Wednesday, March 4, 2009
A tweet from Pundit Mom inspired me to dig deep into my complex past to rekindle the memories I am about to share. Before you read on, let me just say that a) I turned out fine, if not a tish better b) I am glad to not have daughters who might face this uphill climb one day, c) I am doing everything in my power to raise respectful, smart, decent sons.
Back in the day, as in back in 1991, I was in my first real job. The kind of job with a 401k and a pension. The kind of job with yes men, ass kissers, office politics, and lunch meetings. I worked in the financial services industry for a global player who still leads its segment today. It was the 90s so I went to work in a plain navy suit with gold buttons (gasp!), a striped silk shell, pearls, stockings, and sensible pumps. My uber conservative dress code defied my uber progressive leanings. I was a gem to this company, pardon me for being so blunt, if not a bit big headed. Here I was, an Indian woman with a brand name education, impeccable references, an articulate manner.
I was one of few women in my department and I was the only one with a degree in English and history, as opposed to the finance and econ majors I shared cube space with. At first I was mercifully teased for having no financial services background or education but I proved to be a quick study. My retort in defense of my liberal arts education was, "Hey, at least I can read and write about what we're doing here!" I quickly climbed the proverbial corporate ladder, having written a training guide about advanced financial planning topics and techniques and promoted to a national trainer.
And that's where the real fun began.
I have been paradoxically blessed and cursed by genes that make me look a decade younger than my age. In fact, a few years ago the dean of a national business school refused to hire me as a marketing consultant because he thought I was too young and inexperienced (nevermind the unjust ageism issues here). He needed proof of my experience because he thought I was a 23-year old recent college graduate upon simply seeing me at a meeting. I was flirting with 40 at the time. And such has been the lot I've drawn. I'm short (5'0 if you must know), slim (getting less slim with every vanilla bean cupcake I eat), and youthful. That's all dandy anywhere but the boardroom.
In my training days I faced more than my share of sexism. It was my first taste of slimeball men, a jolt coming from the daughter of a straight-laced, if not stoic, man. Join me in a stroll through Memory Lane.
I spent my days talking to financial advisors around the country. Mostly I dealt with the heavy hitters who were living high on the hog, which might explain the pigs they had become. A large care package arrived in my office one afternoon. Everyone gathered around to watch me open this, making a scene, gushing on and on about how cool it was to get a secret admirer gift. To my horror, I pulled out a beach towel, suntan lotion, and a bikini too small to fit on that obnoxious Hollywood Chihuahua. Inside was a note, "I hope to see you in this poolside." We were days away from a conference in Palm Beach. The guy who sent this was a Baptist preacher turned financial whiz, married, three kids. I never did find him to introduce myself.
When I was a trainer we naturally got course evaluations. Mac Daddy and I tag teamed many classes (yes, we were the Pam and Jim of our time). His evaluations were chock full of remarks like "He really knows his stuff." "He has an excellent command of the materials." "I'd take any class he was teaching." Meanwhile, my evaluations, from the exact same classes, for which I wrote the training materials, read, "She looked hot in that black skirt." "I couldn't concentrate because the instructor was so hot." "Watching her made it easier to be away from my wife." "She always dresses so well." Of course the slimy bastards wrote that crap anonymously. When I complained to my boss, brace yourselves here, he said that I should be flattered! Flattered!
In another class, the participants, all men 10-20 years my senior, handed me a wad of cash at the end of our session. They apparently had placed bets on how old I was. The one closest to my age won the pot. I was fuming but maintained my composure. Finally, I asked them what ages they put their money on. Turns out no one was right so I pocketed the cash and walked out of room, never once turning back to see that gaggle of jaw dropped men.
I was in a regional office once when an advisor, visiting from out of town, asked me to show him the sights. I explained that I couldn't. He proceeded to call me a stuck up bitch and other choice taunts. In the office. In front of clients. The glimmer of goodness that came from this particular episode is that a fellow advisor, whom I did not know, overheard this outrage and turned the ass into HR. Now that guy's mama raised him right. Sadly, HR discouraged any action against this guy, who just happened to be a top producer. Money Maker = Invincible.
I faced all kinds of sexism and general assholism in my daily life in the cubicle trenches. The offhand snide comments. The oogling of my chest, resulting in my hand knocking some guys upside the chin. The negative remarks about mothers and wives who work. I learned to suck it up. I learned that complaining, regardless how justified, blackballed me. I learned to sit tight but be firm. I learned to tread lightly. I learned to suck it up. I harbored resentment that ate away at my soul.
I never got my payback but I do believe in divine justice. And I did turn up my moxie to demand a raise one day after finding out that Mac Daddy earned more than I did for the exact same job. That small victory was like a TV perfect golf shot after 12 holes of double bogeys; it was enough to fire me up, enough to find my voice, enough to force some change. I eventually moved on.
I don't know how the workplace has changed for women in the male dominated, old boys network of the financial industry. My fear is that all too many women today share my story. My hope is that men like Mac Daddy, and my sons when they're of age, will turn that wheel.