In doing this work, and in digging into my personal experiences, it has become strikingly clear to me that most organizations do not encourage the overt sexism and harassment that runs rampant in Uber’s culture. Rather, sexism is perpetuated in most cultures, organizations included, through the little things. These little things, small enough to fit in your purse or your pocket, often reflect a deeper and less conspicuous form of gender bias that is common to workplaces and gyms and movie theaters alike. What are these little things? Tampons.
Over the course of my lifetime, I have frequented thousands of public restrooms. Despite my frequent bathroom use, I can count the number of times I have seen a tampon machine that actually had tampons in it on one hand. Workplaces have been no exception. On my first day of work in Detroit, I brought a quarter to the restroom with me, hoping to subtly grab a tampon from the machine. Upon finding it empty, I was too nervous or embarrassed to actually tell anyone. Days later, once oriented with the friendly faces of the building, I let someone know that the machine had nothing left, and that they might want to refill it. The next day, when I returned, it was still empty. Weeks later, I decided to check on the machine again, to no avail.
In the grand scheme of things, the empty tampon machine is not a huge deal. The world turns, and women find ways to adapt to whatever situations they are handed. Likewise, this is not something for which my office deserves to be blamed. People are busy, and they get used to patterns and routines, rarely observing the world from a newcomer’s eye. The empty tampon machine transcends a single workplace and reveals a ubiquitous culture that, while yearning to get more women in its doors, neglects to provide the little things that level the playing field. Most organizations harbor these little, overlooked things in all different forms– sins of omission, not commission. They don’t have breastfeeding rooms, they schedule tests and sports practices on Jewish and Muslim holidays, they require hairstyles that implicitly deem non-white hair unprofessional. These small things can make all the difference for customers, students, employees, and clients. Our conceptions of culture are built off of tiny experiences and conversations, often becoming opinions we can feel but not explain. When first impressions feel like bleeding through your pants or spending hours flat-ironing your hair, it can be hard to bust through and get comfortable, let alone make it up the ranks of industries claiming to be “meritocracies."
Thankfully, most organizations aren’t Uber. Actively working to cover assault and hiding behind hoodie-clad “bro-culture” just doesn’t fly anymore. But if the rest of us are aiming to make our organizations authentically inclusive places for everyone, sometimes it does a lot of good to think about the little things, like tampons– before they add up.