My boss only wanted to hire "pretty girls" and I didn't speak up
By Kat Walker
I was thrilled the day the task of filling out the roster of assistants and interns staff came across my desk on the 18th floor in the West Village office of the production company where I was freelancing. My first taste of power- baby, yes, that gold glittered- it did.
Alas, there was an unfortunate heart of coal at it’s core: the boss wanted me to hire “only pretty girls”. LOLWUT? I was horrified but this was my first big job and I was afraid not to deliver...the goods.
I was one of the few women in the production crew. If the office hierarchy could be illustrated by a totem pole, I would have started out as one of the unglamorous but sturdy animals, like a beaver or a squirrel, the ones providing a fortifying nutritional base for the larger, sexier predators like eagles and foxes. The upper reaches consisted of all white dudes. So it terms of estrogen, it was just me and one or two other female Interns. Then I was promoted. (yay, now I’m a bear? A woodchuck?)
And here come the applicants: the most memorable, Bettina, sheepishly entered our production office sporting the perfect storm of hygiene issues and an utter lack of confidence. I had picked her resume out of the pile and asked her to come in for an interview because we had both gone to the same college and I was excited to connect with another Chicagoan in NYC.
She had the credentials, the film school awards- the chops- it seemed, but in-person, Bettina exuded not just awkwardness but a general inability to navigate the world of hygiene. She was at times barely audible in the interview, she had hair that looked like she needed, at the very least, a rinse and a few of those repeats Pantene is always urging? Her clothes were VERY disheveled and more than a bit...not...exactly...clean. Girlfriend needed a big sister, a mentor, a dry-cleaning budget, someone to have a frank talk with her. But as the only lady on the team outside of the intern pool, I was frightened at the thought of sticking out my neck too much and bringing her on board. I was certain she would be eaten alive by the loyal guardians of workplace bro-culture. I didn’t feel like enough of a grown up to take on the challenge of helping her navigate these things myself.
I had only just recently been plucked from out of the working-for-free Intern swamp where one, yes, acquires new skills and, in so doing, shines so, so, very brightly up to the executive producers’ suite in hopes of being fished out to dry land and away from ramen dinners. And, like me, Bettina was from out of town, so no New Jersey or Long Island parents’ home as a rent-free launch pad to a film career. No, Bettina and I were both the schlubs from flyover land, hustling and accumulating roommates while making a go of it in the Big City. At that time, I was living with a stripper, two actresses, and a grad student (I think, I can’t remember ever seeing her) in one of those chopped-up, pseudo-five bedroom apartments (bye, bye, living room) off the C train in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
I was barely managing my own pirouette through the a daily workplace sword fight as it was. Yes, I was living the dream of gainful employment and promotions. In a way, I was winning at New York-ing. But betting on a wild card like Bettina seemed to be risking too many of my own hard-won chips. I was afraid to buck the bosses’ unsubtle beauty dictates and be ...well, an outlier.
Yes, that’s the crescendo but there is no triumph to this story. I didn’t give her the internship: I failed her because I didn’t give her a chance. I didn’t take her under my wing and help her figure out the hygiene thing. I didn’t politically protect her when I moved on and became a department head or bring her along with me on new gigs in the tribal world of film and television. I still feel remorseful about it to this day.
Here is what I would do now that I’m bolder, older, and surely wiser, now that I know that I would not have turned to a pillar of salt if all the boss I worked with would have snickered at her dirty sweaters behind her back or -- gasp -- found her unattractive. (Fuck that guy, really.)
- I wouldn’t just deflect and ignore the subtle forms office sexual harassment culture, when possible, but undermine it quietly, without fanfare. I would give those Bettinas their chance and try to develop them into fellow badasses. I now pay it forward, affirmatively, and pay it hard.
- When subtlety isn’t enough to fight the power, I would be more bold in taking my evasive maneuvers up a few notches, bringing issues like the one I faced then to the attention of people up the chain of command (the ones that are not dicks) when possible.
- Keep developing alliances with other women. Let those networks be the bulwarks against this kind of bullshit. I would be firm and use backchannels when not able to attack the problem directly and out in the sunlight.
Bettina, girl, I’m so sorry I failed you. I will do better next time.
Katrina Walker is a writer/lyricist currently living in Paris. When not hustling in the world of film and television, or writing the occasional lost dog flyer, she is completing her screenplay Valkyrie Changes Her Mind. She invites you to lose a few hours in her portfolio at KatWalker.tv.