From #MeToo to #TimesUp, we are living in a time where the volume for women’s rights and equality has never been louder. But change isn’t coming soon enough. While we are beginning to dismantle gross abuses of power, each day is still another uphill battle, another painstaking debate, another outnumbered and underpaid day in the office. I believe we haven’t fully yet recognized the power of our own subtle actions. Through a personal voyage, I realized that there was one simple way every woman could accelerate gender equality: normalize your power by paying for the bill.
Part 1: Nepal
Six months ago, I embarked on a business trip to Nepal. I was spearheading a new project and I looped in two colleagues for visibility (both were male, both more senior). On the first day, we were set to meet and greet the partnering organizations. Two men enter the lobby, they look around to identify us. As we notice them, the three of us stand up to make introductions. As they walk closer, we reach our hands out for that universal handshake. One man leaned right, shaking hands with my male colleague. The other man leaned left, shaking hands with my other male colleague. I waited momentarily, front and center, to go second. To the men reading this: have you ever felt invisible, in plain sight? I have.
The experience didn’t totally surprise me since I understood the judgements being made. I was a more junior woman, supposedly representing doing business with one of the largest corporations in the world. Surely between the three of us, I wasn’t calling the shots. While it was my project and I didn’t want to feel underestimated, I silently managed my ego and didn’t think much more of it. Over the course of our conversations, the partners soon realized it was my project and they shifted their behavior towards me. But that wasn’t the end of feeling underestimated. Throughout the trip, I continued experiencing this kind of concealed micro-discrimination against women: with drivers, at restaurants, and with locals. As I learned more about Nepal, I was exposed to its natural beauty, but also its oppressive history — learning about everything from the practice of the Caste system, to the prevalence of menstrual poverty. Women are severely held back here, so I understood why I was being treated that way. And since I could justify it, I accepted it.
Part 2: Maldives
Fast forward to this past winter break. After a hectic year, my boyfriend and I wanted to escape the cold and go to a tropical paradise. We were not optimistic when first researched prices. But luckily, my credit card company was running a holiday promotion and we found a reasonable deal to the Maldives — so we pulled the trigger! My boyfriend and I have this agreement: if anything costs over $100, we ‘Go Dutch’ and split it down the middle.
Upon arriving at our resort, we are greeted by an abundance of staff to check-in. The welcome manager pulls up our reservation and tries to upsell us on the “full upgrade” — we politely decline. He smiles and nods, “very well, please sign here to confirm your stay with us.” The second attendant leans in, handing the folio to my boyfriend. He scans it briefly. Noticing that the reservation is in my name (because it’s under my credit card), he hands it to me to sign. I sign without hesitation. But in that moment, I can feel the two staff lock eyes in surprise. My insecurity conjures up a story that the staff are telepathically making a “she’s wearing the pants” joke. I hand the folio back to the woman, we smile and nod at each other politely. In that moment, I had a visceral flashback to Nepal — not to what I saw, but to how I felt.
We settled into our villa and headed to the restaurant for lunch. At the end of our meal, we asked for the bill. As it turns out, since our resort is the only property on the island, everything gets billed to the room — we just need to sign for it. You guessed it, the waitress hands the folio to my boyfriend. Anticipating this dance, he hands it directly to me. The lady turns towards me, embarrassed and smiles while covering her teeth. I signed and smiled back at her. Since we were here for the next four days, this happened again and again. Every time we did anything: ate, took out kayaks, ordered drinks, played tennis, booked a massage… you name it . The same idiosyncrasy kept resurfacing, my boyfriend was always handed the check. Now cognizant of this pattern, I paid more attention. I realized it wasn’t just the local Male exhibiting this unconscious bias, the hotel had plenty of European staff too, both men and women.
I asked myself: how have I never noticed this before? Upon reflection, I realized that paying for the bill usually happens in isolation, alternating between us, and sporadically throughout the week. I would have never had noticed this if it had not been for the sheer frequency and repetition of me needing to be the sole signatory for an entire week. Suddenly, the gender bias wasn’t as easy to justify as in rural Nepal.
By the end of the week, the staff became accustomed to handing the folio to me. On the last day, they had a shift change which brought some fresh faces to the island. As one familiar staff poured us tea, a new face came over with one of our last bills to sign. Before she had a chance, the other staff member gestured her hand out — signaling to hand the bill to me, and preventing the same mistake she once made. It was in that moment that I realized I unintentionally did something extraordinary.
By just showing up and being an example of an empowered woman spending her own money, I might have just changed someone’s worldview. And possibly even a resort’s protocol for guest interactions.
In my world, whether I booked or whether my boyfriend booked our vacation, it wouldn’t have made a difference to us. We would have paid each other back either way. But as I think about the world around us, the potential implication of a micro-interaction like this is enormous — especially when traveling. If he paid, it’s utterly unnoteworthy and nothing is noticed. But if I paid, it momentarily challenges our existing mental model of gender norms. It represents, in the flesh, a young woman having the agency to pay for a large expense on her own credit line — which also implies the equal ability for women to work and earn a meaningful salary. This small moment, holds a powerful idea.
Part 3: Hong Kong
On my way home from vacation, I stopped by my hometown, Hong Kong. One evening at drinks, I shared this story with one of my best friends. She’s now a lawyer in London. After hearing about my check story, she replied “Sometimes even if I’m paying, I’ll give my credit card and pin to [my boyfriend] because it’s easier to avoid the discomfort.” That was the moment when I finally realized our widespread gender bias has nothing to do with socio-economic conditions. It didn’t matter if I was in Nepal or the Maldives. Even some of the most progressively educated (and feisty) Hong Kong women I know propagate these kinds of gender biases either consciously or subconsciously. It is the subtle power in these moments, that are naked to the eye that we don’t realize have tremendous impact on our society.
What your actions mean
To all the women reading this, your actions and inactions are meaningful. If you reinforce the status quo, you are prolonging our rise to equity. If you do nothing, you’re letting society run its course (moving at the inertia of gradual change). But if you do something, if you actively normalize something as simple as paying for the bill, you will accelerate shifts in gender perceptions today.
It will be uncomfortable. But the removal of power from men is not enough, we must have the courage to step in to power when we have the opportunity as women. Not everyone is as fortunate or is even in a position to exercise this power. So, it’s my utmost belief that for those of us who are — we must use our voices, our platforms, and our actions to consciously drive progress. The next time you travel with men or plan to go splits on something, you offer to pay and ask them to pay you back.
Money is power, and power is perception. Ladies, it’s time for us to get the bill.