Work in Progress
“Hey, Sienna, could you fill up this bucket with 14 cups of water?”
“Now, this is a two-cup measure, so if you fill it up seven times, then all together that would make 14.”
Thanks, Mr. Boss Man. My 12th-grade calculus teacher actually never got around to teaching us how to count to 14.
Last summer, I worked part-time at a bakery.
My job consisted of manning (or woman-ing, I guess) the bakery counter, greeting customers, taking orders, and keeping everything meticulously organized—not a stray cookie crumb in sight.
When customers first walked in, they would see a stark, almost sterile-looking, white bakery counter filled with delicious desserts. Then, as they walked further, they came upon the drink station, where they could order various coffee or tea drinks.
After working there for a few weeks, I noticed that the bakery counter was exclusively run by 18 and 19-year-old women with clean ponytails and bright smiles, while the coffee station was run by 24 and 25-year-old men, many tattooed and some even elaborately mustachioed, fitting the typical hipster stereotype.
Questionable Business Practices
Often, I’d work the counter alone in the mornings while my boss baked in the kitchen. We didn’t have very many customers between the hours of 8 am and 12 pm. We were a newly opened, pseudo-European, overpriced bakery in a dingy outlet mall, conveniently located next to a Party City (although our decadent Nutella cookies were to die for).
Over time, we gained a few regular customers who came every morning in search of their daily caffeine fix.
My boss refused to train me to use the espresso machine. Instead, he insisted that I text or call him any time a customer showed up wanting an espresso drink, despite my asking to learn to use the machine multiple times. This led to many awkward moments with customers who had to wait for the boss to come make their drinks, and likely many confused thoughts as to why I wasn’t making them.
My boss’s insistence that I, and the other younger, female employees, “Stick to the bakery counter” rather than learn how to use the espresso machine was, at best, a shortsighted attempt at creating a chain of command. At worst, straight up sexist.
A Female-Driven Workplace
While all this was going on, I was also working at the Feminist Press during the week, a nonprofit publishing company founded in 1970 to amplify women’s voices and tell their stories.
It’s a relatively small company, but still predominantly female, (only two men worked there at the time). All the other interns were women as well.
This was hands down the best environment I have ever worked in. Everyone was incredibly supportive and open to questions, always with a friendly, inviting smile. We were given detailed training to make sure that we understood what was expected of us. At the same time, I never felt coddled and was always encouraged to request more responsibilities or question decisions.
It was the exact opposite of my bakery experience.
Trying to Make Lemonade Out of Lemons, (aka Espresso Out of Espresso Beans)
Once I befriended my male coworkers who came into work later in the day, I began relying on them to teach me how to make a wider variety of drinks. As such, I could offer them more help, rather than sitting idly while customers waited, simply because my boss refused to teach me the skills necessary to satisfy his customers in a timely manner. While he had to know that they were teaching me (kind of behind his back I guess) he never said anything. And I never asked.
But still, every one of my boss’s surprised glances at a good suggestion, every dubious response to claims I’d finished the tasks he’d assigned me, felt like he doubted my intelligence.
This relegation of my capabilities to only the simple, the mundane, the stereotypical, was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to his sexist attitudes.
Other Sexist Things
1) I was strongly discouraged from doing any heavy lifting, and he objected to me using the ladder to reach ingredients on high shelves, suggesting my male coworkers get them for me instead.
2) Another female employee quit, in part because he yelled at her for not knowing how to clean a machine properly because, “You’re a woman! Shouldn’t you know how to clean?”
3) I found out months later that, after I came in to apply for the job, the boss asked the barista who wrote down my information if he thought I was attractive. Because apparently, my physical appearance correlates to my ability to effectively organize a bakery counter.
Maybe in his eyes, I was just another product, another delicious thing for him to sell.
Not everything about my experience working at the bakery was bad. I liked keeping everything organized and running smoothly, and the employee discount was very nice (it made his overpriced products suddenly seem reasonable). I also met an incredible barista, 24 years old and tattooed (but not mustachioed) who I dated for months after I went back to school in the fall.
We used to sneak kisses when the boss returned to the kitchen.
Taking a Seat at the Table
At the Feminist Press, I grew a lot as an employee and as a young woman because I felt like my co-workers trusted my capabilities and never patronized me just because of my younger age.
My coworkers understood, presumably from personal experience, that sometimes women, particularly young women in new work environments, need more prompting to take a seat at the table. Sometimes, that even meant literally encouraging us to pull up chairs to the main conference table.
All the employees were (obviously) feminists, so we bonded over ideology, as well as more fun things like our mutual love of The Great British Baking Show.
I was dedicated to the company’s mission, and someday I want to work in publishing, so that probably contributed to how rewarding the experience was. But I also believe that certain business tendencies, not exclusive to women but often most noticeable in female-driven workplaces, can have a positive impact on the experience of employees and the quality of their work.
At the bakery, I wanted to perform well because that was my inclination but also because of an underlying fear of disappointing my boss, of his ashamed reaction at the slightest flaw. My boss was prone to snapping or looking at me like I was stupid for asking questions, all things which can discourage the often precarious self-confidence of women who have been conditioned to please men, even at personal cost.
Now that I’ve had some time and space to reflect, I think I wanted to please my sexist boss for a number of reasons:
1) Nobody likes getting yelled at, so I tried to live up to his standards to avoid embarrassment.
2) The rate of employee turnaround there was ridiculous. He had fired many others, and I simply didn’t want that to happen to me.
3) It was my first food service job that involved customer service, so I felt a little out of my comfort zone and insecure.
I stayed at the job because I needed the money to fund my weekly commute to New York City for my unpaid internship. The $15 weekly stipend they provided might have been sufficient to cover subway rides, but the Long Island Rail Road is a whole other beast. I also liked my coworkers and doubted my ability to find another summer job in the middle of July.
At the Feminist Press, I wanted to perform well because I was invested in the work and wanted to impress the women I was working for. I knew I had their support, which allowed me to do my best work possible.
This guidance and added encouragement, while still holding me to high standards, allowed me to flourish to my fullest potential.
Now, I return from school for the summer and find the bakery boarded up, dark and empty inside. All online presence has been wiped. It looks like it has closed permanently. At the same time, the Feminist Press is still thriving, highlighting women’s stories through its popular books and hosting events across the country.
Clearly, the bakery’s business practices didn’t match those of the Feminist Press. I’m not exactly sure why the bakery is closed. There could be a million reasons, but I can’t help but wonder if what I went through had anything to do with it. For now, I’ll miss those yummy, overpriced Nutella cookies. I’m glad that, at the very least, other girls won’t have to navigate the same work environment I did.
Author: Sienna Brancato
Sienna is a proud Italian American who grew up on Long Island (she has been told she has a bit of an accent). She is a sophomore at Georgetown studying English, Italian, and Government. Her passions include feminism, reading, spoken word poetry, and awkward dancing. Her favorite TV shows include The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Last Week Tonight. In her free time, you can catch her listening to the Civil Wars while eating an entire pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream and wearing fuzzy pajamas.