Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Hidden Costs

I've been thinking a lot about the hidden cost of the way things are, and how hard it is to see the costs when you aren't the one paying them.

The line of thought was kicked off by a stray tweet that came across my timeline and made me think about how much I still haven't fully processed the events that led up to me quitting my last full time job. I oscillate between thinking I should drag all of it out, perhaps with the help of a therapist, and really deal with it and thinking that I'm doing pretty well now, so why dig all that up again?

And really, the particulars of what caused me to spin out aren't novel and aren't all that interesting. Even I'm a bit bored by them at this point. What is interesting, at least to me, is the way that I could like and respect everyone individually, but that the culture that they made working together was pretty much toxic to me. And how they didn't really notice, even as I was slowly imploding from the stress of it, and how some of them never understood why I left and to this day think I just wanted more time with my kids. (Note: I do not spend more time with my kids now than I did then. I do spend happier time with my kids, but that's just because I'm happier pretty much all of the time now.)

I don't think these guys are particularly clueless. I think that the costs I was paying were so foreign to them that they didn't even see them. I tried once to explain that the way I had to be to interact successfully at work was bleeding over into the rest of my life and making it hard for me to interact successfully with my friends and my kids' friends' moms. But that didn't go well, because I was pretty sure the person I was trying to explain this to just thought this meant I was friends with silly people, and that is not the case at all.

I did get at least one person to understand that a confrontational approach would backfire if I used it at work. But they didn't see the way that meant I was constantly getting stepped on by the people who could get away with a confrontational approach, and the way it meant that I had to just absorb a lot of other people's aggravation. They could direct their emotions out, but I couldn't respond in kind, and just had to carry mine with me.

I never even tried to explain the cost of having to prove I knew what I was talking about over and over and over, because I knew without asking that in their view, that was what everyone has to do. They didn't think they were interrogating me. They thought they were interrogating my ideas, and may the best idea win. And maybe they were. I was certainly not an impartial observer. But since my perspective- both because of who I am and because of the different expertise I had- was often so different from theirs, my ideas were more likely to be interrogated, because they were different.

Ugh. This is getting boring again. Back to the general point about costs.

I've been around long enough to have practice navigating all of those issues. The problem, which I probably should have seen coming but didn't, is that all that navigation had a cost. It was like a tax on my energy and enthusiasm that I had to pay and most of my colleagues did not have to pay.  Probably the easiest way to explain what happened is that I didn't notice the extent to which that tax was draining my reserves, and I went broke.

In fact, I went in debt, and it took me a good six months or so to pay that back and build up reserves again.

Think about all the myriad people this sort of thing happens to, and all the different energy taxes there are. I paid some of them, but I am exempt from a lot more. There are no doubt a bunch that are as invisble to me as the ones I paid were to my colleagues. I have almost certainly contributed to someone else's energy bankruptcy, without even realizing I was doing it.

This has got me thinking: would it be possible to build a workplace that was energy tax-free? I doubt it. But we could perhaps build a workplace that recognizes the taxes exist, and tries to compensate for some of them. I have almost no idea what it would take to do that, but I think it is worth thinking about, particularly if we want to build truly inclusive workplaces, because the taxes are not uniformly distributed and probably never will be.

I don't have a conclusion for this piece, but it has been bouncing around in my head for awhile now and I wanted to let it out. If you're so inclined, help me think this through in the comments. What energy taxes do you pay? Do your colleagues see them? How could your employer help minimize them or at least compensate for them?


  1. I hear you... Over the past couple of months, I talked with 2 or 3 well-meaning men and was astounded by how clueless they were about what happens with their women colleagues. Some things that every woman experiences often they are completely, I mean completely oblivious about, they might well be on Mars. Then they waste my time with all the usual "alternative" explanations for blatant violations of fairness when the subject is female (could not be the gender, no sir)! It's actually disconcerting how very hard it is to convince any of them, even nice guys, how we live and that we are not nuts. I just felt so worn out after the debate. It's like a kindergartener is arguing with you that 2+2 may not actually be 4 if you consider these extenuating circumstances, and you are like "FFS, kid, you have no idea what you are talking about. Stop wasting my time."

    1. I had a long Facebook exchange on this topic with two (older) (male) relatives, and it took me and three other women reinforcing and repeating each other's points for them to finally acknowledge that perhaps we actually were accurately recounting our own life experiences.

      And they're not bad guys. They're just stuck in their own heads.

  2. Here's another major energy drain that doesn't get talked about often enough - the drain of fear, and I mean specifically fear of having the arbitrariness of the "system" (whichever system you're in) working against you. This is something that white men almost never think about, because the system isn't arbitrary to them. They benefit from the system. (They can be aggressive, have families, be respected, believed to be competent, etc.) But for women and even more so for people of color they know that the system can and probably will be used against them in ways that will be invisible to their white male colleagues. So they face the double energy drain - fighting always against the arbitrariness of injustice and fighting against everyone else gaslighting of that experience. That's fricking exhausting. I'm an academic with a great record going up for tenure. There was a "problem" (a faux problem created by administrators for reasons that are entirely unclear to me, and therefore arbitrary). I was talking to my chair about these issues, and about how all these recently tenured people in my department who sailed through without this problem were men. I said, I don't know if this issue is gendered or not, but the optics are really, really bad, and now I don't trust the system at all. And I explained to him how it was just always like this for women and people of color. We have no faith because we experience discrimination, which means everything is more heavily weighted for us. We have to work harder, but we also worry more. And even if everything turns out fine, that worry is always there.

    1. Anonymous6:48 AM

      Yes! The worry tax! Particularly in the even-if-everything-turns-out-fine cases.

      And the closely-related hypervigilance tax, where we have to pay attention to the optics and the gender (for example) aspects just in case there IS a pit there to fall into.

      Both of these leave me open to thinking it's just me overreacting, or that I'm looking for things to be upset about.

  3. An anonymous comment from my inbox:

    When my daughter was 2-1/2, we started speech therapy. Speech therapists have business hours, and ours wasn't all that different from typical business hours. Add in commute time, and it meant that once a week, someone needed to leave work early to take her to the session.

    For the first six months, that was my partner. The reason was that his boss was flexible about his work hours, and mine was not.

    Eventually, though, taking her every week was too much for him. It wasn't a question of his job, it was the struggle of getting her to participate in the session. So I started taking her.

    When I told my boss that I would need to leave early one day a week, she told me that I would either need to make up that time, or I would need to add up the hours I was gone and "invent" a vacation day or sick day.

    I'm exempt. That's not how it works. But I invented sick and vacation days because (a) I did not have a way to "make up" that time, and (b) if I'd fought her on this, she would have found some other way to make me pay.

    Just as I was about to run out of both vacation and sick time, I had a serendipitous reassignment to a different supervisor. She worked closely with a friend of mine who told her about the bean-counting boss, and one of the first things she did was to let me know that I would not have to worry about this anymore--that as long as I was getting my work done (as I had been all along), she was not concerned about how many hours I spent in the office.

    This is not a female boss thing--most of my bosses have been women, and most of them have been good or excellent, and I've had good and bad bosses among the men, too. And this is not a mother/non-mother issue; the bean-counter doesn't have children, but neither does her manager, who has been incredibly supportive of my needs.

    But I'm still trying to recover from that, both in terms of the psychic toll and the vacation and sick time, and it's been over two years since my reassignment.


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