Is it sexist for my supervisor to buy me food?

I’m pleased to say that this year I’ve secured a summer internship. I am happy to be working this summer for a local tech company I’ve interned with before, and they seem happy to have me on again. I started work this week, and things are going great.

Well, for the most part.

On my first day, my supervisor invited me to lunch with him. There was good food, but afterwards I didn’t get my cash in quick enough, and he footed the bill. I thought that maybe lunch on the intern’s first day was a company thing, and he would seek reimbursement. No big deal. But yesterday as I was eating lunch at my desk, he came back from a fast food place, said cheerily, “I brought you back something,” and put a cookie on my desk.

To be frank, it made me uncomfortable. Something didn’t feel right about my superior buying food for me. The question I wanted to ask, but obviously couldn’t, was “Would you have bought this for me if I were a guy?”

It probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much if a similar situation hadn’t occurred at my last internship. My supervisor at that time noticed that I preferred not to accompany him and our coworkers to the coffee shop, so one day he said, “Here, you should come with us more often,” and handed me a gift card for the coffee shop. I accepted it, assuming it contained a token amount. I was shocked when after my first purchase after work, the cashier told me I had $47.29 remaining on the card. I wish now that I had gone back to my supervisor, given him back the card, and told him I couldn’t accept it. Instead, I was embarrassed, so I didn’t say anything and kept using the gift card.

I know my supervisors were trying to do me a favor, but their actions felt patronizing. I like cookies as much as the next person, but accepting gifts from my coworkers makes me feel belittled. They’re saying with their actions, “Even though you’re a competent person we’re glad to have on our team, we’d like to help you out with food, and that’s okay because you’re a girl.”

So in response to my supervisor’s generosity yesterday, I grimaced and said, “Oh, I’d prefer if you didn’t buy food for me.” He said, “Oh, okay,” and the day went on. I’m glad I spoke up for myself, and I’m sure it won’t be a problem with him going forward, but I can’t help but wonder if I handled the situation appropriately. I would love to hear what other people have to say on the matter. Does this kind of thing happen to other female interns?

  • F.A.R.

    I’d be all over free food like a … hobo on a ham sandwich, I was going to say, and that seems about right. Then again, if this is a sex-informed interaction, I wouldn’t be receiving said food. Do you know whether other interns of whatever sex and gender receive similar treatment? I’ve frequently been laden with free food at events, but I haven’t had an at-the-desk internship before, so I’m afraid I don’t know whether this is typical behavior.

  • Sonia

    I’ve never been an intern in quite the way you are, but at URSI at Vassar it’s common for advisors to provide their kiddies with free food (John has stolen me sandwiches and took us out to lunch at least once a summer, often also at least once a semester). I know at real jobs free food is not uncommon (ask George). Not always with small companies (ask Mickey), but it’s common for people who are unpaid or on low income to get their lunches paid for by bosses (says the friend I’m staying over the night with in DC).

    There’s a further complication here than sex: earning power. He may just be being sensitive to your lower salary. In the coffeeshop case, I would read that as your boss trying to remove a financial barrier for you to mingle with the rest of your coworkers. If the coffeeshop was a place that everyone but you went, he probably assumed that there was such a financial barrier in place and he was trying to deal with it sensitively.

    That’s what I would assume. I wouldn’t assume sexism unless you notice being treated differently from the menfolk.

  • Sonia

    Another point — John went and got us donuts and coffee several times over the course of the summer too. So the cookie would not bother me at all.

  • Olivia

    I would feel awkward accepting the coffee shop card, but I think Sonia’s right about the motivations so that doesn’t seem like a realy problem. The cookie, on the other hand… I’ve never had a professor/supervisor bring me (personally) extra food, as a matter of course. (The free food I have received has always been offered more broadly e.g. to all the grad students in the office, or in a less work-related situation like babysitting for a professor) Much as I love free food – and I do love free food – I would also feel patronized and wonder about sexism in your experience.

    If nothing else, the combination of gender and power dynamics is something your supervisor should be more aware of, when buying unsolicited presents for a young, female intern. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it, but… that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see.

  • Sonia

    Are you the only intern in the office, Carolyn?

  • Mike

    As a partner (albeit a very junior one) at a consulting firm, I certainly find myself buying food and drink for my (regrettably) all male colleagues. Sometimes I’ll pick up the tab; sometimes the company gets hit on their card. I’m mostly motivated by well-fed devs being more productive, and I also like to show them that they are valuable to me and the company. Salary differentials don’t really come in here as everyone is well-compensated, but if I had an intern (and in dealing with friends and family who are in school or following dreams in low-paying areas), I am certainly sensitive to the purchasing power differential and will try to pay more than my fair share without appearing patronizing.

    The gift card thing is a bit stranger, though; I think he was just trying to remove a barrier, and did so in an awkward and potentially inappropriate way.

  • Jon

    I do quite a bit of charity work, mostly with teenagers, and I find myself constantly footing the bill (my choice… they are ready to pay) for lunches of people when we go out. This is because I want them there for the comraderie that they are experiencing, and don’t want them put out by the expense. I can afford to do this, so it isn’t that big a deal to me, and I feel that it is appropriate.

    However, I have seen the refusals, etc. that sometimes occur when they realize that I am paying, which I actually respect quite a bit more, because it says to me “Hey! I want to handle this on my own. I want to provide for myself!” Whenever I get a response like that, I simply ask that when they are in my position later on in life, they pass it on to someone that is in their position now. That always seems to work, and it makes me feel better because I feel that they may have learned something from it.

  • Guest

    I was a (male) intern in a 3 person communications dept (including me). I had a male supervisor and female supervisor. One of the two would often have to meet a client right before lunch, and would always bring back lunch/coffee/desert/snacks for the group. They would pay each other, but never let me pay. I don’t think its in anyway gender related, just a superior doing the right thing.