A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop at one of the prettiest places in the world. My generous client paid for my plane ticket, full board, and editorial work. All projects should be this good.
Because I’d worked with this client before, he trusted me, and didn’t hang around to babysit. As soon as he’d checked us in and had dinner with us, he went home to his wife, and left us mostly to ourselves except for occasional drop-ins to make sure all was okay.
The team consisted of two guys – one local, one English; and three girls – two locals plus me. I was the baby of the group, and everyone else had kids half my age. The bill had been agreed in advance, but we used sign-sheets to know what should be paid.
On day 1, the client was around, so he did all the signing himself. On later days, he left me in charge, so I was to look over the bills. Because he’d put me in control, he didn’t want to undermine me, so if the sign-sheets came and he was around, he instructed the hotel staff to defer to me, which I thought was pretty cool coming from an African man. It was almost cute the way the waiters would bring the chit to him and he’d nod in my direction instead.
The thing with a big hotel is that it’s different people that handle the bills. We’d have our meals in the dining room by the beach, then spend the day [and part of the night] in the conference room working. So the chits would be brought to different locations.
On the first morning, a male waiter came by. He walked into the conference room with the sign-sheet, and looked all around, trying to decide to whom he would give the bill. It was an idle moment where my mind had drifted, so I watched him with interest.
He looked at the Englishman, and decided he couldn’t be in charge – he had to be a guest. So he l0oked round at each of us in turn, and settled on the local guy. The rest of us were women, so he had to be the boss.
The local guy smiled and pointed at me – ever the gentleman. With an embarrassed grin, the waiter brought the thing for me to sign.
The bill on day 2 was brought while the client was in, and he asked the staff to give it to me. Yay! But on day 3, it was a lady who brought the bill. She automatically assumed the white dude was in charge, and gave him the sign-sheet. He signed it without a second thought.
On day 4, we had dinner by the beach, with drinks. On our way out, we were stopped at the bar to sign for the meal. The chit was promptly given to my English companion. He signed.
It doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but it made me wonder about race, and gender. Not one of those people considered me in charge. But then again, my teammates were mature. In the eyes of the staff, I was just a college girl with jeans and purple hair.
During the work itself, each time one of the ladies made an observation, they looked to me for approval. I tried not to react before looking at the Englishman to see his response – because it was his book we were working on. The workshop was basically a panel to review the book, and I was there as an editor.
The two ladies had a hierarchy between them. One was a teacher, the other a school principal. After speaking, the teacher would always look at the principal to see if what she had just said was right. The principal would then look to me, and I would look to the author.
It was actually quite funny to watch, because due to our seating arrangement, it forced everyone to seek affirmation by looking to the left.
The principal rarely sought approval from the teacher, she’d always look to me. And the teacher never sought my response without first glancing at the principal.
The local guy, however, needed no approval. He would state his case in a soft, clear voice, and would not even look at the author for affirmation. He was perfectly pleased with his own ideas, and they were usually pretty good. After a while, the author started looking to the left too – at the local guy.
All this looking to the left said a lot about the balance of power in the room. Freud would have had an orgasm had he been there with his notebook.
But back to the sign-sheets, it says a lot about the servers and their a assumption that a man was in charge. Some went for the foreigner, assuming he was boss, others went for the local, assuming he was host, but not one of them went for the female team members. I’m not a feminist, I just found it interesting.
What intrigued me most was that my client, a guy old enough to be my dad, and a staunch, practicing Muslim at that, had no qualms deferring to me. Yet my peers couldn’t handle the fact that I was boss.
Curiouser and curiouser.
♫ Mmm ♫ Crash test dummies ♫