I am a hard worker, and have been working as long as I can remember.
It started with mowing the lawn and various other chores around the house until I reached age 15, when I was able to be formally employed in North Dakota, my home state. My father, a product of the Midwest with who prizes the lessons of hard work above all else, ensured I could be nothing but ambitious.
My first paychecks came from a buffet, which is also where I got my first taste of working for mediocre men. There were three managers, all of whom were male and one of whom was wonderful — he was the owner and was always kind, calm and willing to jump in when things got busy.
The other two were a different story. One did little else than push the floor sweeper around and chat with customers. One of his favorite things to do was to wag his finger at you when you needed him (especially, it seemed, if you were ready to check out and go home), signaling you to wait for the completion of his aimless and endless conversation. The other ran around so frantic and overwhelmed most days that he would just shake his head and wave his hands in exhaustion in response if you asked him a question.
Since then, I’ve worked 20-or-so jobs that have spanned everything from volunteer and library gigs in college to working in the tech startup world and dabbling in non-profit consulting in New York City. I can think of exactly three male bosses or managers (including the buffet owner) who have been anything beyond mediocre — and that’s not even to say qualified, just something beyond perfectly average.
I’ve run into men in online publishing who don’t know what SEO stands for, top-tier professionals who can’t manage a Google calendar well enough to make it to meetings on time and superiors who all but outright asked me to do their work for them. Once, I had a boss who was moderating a panel. He asked me to message him the questions he should ask the panelists even though it clearly fell within the purview of the person “qualified” to be the moderator.
After all these years, I’ve come to expect mediocre men to occupy positions of power. While it’s certainly infuriating, the part that’s positively criminal is how much it inherently holds women back.
Not only does the patriarchy prop up those that don’t deserve it, never requiring them to develop tangible skills or real worth by virtue of their given place in the hierarchy, but it leaves women with nowhere to go. Top slots are filled again and again with mediocre men by mediocre men while women remain stagnant, offered more responsibility for no increase in pay, not even a title change. It seems absurd to think that anyone would offer more work without any form of compensation, but this exact scenario recently happened to three female friends and myself.
I suppose I have the mediocre men in my life to thank. If it wasn’t for them — if it wasn’t for landing what I thought was my dream job just to realize that it was a shell of its promises, built on the backs of competent women at the bottom and increasingly mediocre men at the top — I might have still been too scared to take a chance on myself. It was the ridiculousness of their antics that drove me to take the plunge into working for myself full-time despite an almost paralyzing fear of the unknown.
Even on the worst of my days now, I choose who I work for and am no longer at the mercy of the choices of the mediocre men above me. And when I choose to work with mediocre men — sometimes it’s unavoidable — it’s because there is a direct benefit to me.
As the gig economy continues to grow and dominate, I wonder what this will mean for the traditional sector? In my experience, it’s women that are taking to self-employment in droves. I wonder how many of them share my woes? What will all the mediocre men do when the women are gone, off working for ourselves and leaving them to do the actual work? Who will they rely on for tangible skills?
I’m dying to find out.