Now that she has a child of her own, former Huffington Post and Washington Post staffer Katharine Zaleski has begun to understand the dilemmas that so many working moms face, and the hurdles they have to jump in order to thrive in the workplace.
But that wasn’t the case when she was a younger working woman, often in charge of hiring.
In a widely circulated post for Fortune magazine, Zaleski confesses her past office sins, which include some behaviors that flirt with straight-up discrimination:
- “I didn’t disagree when another female editor said we should hurry up and fire another woman before she ‘got pregnant.'”
- “I sat in a job interview where a male boss grilled a mother of three and asked her, ‘How in the world are you going to be able to commit to this job and all your kids at the same time?’ I didn’t give her any visual encouragement when the mother – who was a top cable news producer at the time – looked at him and said, ‘Believe it or not, I like being away from my kids during the workday… just like you.'”
Zaleski’s honesty about her past attitude is getting her piece hailed as a breath of fresh air, exposing the truth of what working moms experience. Many working moms are saying they’re thankful that she now sees the error of her ways. This is all true, and fair. And yet personally, I can’t get past the anecdote of the poor woman who may or may not have been fired before she got pregnant. I hope she’s OK, wherever she is, and didn’t spent years wondering, “Was it me?”
Therein lies the contradiction of these kinds of popular Internet confessions. These mea culpas do often serve to educate readers, and likely to make the writers feel as though they’ve made restitution, generally leaving the majority groups with a sense of comfort in knowing they’re not the only ones who have messed up. But these essays also remind people in the oppressed class of their status and of the kind of harassment and mistreatment they receive every day — and who gets the spotlight for detailing that mistreatment. This story is mild compared to some of the declarations of “I was sexist” and “I was a mean girl” and “I was a bully” that have gone viral in past years (the Internet is littered with confessions of former racists).
Yes, there’s an attention disparity between those who enact discrimination and those who receive it. For instance, a man will probably get more plaudits and attention for being a reformed sexist than a woman will for a similar screed about how the men at her office make her feel uncomfortable. Today, the thousands of women who felt like they were getting dirty looks from their colleagues when they rushed off to daycare and missed office drinks remain anonymous, while Zaleski is showered with praise for admitting she used to sit at those drinks and sneeringly judge them.
Part of my animus may have to do with the fact that the point of Zaleski’s piece isn’t to demand that male bosses institute better family leave policies and set up breast-pumping areas in the break room, nor is it to demand that Congress pass the sick time and family leave measures that were suggested by President Obama during his State of the Union address. Instead, it’s to tout her own company, which hooks up female employees with telecommuting positions. It’s a noble effort, and I’m sure her company will help a lot of people, but it’s also a small-scale solution to a society-wide problem.
That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to read and ponder these Internet confessions of penitent former perpetrators of injustice, but it does mean that we should be mindful of the voices that don’t go viral. The women who quietly get fired for being pregnant, take a settlement, and move on. The people who deal with so-called microaggressions all day but can’t explain to colleagues exactly why they’re beleaguered. For every viral confessional, there are dozens if not hundreds of these untold stories.