Roxane Gay is an impressive character. She’s a prolific writer of prose and fiction (including science fiction and comic books), a visiting professor at Yale as well as a professional feminist and LGBTQ advocate. She also contributes opinion essays to the New York Times, and as if she isn’t busy enough, is one of their advice columnists, writing the “Work Friend” Sunday column, which is almost always astute and wise in its advice regarding workplace politics and ethical dilemmas.
Not in this case, however. A female inquirer took offense when two male colleagues offered her unsolicited advice about improving her Zooming technique. She framed them as sexist attacks on a woman’s “appearance,” and Gay took the bait.
“The proliferation of Zoom since the start of the pandemic seems to have also ushered in unwelcome comments about my appearance,” the questioner began. A male colleague had suggested that she project more energy on video calls. Another told her she looked too serious. She explained to Gay that she wrote “a follow-up email to the first man to explain that I felt like his comments were unwarranted and unfair given the state of the world at the time.” She told Gay that his observation about her not showing sufficient energy on Zoom calls was offensive in the middle of a global pandemic while she was “trying my best to remain sane while I attempt to help my school-age kids tackle the challenges of remote learning.”
“In the unfortunate event that this happens again,” the anonymous women concluded, “what should I say to indicate that these types of comments are not OK?”
Rather than examine whether the correspondent’s framing of the issue was accurate, Gay shifted into feminist defender mode: Men Wrong, Woman Victim. She wrote,
The polite response:
“I invite you to stop commenting on my appearance immediately. It’s none of your concern and has nothing to do with our work together.”
Wrong! And then..
The less polite response is to repeat what they said right back to them but turned up a notch. For example, if they remark that you look tired, tell them they look haggard. They’ll get the message, eventually.
For someone else, I might be tempted to call this an example of the old proverb, “To someone whose only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” But Gay obviously has a lot of tools and knows how to use them. Apparently her feminist bias and perhaps an understandable knee-jerk negative reaction to men commenting on a women’s appearance (Gay is 6’3″ tall) caused her to miss what was going on here by a metaphorical mile.
First of all, a remote meeting is still a meeting, and handling it competently is a professional obligation. Learning how to project one’s personality and demeanor as positively as possible is very important. I spend a portion of every legal ethics seminar reminding lawyers that when technology becomes intrinsically involved in their work, the must learn how to use it to their advantage and that of their clients. The pandemic and the complaining woman’s family issues are completely irrelevant to her job performance, and the woman using them as an excuse for a mopey, enervated presence on camera is a foolish rationalization. Gay should have told her so. Both colleagues were giving her important feedback that had great value, if she was capable of hearing them.
A couple of years ago, I had an unexpected call from local TV station to do a Skype interview within the hour. I never used Skype, and when I saw the video of my interview, I noticed in horror that my eyes were looking down the whole time, focusing on my notes rather than looking into the camera. If a woman, before we went on the air, had warned me, “You know, it doesn’t look good for your eyes to be focused down,” should I have said, “I invite you to stop commenting on my appearance immediately. It’s none of your concern and has nothing to do with our work together” ? No, because it had a great deal to do with the work. Gay’s questioner assumed these were e more instances of pig-men showing their curly tails by judging a woman by her attractiveness. Showing energy and being upbeat isn’t about “appearance,” they are matters of professional competence.
In the workplace, presence matters. Confidence matters. Deportment matters. Style matters, and projecting energy is an important part of it. Everyone has personal challenges. Everyone is dealing with the Wuhan virus, its pals and the endless government botches dealing with it. That the two colleagues were make male shouldn’t have mattered, but they triggered the woman’s biases and then Gay’s. They were trying to do the woman a favor. Coming across on a Zoom call as if one is exhausted or reacting to impending doom is a mistake, and unprofessional. When I read that woman had received “unwelcome comments” about her “appearance,” I thought we were going to be told that they were about her weight or hair style. No, she had experienced thoughtful and helpful advice consistent with the Golden Rule.
Gay’s second piece of advice shows just how far her bias led her astray. “Oh yeah? I look too serious? Well, you’re fat! How do you like that?” is not a mature, ethical, rational response; it’s the retort of a 14-year-old. Roxane Gay is better than that. Unfortunately, here her feminist bias made her stupid.