Saturday, 22 January 2011

One is certainly not on work experience!

Like many people, I have a job. I’ve had a job for several years, and before that I had a different job, and another one before that, all the way back to the shelf-stacking I did in Marks and Spencer’s when I was 16. (And there are years of pent-up rage in that one, but for the moment, let’s move on.)

Having a job is something that many people do, and as people go, I think I do fairly well at it. For instance, I arrive at work on time. I sit at a desk and drink cups of coffee and own a stapler. I have an extension number and a professional email address that is based on my real name. I do the tasks I’m paid to do (and sometimes, when I’m in a really good mood, I do things I’m not paid to do, because I’m just that nice).

I don’t insist on turning up to work wearing my pyjamas or a Spider-Man costume or a t-shirt with jam down the front of it - and if I did want to wear any of these items, I would simply do so, and not throw myself on the floor and scream until I threw up to ensure that I was allowed to. (And, to be perfectly frank, I work at a university, so given the presence of hippy students and slightly mad academics I probably wouldn’t look especially out of place. I digress, however.) I even go to meetings, although I confess I’m still not entirely sure what they’re for.

The point is, at the age of 28, I appear to be doing a fairly good job of masquerading as a responsible adult. So why have I noticed certain older colleagues treating me, and talking to me, as if I’m somewhere between six and 16 years old? Put simply, why does everyone seem to think I’m here on work experience?

This annoying phenomenon manifests itself in mainly subtle ways that I suspect go unnoticed by others, even by the people doing it. The tone of voice that people take when they ask me to do something comes laced with the tiniest hint of condescension. The tasks I end up with, more often than not, are closer to “alphabetise these three items” or “break down this box” than to “use your gigantic brain to build a robot”. When my closest colleague (older, and a parent, and a driver, and other things associated with being an adult) goes above and beyond the call of duty, the grateful recipient might bring him a bottle of wine as a thank-you; when I do the same, I’m more likely to get biscuits. (I mean, they tend to be nice biscuits; we’re not talking Rusks here, but still.) 

Sometimes it’s even more explicit: a few months ago I greeted an older colleague as I passed him in the corridor, as one does. He stopped, and turned, and looked at me while half-smiling and frowning a little, as if trying to place me, then snapped his fingers and said: “Of course! You’re Alan’s daughter, aren’t you? How’s the work experience going?” It’s not as if I was still new at that point, either - I had been doing my job for at least a year.

It happened at my last job too; in particular, I noticed that colleagues who were employed to do the same thing as me, sometimes who had started later than me and had less knowledge of the environment, would feel justified in talking down to me and passing on to me the most brain-meltingly tedious work, simply because they were older and therefore “in charge”. Never mind that in many cases I had more experience, better qualifications, and a more thorough understanding of practice.


I’m not the only person I know to have experienced such a phenomenon, either. Take my friend Lisa: she is 28, and a university graduate, and has been in employment for over a decade. She currently works in administration for a research centre specialising in cancer patients. Recently, a new colleague, a middle-aged woman, started working there too. On her first day, she turned to Lisa and with a beaming smile, asked her: “Is this your first job, dear?”

Like Rosie, I’ve been told that I look younger than I am (also like Rosie, I am regularly told I can’t buy that bottle of Fair Trade red wine, despite the fact that no self-respecting underage drinker would choose to drink anything other than White Lightning and nail varnish remover - although I suspect I may be veering off my point). So maybe it’s a simple misunderstanding and these people genuinely believe I need babysitting. Or perhaps it’s some bizarre biological instinct that makes these people talk to me this way; if I’m young enough to be someone’s daughter, then my presence provokes some dormant evolutionary urge, and if I wait long enough then they’ll start regurgitating food at me or something. 

But, deep down, I can’t help worrying that this happens because they’re seeing through me, because I don’t actually feel like a grown-up at all, and maybe they can tell that. Maybe they know that while I sit there and nod and say things like “I’m not sure that’s workable” and appear to take notes during meetings, I’m actually doodling crudely-rendered male genitalia in the margins of the agenda and wondering if it really matters that the name of the committee was changed but not everyone was consulted. And one of these days I’ll be discovered, and I won’t be allowed to have a job any more, and I’ll have to spend all day watching children’s TV and wearing Spider-Man pyjamas.

... What was the problem, again?