As my sister and I approached the beer distributor counter a few days ago and I plopped down my two cases of Bud Light Pineapple-Rita on the counter, I wasn’t surprised nor offended when I heard four familiar words: “Do you have ID?” The counter lady who I’d seen at least five times before while buying Powerball tickets or my occasional case of Red’s Apple Ale commented that she was only a year older than me and my sister and I had really good genes to look so much younger than our 30+ ID’s verified we were. But honestly, the Asian counter girl had a smooth, sand-colored complexion of her own which I complimented her on before grabbing my cases of beer and noting yet another moment of insecurity that accompanies looking like fifteen-year-old while doing grown up activities. It wouldn’t be the first time I was mistaken for a teen mom, a student or someone’s daughter when declining an opportunity to switch my water company in situations where I was actually a thirty-something with a three year old, a teacher or a homeowner who pays the damn water bill and is quite pleased with her water supplier.
It’s a little more tolerable in public when strangers assume I’m a teenager with little to no life experience just because I’m not rocking belly fat and dark circles and would choose to wear a pair of Jordan Retro 3’s over some Teva sandals any day. Strangers often judge on appearances and in less than five seconds, so a graphic tee and blue box braids probably sends the message that I’m still “finding myself” and “experimenting with my style” not that I’m stressing over retirement funds and school tuition just like any other adult. But the workplace is different. In the workplace, I’m a professional dealing with colleagues on day-to-day basis filled with opportunities for them to witness my work ethic, skill set and professionalism. So why is it that in the very place where I can actually prove I have some life and work experience, do managers still choose to praise me “Aww” and “You did it!” for simple tasks like adding extra columns on an Excel chart.
Infantilization in the workplace is real and fortunately something I’ve had to deal with several times in the past ten years of my career since finishing undergrad. As I grow more as a professional, however, I’m learning that infantilization in the workplace has less to do with how young or inexperienced you may appear and more to do with other people’s insecurities and need to prove how much as asset they are to an organization. Unfortunately, in the past two positions I have held (at different companies) I had the managers who would often bring their motherly duties from home to the workplace and try to use every opportunity to school their younger reports on everything from which font to use in a Powerpoint presentation to which diaper brand is best. Initially, I excused the words of wisdom as evidence that my managers were invested into not just my success as an employee, but a person. I repeatedly humbled myself and heeded the reminder, “Well these women are older so they MUST be wiser.” But after a decade in the working world it seems to me that some advice from older colleagues has less to do with their want for you to grow in your career and more to do with stroking their own ego and softening doubt they have about their own career milestones.
Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed is that too often “mothering” gets confused with “mentoring”. I’ve seen many women my mother’s age who were unable to turn off the mindset they had when engaging with their own children. So when they came to work with women who although were their children’s ages but still grown adults, what they saw were young adults who needed guidance, despite the fact that we had parents of our own. What resulted was an environment filled with awkward conversations where stories of buying a home, having a first child or getting married were treated more like prom dates or first kisses. After a few years many of us younger colleagues didn’t share much about our personal lives at all.
I’ve grown leery of those who seem unable to hold a conversation without turning it into a teachable moment. We all have that one person in our lives that whether you’re talking about car repairs or a cruise vacation they know somewhere you could’ve gotten your brakes done for cheaper, or the travel agent you should’ve gone through. As much as I am open to guidance and suggestions that come from an honest place of wanting someone to do better, I can also tell when someone just has something to prove. It’s one thing when an older colleague assumes every conversation is a low key request for advice about your personal life, but what about your ability to complete job duties are overly applauded like you’re a seal balancing a beach ball on its nose? In a 2017 Ravishly article titled “Please Stop Infantilizing Me…Especially In The Workplace” author Danielle Corcione points out how infantilization especially from female colleagues is a result of internalized misogyny:
“What hurts me the most is that oftentimes, many of these people are women. This is just one of many ways women internalize misogyny. If I express my discomfort at them assuming I’m much younger than I am, I’m typically told that ‘I’ll appreciate it when I’m older’ by older women. While they’re probably right, it doesn’t make their comments any less dismissive. While these older women have maybe once lived my experience, they’re forgetting how degrading it can be to be infantilized while at work.”
She points out the documentary “Codes of Gender” directed by Jut Shally which further confirms that infantilization is less about making a person feel inferior and more about making the perpetrator feel superior to mask their own insecurities. The documentary says infantilization of women is the way “our society systemically equates femininity with things like vulnerability, submission, uncertainty, and childhood … to be womanly today is to be, in many senses, infantile.”
But I think at its most basic when woman infantilize younger women it’s a result of the sobering feelings that come with feeling you’ve plateaued as an adult. At a certain point for many people, accomplishments that confirm adulthood may make people feel like they have an edge on others; a job title, a degree, marriage and other milestones may make a person feel like they’ve become a platinum member of the “I Have My Ish Together” club. But when you see others that are years younger than you either accomplishing those same things or surpassing them, it makes you question your own progress. So instead of encouraging and supporting their growth all you can really say is, “Aww, that’s so cute,” so that it appears that you’ve been there, done that and it’s no big deal.
In the Cosmopolitan article, “The Infantilization Of Adult Professional Women” Jill Filipovic points out that infantilizing women is an attempt to take away their power:
“When we want to take women down a peg, or undersell their influence, we treat them like little girls.”
She mentions that it’s important to note the micro aggressions that often occur that can be easy to dismiss, but are actually coated in disrespect:
“When men on social media or website comment sections object to something I’ve written, they routinely refuse to engage with the subject matter itself, opting instead to call me “Jilly” to put me in my place at the kids’ table. Other female writers have written about the nickname condescension as well, most notably Jessica Valenti, who becomes “Jessie” (anyone whose name can’t be easily girlified becomes “missy”).”
It reminds me of the managers who repeatedly mispronounce or forget names, and at it’s very worst create a whole nickname for you altogether that makes engaging with you easier for them as if anything with more than two syllables is a struggle for them to comprehend, but ironically never seem to forget the CEO’s hyphenated name with a few accents sprinkled in there.
I think there’s a blow to everyone’s ego that comes with seeing those younger than you accomplish incredible things. I know I get in my feelings for a few seconds every time I remember Ayesha Curry has her own restaurant, a line of cook wear, three kids and a NBA star as a husband with two championship rings and is only 29. We associate age with accomplishments so when we’re 30, 45 and even 55 the more that gets left unchecked on our lists of goals, the more we feel like failures. Seeing someone whose retirement fund is set by age 30 or at the very least has seemed to have found the love at their life at 22 while you’re sitting left swiping on losers and pushing 40 can truly make you question your place in the world.
I think there comes a time in every woman’s life where you have to look at your niece, daughter or younger employee and respect her for the adult woman she is. We have to make peace with our own insecurities and realize that although we may have a few extra years on someone, blowing out their candle won’t light your own. Every woman deserves her time to shine and the opportunity to own her power. If you’ve experienced at least one moment in your life where you truly felt like you were killing at life, you should consider yourself lucky and empower the next woman to do the same. Because if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that with every level in life comes changes, growth and sometimes a general feeling like you don’t what the hell you’re doing. There’s enough out here for women to have to overcome without having their professionalism patronized by those who should be empowering them .