay. Regardless, there are very few Arab men who “would buy a cow if they get the milk for free”. And imagine a single woman working with this type of mentality in the 21st century.
If I came here at age 25 or 30 I would have perhaps succumbed as well to that type of bullying. I may even have accepted the protection of an alpha-male colleague, under the guise of love. Like every other woman born in that environment I was programmed for submission and dependence, not leadership and independence. I am more likely to obey and say yes, than protest and say NO. But I learned to say NO and it was the most important lesson of my life.