- Emma Vibert
Is the Customer Always Right? A Gen Z perspective.
Updated: Feb 20, 2021
Yeah, being a young woman in the workforce still sucks
This summer I worked at the order desk at a quarry, selling rocks of various sizes to people over the phone. Our customers fell into two categories: contractors and retail. My day-to-day was answering the phone every time it rang and talking to people about their rocks and then scheduling their deliveries onto our dump trucks.
I quickly became very knowledgeable about rocks and could rattle off endless rock facts to my friends, much to their annoyance. There was a lot to remember so in the beginning I would often have to ask coworkers about variable terminology for a similar product, but eventually I got most of it memorized.
My previous employment was in traditional retail and restaurants, two industries that are overwhelmingly populated by young women. My knowledge of t-shirt dresses was never questioned because I am what you expect when you walk into a clothing store. I was extremely confident in my knowledge and it showed. But I am not what you expect when you call a quarry.
Entering a new work environment, I had to build new confidence. Unfortunately, I never got the chance. Confidence in the workplace is difficult for many people, especially as a new hire. Being a young woman makes it even harder.
At the quarry, about every third caller who heard my voice would ask to speak to the one man in the office. Too often, the caller would return my greeting with, “Can I talk to (the one man?)” or “Is (he) around?” Upon assuring him that I could take that order, the inevitable response was, “I’ll call back later.”
Based solely on my voice and inflection, many customers had no qualms about questioning my competence. In instances where I had to pass a customer over to my superior, he frequently would relay the same information, which was unquestionably accepted.
It’s easy to minimize my experience. I was new and he’s senior. These customers had a relationship with him. I was told again and again that it was because “he had been there the longest”. “Don’t be offended,” they’d say, “you’re new.” For the first few weeks I accepted these answers and hoped it would get better. But as time passed, these came to feel like excuses. There was never an effort to encourage customers to talk to me. Couldn’t the senior man have had my back? Couldn’t he have assured customers that I was plenty capable of taking their order information? That never happened. I raised it in the beginning, but after getting brushed off, I did not feel comfortable broaching it again. The company gave a clear vibe that cultural change was not on the agenda – its norms were deeply ingrained.
The effects undid me. I got caught in an unhealthy cycle: Low confidence led to mistakes, which made my coworkers less confident in me, which led to more mistakes and second-guessing myself. I would ask for confirmation of the information I gave clients, even though I knew I was right. As the summer progressed, my emotional health spiraled. I felt dejected. I didn’t want to go to work. Everyday I woke up full of dread. Working 10-hour days gave me so little time to recover. I felt anxious and withdrawn. Every morning in the car I would visualize packing up my feelings and keeping them deep in a box. Pulling into the parking lot, I would fight the urge to run away. I thought about taking a sick day, but I was pretty sure that if I did, I would never go back. At lunch I would sit outside and cry. I convinced myself that this was what workplaces outside of women-dominated industries looked like; this was my future.
As a young woman it’s so easy to feel silenced and alone. The combination of casual sexism I experienced from customers and the lack of support from the company culture was unsustainable for me. I had hoped to continue working at the quarry through the fall to put away money for grad school. But by the end of the summer, I was done in. I took a much lower-paying job in a restaurant, which closed, perhaps permanently, when the second wave of Covid hit Atlantic Canada.
As a young woman, the culture indoctrinates you into believing that the customer’s preference for the male should be accepted. To be treated as an intelligent colleague, you must prove yourself above and beyond. I can say with confidence that it breaks you.
Left unaddressed, the baggage created by toxic situations moves with you. I still have not fully recovered from the effects of that work environment. I notice how little confidence I have in work environments; I find work very stressful because I am waiting to mess up. When I do make a mistake, I immediately return to the spiral of thoughts about how I am not smart and that I should not be trusted because I am a known screwup. The anxiety is overwhelming and most days I feel like I am running just a foot ahead. If I stop, it will catch me, and there goes the whole workday.
Most blogs end with a solution, a tip or that ever-market-oriented call-to-action, but I cannot offer that just yet. My hope is that by reading this someone might feel less alone, as I did in writing it.
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