I traveled solo this weekend and one benefit to being alone in the car is that I can set my radio to whatever I choose. Think less KidzBop and more NPR.
While traveling I heard an interview with Bailey Davis, a former cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints. Davis has, according to NPR, “filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces civil rights laws relating to workplace discrimination, against both the NFL and the Saints.” You can hear the interview and read an edited version here.
Davis did a fantastic job articulating the various ways that the women of the “Saintsations” are treated differently from the football players. One glaring example is that if a Saintsation is at a restaurant and any NFL player walks into that restaurant, the Saintsation must leave the premises or risk being fired.
Davis wasn’t fired for a restaurant infraction. Instead, she was terminated because of a photo she posted to Instagram that violated another of the very burdensome terms these cheerleaders must agree to uphold as a condition of their employment. I won’t go into detail because the interview with Lulu Garcia-Navarro does that better than I could, but suffice it to say Ms. Davis’s allegations had me shaking my head.
At the end of the piece, Davis says this (emphasis mine):
My fellow teammates have not been supportive to me. I’ve been told that I’m putting the team in a negative light, and a lot of the girls have been posting stuff on social media, saying that, you know, the organization is great and offers so many opportunities — which is true, and I mean, I [felt] the same way when I was in the organization. We’re told so many times, “There’s a hundred other girls that would do your job for free.” You’re just taught to keep your mouth shut or they’d replace you.
So I think when you’re in the organization, you don’t realize that there’s nothing OK about this.
Flash forward about twenty-four hours and I’m sitting in the rental car return line. I chose the e-check out, so there was no attendant waiting on me which is a good thing, because I wasn’t getting out of the car until I finished the interview with Kelly Ellis, a former Google employee who is a named plaintiff in a discrimination lawsuit against that company. (To listen to the interview by Ellen Huet and Aki Ito, visit the Reveal podcast, with the relevant part starting around 33:00.)
Ellis explains how she joined the company in 2010 and was surprised to be placed in “front end development.” Being ignorant of the term myself, I was glad the podcast explained this relates to the part of a website users can see, while “back end development” involves more of the infrastructure of the site. Ellis had four years experience in back end work plus a college degree. Front end development, she explained, doesn’t really even require a degree.
“I very quickly noticed,” Ellis says in the interview,” that that was where all of my women colleagues were working.” They were all in the front end – the “lighter” side of web development. She was distressed by this news, but then, she said, “I was still, like, well, I’m at Google, you know?” (Again, the emphasis is mine.)
I spent the long walk from the car rental facility to the terminal juxtaposing these two interviews in my mind. Davis is a professional cheerleader, traditionally an exclusively female field*. Ellis is a web developer, a field where women comprise less than 35% of the workforce according to National Center for Women & Information Technology. And they articulated what is essentially the same sentiment:
Take what you get, girl, because you’re just lucky to be here.
The moment this crystallized was all the more poignant because of the reason for my trip. It’s been twenty years since I graduated from law school and this was our reunion weekend.
Twenty year reunions are equal parts weird and lovely. Lovely because time softens a lot of the edges that proved so hurtful when you’re in the trenches of a competitive program like ours was. Lovely because you get to learn about your classmates’ interesting jobs and their families. Lovely because there are things you experienced together that you will have completely and totally forgotten unless and until you find yourself with the exact same group of people again.
Twenty year reunions are weird, too. Weird because they force you to think about the person you never became. Even if you are crazy in love with your life, there is a path untrod that you have to contemplate. Weird because you only vaguely remember faces you once saw daily. And also weird because some of those same memories you unearth will hurt as much as heal you.
I walked around campus on Saturday. It was a windy, bright day which was perfect because I could keep my sunglasses on to hide my tears. I wasn’t sad. I felt profoundly, tear-generatingly grateful. I was grateful to this institution where I got an incomparable education. I was grateful to have spent three years in the company of brilliant minds in a city I love. And I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the people who enabled my experience.
But, later, thinking about what Bailey Davis and Kelly Ellis had said, I felt a bit of sadness around all that gratitude. Because I realized that some part of what undergirded it was the belief that I never deserved to be at that law school in the first place.
That belief was founded in real interactions I had with other students. “You stole this seat from a white man,” was something that was actually said to me by a colleague my first year. But I think it’s more than that. It’s more cultural and ingrained. I never, ever felt entitled to that seat. I worked hard to get there and I worked hard while I was there.
Which is all just fine. Gratitude is a good thing. My seat was subsidized by the taxpayers of the state and I tried to honor their investment in me. The sense of “I’m lucky to be here” isn’t problematic in and of itself. It becomes problematic, though, when it is used to manipulate and abuse. When it stifles dialogue and creates a hierarchy between those who “deserve” the opportunity and those who are just “lucky.” The women who are Saintsations know there are hundreds of others waiting for their spots, so they agree to onerous, career-impacting, misogynistic rules. Ellis felt lucky to be at Google so she didn’t speak up immediately when she witnessed glaring institutional discrimination.
This dynamic doesn’t just happen in workplaces. It happens in relationships, too. Think of the man who constantly reminds his partner how he could “do better.” Or the woman who praises her mate because s/he “puts up with her.” When the power dynamic is a one-up/one-down situation – I always think of the spider being held over the fire in Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God – dysfunction and distress often result.
Believing that you are beholden to another will keep you from speaking up for your own needs or the needs of others.
It’s the opposite of entitlement.
Both Davis and Ellis are speaking out for themselves and, by extension, for the others who are not in a position to do so right now. Because of their stories I’m going to start paying a lot more attention to the power dynamics around me and to the narratives I create that either feed or challenge them.
* That professional cheerleading is a female dominated industry does not mean that the women in that industry are in positions of power, and I don’t mean to suggest this is the case. As Davis’s lawsuit shows, they are subject to the requirements of the highly, highly male dominated professional sports team owners. According to this piece, there are only nine female owners of pro sports teams in all the sports combined. That’s 6.7%.