A few years ago, my husband and I ran into a mutual acquaintance at a restaurant. This young man - a person who would surely identify as progressive - spent the entirety our interaction completely ignoring me. He spoke only to my husband; he wouldn’t even look at me when I asked a direct question.
While it would be tempting to write off the exchange as simple rudeness, this brand of slight is familiar to most women. Perhaps it happens when you go to buy a car and the salesperson only speaks to your male partner. Or when you meet someone at a work event and they only introduce themselves to the male colleague beside you.
Or, if you’re Angela Merkel, maybe the notoriously misogynist president of the United States refuses to shake your hand or even deign to look at you during a press conference.
We hear quite a lot about explicit sexism like cat calls or discrimination, but less overt indignities can be just as infuriating - in part, because they’re so hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced them.
Aziz Ansari’s hit Netflix show, Master of None, had a brilliant episode dedicated to just this topic. Ansari’s character, Dev, spends the majority of the episode realizing how much sexism women have to deal with: from men following women home and flashing them on subways, to lewd comments on social media. But when Dev’s girlfriend, Rachel, points out that his director only introduced himself to the men at the table - ignoring the two women sitting there - he balks slightly. Surely, he says, there was some misunderstanding: The director was in a rush, or Rachel is reading too much into it.
When Dev finally admits that perhaps the interaction was gendered, Rachel explains why what happened was so painful:
“There are lot of subtle little things that happen to me and all women, even in our little progressive world. And when somebody, especially my boyfriend, tells me I’m wrong without having any way of knowing my personal experience, it’s insulting.”
When I tweeted about Trump ignoring Merkel, and how familiar an experience it is to women, dozens chimed in. One said both she and her husband were journalists but men will generally only ask him about his work. Another noted that the bosses on her team are all women, but it’s the teenage male intern who gets the questions.
The assumption, of course, is that the women in the room simply aren’t important enough to warrant attention or conversation. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed increases as women get older, and ever more invisible.
It’s clear that this sort of behavior isn’t necessarily done consciously. I have a friend, for example, who interviewed a job applicant along with her male deputy just to be ignored; the potential employee spoke solely to the other man. (He didn’t get the job.)
But just because something isn’t done out of spite doesn’t mean its impact stings any less. Whether you’re a world leader or just a person in a room, being acknowledged is the bare minimum of expected respectfulness. It’s not too much to ask to be seen.