She walks into a room in a fitted green blazer and black platform boots with that über confident presence that makes you take a step or two back. It’s not a purposeful power play, it just comes naturally to some people I guess — but she knows it. She flashes a smile and greets you with a voice that’s sweeter than expected. Diplomatic, but warm and inviting. You’ve never been good at eye contact and you realize she’s one of those people who’s good at everything as she stares at you knowingly.
I knew her from afar her senior year at Wheaton College and admired her definitive edge in the midst of boring white evangelical students. She had this thing about her that was always intimidating to me. She seemed pretty tough with her fade haircut, denim jacket and confident smirk. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that we crossed paths and actually became friends, fast friends. I soon realized that although she was textbook definition cool and edgy, she was also incredibly kind and down to earth and so willing to share her stories and life experiences with me, though I felt young and inadequate in her presence. She
Madeline agreed to speak with me about her experiences as a young woman in the workplace in India and after returning to the U.S. for a job in East Portland. Through our discussion I learned that although your environment can change drastically, many of the structures at play remain overwhelmingly and sometimes oppressively similar.
Upon leaving for India at age 22, her mind flooded with the anxieties of expected discrimination for her gender, sexuality, and young age. In a city like Delhi, these social markers could only make things more difficult. But upon arriving, Madeline found that leaving from one oppressive environment to the next made for a smooth transition. Wheaton College is no easy place for a sexual minority, let alone a woman. Rigid gender roles and evangelical social convictions prevail. A comfortable place for some, but it’s astounding that some of us can even last the whole four years. However, upon arriving in Delhi, Madeline was — however unfortunately — accustomed to the oppressive gender binary and secrecy surrounding her sexual identity.
“During my time in India, my gender, sexuality and age seemed to create the perfect storm inside that mirrored the chaos of Delhi around me — the smog of uncertainty and the claustrophobia of thought. In spite of my inner turmoil, the reassurance of bigger problems like poverty, sickness and overcrowding served as a bizarre comfort that eased the anxiety of my trivial problems.”
She questioned whether living this sort of existence was masochistic, but in the end she believes it was worth it — if not for the stories alone, then as a strategic career move, setting her apart from her friends back home settling for entry level jobs at boring companies. She could survive the social and emotional discomfort which now seemed commonplace for just one more year.
It wasn’t just one more year. Upon moving back to the United States, Madeline expected a work environment that would reflect the changing times, the year 2016 — where gay marriage is legal, women are getting paid just a little bit higher, and a younger, more progressive generation was on the rise. She assumed that even the most conservative of organizations would surely surpass India in the area of progressiveness, surely civil rights and social freedom was a given.
She was wrong. Once again, she found herself in a place where her values and lifestyle were repressed. Again, she felt she must hide. She currently works at a mostly conservative nonprofit in Portland as the Communications and Development Director. “I love my current job, but how far will I go in compromising my core values in order to satisfy the discomfort of others?”
In light of the recent election, we are reminded of the parallels that exist internationally, regardless of access to ‘education’ and ‘wealth.’ Similar mindsets will remain static across borders and will continue to resist the changing world around them. Madeline explains that this reality is even greater contrasted when the conservative subculture exists within the liberal context of a place like Portland. A place where a 10 minute drive east brings you face to face with some of the same people who elected Donald Trump out of their frustration and anger at a changing nation and emerging youth culture with their sights set on progress and equality.
“Telling the story of sexism, ageism and discrimination isn’t as sexy as it was in relation to visiting a place like India, but seems to be more important to me individually as I evaluate my career.” She explains how she has learned the hard way just how much company culture can impact your internal being, professional persona and even the trajectory of your career. Especially during a time when the market is saturated with eager, young and qualified millennials, compromise seems necessary and perhaps inevitable. Madeline expresses a collective hope that one day compromise in the workforce does not mean sacrificing one’s values and beliefs. “I look forward to a time and place where I need not ask myself to compromise my being and that the times in which I’ve been silenced by my environment will remain unfortunate memories and no longer a present or future anxiety.”
The workplace is an intimidating place and any millennial feels like they won the lottery when offered a well paid job within their field of naive “expertise.” But at what point does the scale tip from just pay off to the sacrifice of one’s true self? Which holds greater worth? It’s true that this question is easy to ask in the “first world” industrialized U.S. and Europe. But nonconformism to social oppression in the workplace must be implemented first where the privileged opportunity resides to do so. Then and only then will women and sexual minorities in places like Delhi no longer need to feign their identities in order to make a living. The solution isn’t simple, it begs the question of a much larger cultural context. But the stand needed in order to initiate much larger change across borders is one that must be taken by those millennials privileged enough to afford it.