The Unseen Race

Mar 18, 2021 | Racism

“But not you, right?”

I was in the midst of a passionate discussion with a male colleague about gender equality in the workplace. Yes, we need to hire women! We need to draft policies that better accommodate our female talent, flexible working, extended paid maternity leave! He was making the usual statements, feeling rather proud of himself for being what he thought it took to be an ally and an advocate for equality.

“OK,” I interjected “but we need to get beyond that.” I started to venture into the real work, about inclusion, belonging, systemic biases, outdated gender stereotypes, the daily onslaughts of micro-inequities, male privileges and subtle acts of exclusion. The things that really held women back. His eyes started to glaze over. I was losing him. This was not a world he could see. He started to shift around uncomfortably.

“But not you, right? I mean, you are senior here. I don’t see you go through any of those things. Do they actually happen?” It was not a question.

I thought about that conversation when I decided to write this article. I thought about the conversation that ensued as I drew the analogy of the 100 meter sprint, our races appearing the same, but a women’s track riddled with unseen hurdles.

Perhaps I should have told this story instead.

It was a chilly Thursday morning, before the days of the our high speed airport train and Waze, when we would all wake earlier than usual to catch morning flights, praying that the traffic would be kind and no unexpected surprises lurked on the frenetic Johannesburg roads. Unfortunately for me, it was not one of those mornings. A truck had jackknifed blocking off traffic leading to the airport. I missed my flight by a long shot.

I called my office to let them know that I was to be rerouted onto another flight, but my travel time would be drastically altered, they needed to alert our protocol team on the ground at my destination. It was company security policy, particularly given that my job required us to travel into politically volatile regions. On this particular trip I was headed to Brazzaville in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I worked with an organization which prided itself on keeping their people safe, at all times.

I instinctively knew then that it was going to be a long and tedious journey.

I was rerouted onto a flight via Angola, with a short layover, then onto Brazzaville. Then we heard that our flight out from Johannesburg would be delayed getting us into Angola later than expected. I instinctively knew then that it was going to be a long and tedious journey.

I got into Lusaka at around 8 pm and worked my way through clearances and eventually to the connection desk. It was empty. I panicked and frantically searched for an airline official. I eventually flagged someone down only to be told that all flights out to the DRC were inexplicably cancelled until the morning. If I didn’t have a VISA (I didn’t), we needed to remain at the airport until 6 am the next morning. “OK, I can do this”, I thought, trying to keep myself calm. I just needed to find the lounge and buckle down for around 8 hours.

“Sorry lady the lounges are closed. You have to wait in our holding room.” I heard the words, but it didn’t sink in. I didn’t know what that meant so I obediently followed the official into an area the size of a small room. “Sit” he commanded. I sat.

Two military guards stood by the door. Chairs were lined up along the walls, a sign marked WC showed the way down a long dimly lit corridor to the left. I was the only woman in the room.

Around twenty men hovered around me. I took my seat and sat down in a slight daze. “Now what?”, I thought. I had an iPod. I put in my headphones and turned on Norah Jones, my soothing music. My mind was blank, I had no plan.

I had learnt that a man would sooner respect another man rather than my refusal of his advancements.

A man walked up to me and started to talk in Portuguese. My response was the customary smile accompanied by “I speak English” which I had perfected over my travels. He sat down next to me and smiled, a smile which to a man would seem inconspicuous, but to a woman was all too familiar and meant so much more. I brushed my hair with my left hand, intently pausing to show off the ring on my wedding finger.

The ring was fake. I had started wearing it during my travels to ward of unwelcome attention. I had learnt that a man would sooner respect another man rather than my refusal of his advancements. It was a frustrating reality but one which I reluctantly accepted just to be safe.

He nodded and walked away. He took a seat across from me, whispered something to his friend and stared at me. I looked at my watch. OK, 8 hours, I can do this. I just need to stay awake.

