My Mom was a bra-burning Women’s Libber back in the ’70 (well, not sure she ever ditched the bra, but she believed). She loves to tell the story about how at age 35, after launching four teens, she got a job on Capitol Hill as a Congressional receptionist. It was the beginning of a 35-year career where she reached the highest level of Government Service. She doesn’t brag about that accomplishment but she does tell a funny little story about how my Dad reacted. According to my Mom, after she started to really get into her work, my Dad said, “Well, I wanted you to get a job, not a career!” I’m not really sure he ever said that but, said or unsaid, I am sure that’s what she felt and I’m sure that’s what he thought. They divorced not long after that and my beloved father remarried a wonderful woman who chose to be a housewife. For this, I am forever grateful; his wife made my Dad the happiest man in the world and as Alzheimer’s stole him away, she was there for him in ways I can never repay. No matter what my Dad said, those words are the ones my Mom remembers. Words matter. Words heal and words hurt. My mom, the career woman, paved the way for me and in telling me that story, told me everything about the female struggle to belong in the traditional corporate world of work.
I am now in my 50s and until recently, a senior executive in a large, global consultancy. I feel successful, but I am frustrated. There was a recent HRB blog about the challenges ambitious women face [http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/09/ambitious-women-face-more-obst/]. The blogger suggests that we should all forget about the “glass ceiling” and focus on the real problem, which he calls the “glass obstacle course.” He says women don’t just suddenly hit an impenetrable wall at the top, but that she faces many the obstacles, big and small along the way up and across. The authors believes that a woman must expend extra effort in order to dodge and defeat these many obstacles – whether they be being withheld from key roles, excluded from boy’s nights out or being labeled. I believe this author speaks the truth. It’s hard to be the minority and it’s hard for me to feel that I am not valued. It’s frustrating that I have to suppress the real me in order to avoid judgment, rejection and criticism. I am a passionate person. My passion has frightened (or turned off) many of my male counterparts over the years. It doesn’t scare me; it thrills me. And those how know me, love that part of me. Eh, I’ve just sort of endured the obstacles put in my way and have worked hard to overcome as many as I can. I can’t beat all of them but progress has been made.
This reminds of the story told by one of my best friends, Bea. She told me that, in a meeting today she heard a leader in a global role call one of her colleagues, mentors and friends, a bitch, in a very loud and disparaging tone in front of everyone. Bea told me that when she heard this, she didn’t stop and think and just reacted, saying, “I cannot believe you just said that! You cannot talk about a woman that way!” But then Bea stopped when she felt the emotion well up inside her. She felt her face burn and turned away, set her jaw and fought the tears. Bea told me she sat frozen, staring at the screen, while her female HR director (the only other woman in the room out of 15) continued the meeting. It took her awhile to calm and settle back into the conversation. Then she told me that when they took a break, this man came up and the first thing he said to her was, “I guess I’ve been living in Europe for too long.” Bea just looked at him, cut him off and said, “I can’t talk to you about this right now.” On top of his assault on women, he had the gall to blame it on living in Europe. Bea and her HR colleague went to the ladies room and talked about it and again she fought tears. Why did she want to cry? I’ll tell you why.
Bea shared with me the pain she felt when she realized that if a senior leader would say such a thing about another woman in public, what might they be saying about her? Do they call her a Bitch? Apparently, the woman who is the subject of this insult, this so-called Bitch, is tiny powerhouse of a lady. Every bit a lady, she’s always smiling, strong and fierce. A killer instinct in the market, she runs circles around everyone around her. Perhaps there was a day; in her earlier years when the frustration of feeling invisible, not valued or respected wore her down and just to be heard she made too much noise. She was direct, honest, sometimes a tad mean and she intimidated those around her. It was all she knew. But as the years went on, she mellowed, she changed she forgave and she channeled her power into being a mentor for other women and a productive force for commercial success. This is that woman that I know Bea so admires.
But, when Bea told me this story, it seemed so clear that this point was lost on this man and many others in the room. This man, in his need to fit in and be admired by his male competitors, took this chance to bond with the boys by tearing her down, in the most public of ways. He called her a Bitch. No, sorry he called her a “tough Bitch” Why couldn’t he just stop at tough? Tough is good in a performance culture But Bitch? That’s not good. Why did he have to call her a Bitch? The word Bitch is so nasty and demeaning. She is not a Bitch. She is an endearing, charming, powerful, effective and respected female executive, despite the misogynistic forces at play against her.
I don’t know, when I heard this story it all sort of clicked. It’s made me realize that I no longer wanted to accept this “inconvenient truth.” This truth that the workplace is not equal and that we have a long way to go. So, as we celebrate Gloria Steinam’s 80th, I have decided to post Bea’s story to give a voice to the continued struggle. I will be an agent of change. It is NOT OK for men to call women Bitches, bossy, pushy, shrill or any of those words that are designed to keep us down, to keep us doubting ourselves, to make us feel inadequate.
In my twenty-seven years of corporate life, I’ve been fighting this fight. Well, that’s it. I’m done. I will seek change. All the women behind me and next to me deserve better. I raise this to stimulate action; to make it known that this behavior is not to be tolerated. I will not tolerate it. Sexism is mostly covert; we know it’s there but is often shrouded in attempts by guys to let us in as one of the boys. But that never really happens. They still have their secret handshake, language and norms. I can’t fight that but I can call to light bad behavior when I see it. So, let’s continue to make progress. To forgive, be kind and open-minded to the differences that surround us.