When I was a senior in college – serious, smart and ambitious– a professor asked if I wanted to grade papers for hourly pay. I accepted, not just because I needed the money, $2.50 an hour, but because I needed a mentor. Now this was not a good or well-liked professor. He was tenured, but he had stopped actually teaching his students decades before. In each class lecture, he droned disinterestedly from a yellowed sheet of notes he took from a dusty three-ring binder, the pages as aged as his skin, as discolored as his teeth.
He never looked up and he knew none of our names. But he sought me out, and I traded on his attention.
I did his work and I took his wage and I felt lucky about it. When I graduated, he arranged a series of job interviews for me with the executives who were at the top of my profession in the city where I would live. I had agreed to his proposal because he had that kind of power, and in leveraging it, I landed my first real job.
Later on I came to realize that he had probably not chosen me for this gratuity because I was serious, smart and ambitious – what I perceived to be my obvious qualifications – but more likely because of other attributes. I was no pageant winner, but I could contend with the best, and I was congenial.
Young women are often granted the gifts of old men’s power. We are given the opportunity to do their work and do it cheaply. We do it well; we are recognized and applauded. We might be invited into the club room, on occasion, where mostly other men chat amiably about the mission, and the team, and the objective, and the strategy for whatever consumer, capitalist or culture battle they are plotting at the time. We might view this admittance as our achievement and reward for being serious, smart and ambitious. But it is not, no, not hardly. We are invited in because we are young women, and we have the charms of a certain kind of young woman. We do the dirty work well, and hot-damn, we are congenial.
That is, until.
And it’s what happens after that makes all the difference.