I felt their eyes looking at me. The military men at the door smirked and laughed, saying something to each other that I didn’t understand but I instinctively knew was not appropriate. A man walked in with water. I refused; I didn’t want my bladder to full up necessitating me to use the restroom which looked dark and silent. And then the lights went out and a few seconds later the low hum of a generator kicked in. Someone opened the window to let the muggy humid air in.

It was getting late and I was exhausted. The fear of falling asleep, leaving myself vulnerable and exposed was too great. I reached into my laptop bag and pulled out a small Pilates ball with spikes which I carried around on business trips to ease my stiff muscles. I placed it under my chin. I knew if I nodded off it would fall and make a sound, alerting me. I kept my eyes wide open and hummed my mantra “you are not tired; you are not tired”.

I stayed put, sitting in my urine, resolute in my commitment to not move into the darkness and silence of that bathroom.

Around 2 am, my bladder was bursting. I squeezed my muscles tighter. I looked around and everyone was sound asleep. The military men were awake, staring at me. I closed my eyes and talked myself through it. And then I felt a warm sensation between my legs. I knew that my bladder had released. My ears burned from shame and my eyes stung from fighting back the tears. But I stayed put, sitting in my urine, resolute in my commitment to not move into the darkness and silence of that bathroom.

5 pm came like the blessing of new life. I recall being so relieved that I wanted to jump up and run out of that room, find the first women I could, and hug her. The men around me were waking, stretching and engaged in morning banter. I almost ran as I made my way to board the small plane.

I was the only woman on the flight. I searched for the eyes of the female air hostess; I know she could instinctively see the desperation in mine. She quietly led me to the back of the plane to an empty row and said in a thick Portuguese accent “Its OK, sit here”.

I landed in Brazzaville, tired, smelling of urine and anxious. I knew that I had missed an entire client workshop. I asked my protocol team to take me to the hotel so I could freshen up. “Mr X said you should go straight to the office” he said. I remained firm. “No, take me to the hotel.” He did, and I dashed in to change my soiled clothes and headed straight to our client.

“I know how those layovers are, sleep chill-out, lucky you!”

“Hey S!” my male colleague and my senior (at the time) exclaimed. “You finally made it, thanks for joining us” he added sarcastically. “You are lucky, you missed a stressful workshop! I’m exhausted, I need to rest. You must be chilled though, I know how those layovers are, sleep chill-out, lucky you!” I started to say something but stopped. How do I even begin to explain?

“You’re late, went to put on your make up?” he giggled. “We are taking the client out for dinner later, come on join us” I responded that I was exhausted and need to rest. I saw the look on his face. “Be a team player S, client comes first!”

“You’re late, went to put on your make up?”

I thought about my career, about how it would look if I didn’t go to dinner, I was already late, and I had missed the workshop. So, I went. I smiled and made small talk and talked about what their business meant to our company. I drank coffee. They drank wine. I needed to stay awake and alert, my mind and body was exhausted.

I unconsciously rolled the desk in front of the door, as I always did — just in case

I went back to the hotel, unconsciously rolled the desk in front of the door, as I always did — just in case. I don’t recall getting undressed or falling asleep but woke on Sunday morning.

My commitment, he asserted, was questionable.

Months later, during my performance appraisal, my colleague rated me on my project. He understood that missed flights and delays were unavoidable sometimes, it happened to him many times too. He mentioned that while my deliverables were second to none, my “attitude” at that first client dinner appeared cold and disinterested and there was no acceptable reason for me being delayed from the airport to the client. Therefore, my commitment, he asserted, was questionable.

I was given an average rating with room to improve on my interpersonal skills and commitment to client relationships, setting me back on the path to the next promotion level.

I worked relentlessly and tirelessly over that next year to claw my way back onto the path to promotion, putting in more hours and taking on more roles than my male colleagues. I did get back on track and I did get promoted. It was not my first or last promotion nor was it the first or last of having to overcome the many unseen hurdles in my race.

I recall now that as I had worked tirelessly that year, I had often reflected on various scenarios. What if that truck had not jackknifed? What if that flight was not delayed? What if I were not a woman?