Oh, wait. I am not telling you all the truth. In a way, I felt flattered. After all, he acknowledged my work. He called me “lady”, such a sweet word. And “little” – it almost felt like a synonym of “feminine”. Something along the lines of “nice work, big strong woman” would not have sounded half as enticing. Yet, on an entirely different level, my own acceptance of these words made the situation even more disturbing.
Nowadays, the fight for women’s rights continues on two distinct planes. The first one is where women are overtly oppressed, told that they are not good enough, laughed in their faces when they demand equal rights. You need to have strong fists and big lungs to get the upper hand in this battle. The second plane seems much easier to handle. Here everybody’s nice and sexism is almost invisible. Here men don’t hate you for wanting to have the same opportunities, for voicing your concerns. They want to help. Unfortunately, old habits and old ways of thinking go away slowly. Although sexism is invisible, it is not gone. It’s just hiding in wrinkles of meaning, between words that seem sweet, polite or mundane.
The plane of invisible sexism is difficult to navigate. You are not going to shout at somebody for saying a nice thing to you. Even trying to patiently explain why you don’t like it when your male colleagues call you “honey” might not be taken well. Worse than that, women are confused because they don’t know whether they like how they are treated. Maybe proclaiming that I am not OK with the “honey”/“sweetie”/“little lady” thing would turn me into a boring feminist nag?
Maybe it would (and does) but I don't care. Invisible or not, sexism is harmful. One day you ignore it because it is almost not there, and the next day it hits you right in the face.
So what are we going to do about all that? The best I can think of right now is, educate, spread the word. I am not sure that we will be able to cure the older generation infected by invisible sexism. But the younger ones, they can still understand and change. Sometimes gently, sometimes pushing a little stronger, we should help young men understand that if they believe in gender equality, it is not OK to be condescending towards women. If they want to show appreciation and respect to female colleagues, they should not talk to them as if these women were their daughters or little cute sisters. "Nice work" is enough.