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That ever shifting glass ceiling – things we learnt on our way up (and out)

Posted in Life & Love, and Women's issues

working women posterHer name was Catherine and she was after my boss. Had it been my previous boss, I wouldn’t have cared – part of my job was keeping at bay the women he bedded all over Europe , who jammed my phone line trying to reach him. But this time it was different. Catherine was pretty, smart, blonde and full chested. And I was sleeping with my boss. (Sofagirl sent me a postcard once that still hangs in my kitchen – it’s a drawing of a frizzy haired woman stating “I met the enemy and they are thin blondes with big boobs”. As I have always been a flat chested brunette, you can see how the thought hit home).

Before you put your judgment hat on, consider that this happened 25 years ago and it was the music industry.  At the tail end of its heady years, when sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll meant just that, before it morphed into the sterile cash cow it is now. Oh, and I was in love: my transgression not imbued with any careerism. Catherine, on the other hand, was a smart lawyer trying to get ahead fast.  She ended up shacking up with the toady looking President of the company, who left his toady looking wife for the smart blonde waif. Her career took a turn for the stellar. Gossip was rampant but no one gave it a second thought. Flirting – but not necessarily resorting to sex – was one of the (few) options women had in climbing up toward that glass ceiling.

At the time, women who reached the music biz boardroom in an exclusively male industry were few and far between. Actually, I can only think of one in the whole of the UK. She was an idol to us girls stuck in secretarial positions: working our asses off to get ahead. She was a mother too, which, in hindsight, made her achievement all the greater.

For both sofagirl and me it was hard, challenging and rewarding. And I believe neither of us paused to think much about  gender inequality while travelling around and generally doing our job. Both of us adapted to the boy’s club, to the inside jokes, the sexual references – we learnt to look away when the boys slept around, and it was probably becoming “one of the boys” that gave us an edge.

It wasn’t a conscious decision – we fit into the system, and only with age and a bit of wisdom did we come to understand that changing the system was a better option, even if changing the system, in those days, came with a price (being ostrasised, labelled as difficult or even losing one’s job … ). Female mentors were not on hand to help. My only non-male boss, and just for a short while: was a mustachioed German who went on to redefine the meaning of bitchiness for our entire gender.

Incredible but true: we did start when the typewriter was still in use
Incredible but true: we did start when the typewriter was still in use

It wasn’t until I came to the US, after a 5-year pit stop in Italy, that I felt like an equal. Sort of. But, compared to Europe, at least I felt I was breathing the same air. I was in my 30s and still learning not to feel intimidated during (mostly male populated) meetings. I learned to boldly negotiate for equal compensation, to say no to artists’ unreasonable requests. And I still remember one alternative , heavily made-up metal artist whose manager refused to deal with me based on my gender. He didn’t even know me but, clearly, my vagina prevented me from understanding his client’s vision.

In my second career, in the kitchen – another male dominated industry –  I benefited from the mentoring of a wonderful and larger than life woman. And, subsequently, I took it upon myself to mentor young girls working for me.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s CEO, is intent on doing just the same on a large scale, with her soon to be released book, “Lean In”. Sandberg gives tips to women on how to succeed at work, and is already running into knives: how, ask her critics, can a multi-millionaire with plenty of home help possibly have something to offer to the average working woman?  (Interesting question – but we will refrain from judging until we can get hold of the book.)

At the same time – 50 years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”: the media is busy re-assessing the state of gender equality in the United States.  According to statistics, the number of women entering the workplace has been declining since the late ’90s.  Blame is being apportioned equally to the unyielding American workplace that does not make it easy for women to juggle  career and family and the pre-crash economic boom that allowed more women to elect to stay home.

woman-at-workMany questions have been swirling in my mind while scanning articles and blogs on the subject: can we have it all? do we want it all? or have we confined “having it all”, as Maureen Dowd cleverly put it, to unicorn status?

Isn’t it a bit sad we are still talking about gender equality? I chose to work instead of having a family. When, later on, I did marry into a ready-made family, I still worked because I couldn’t handle the alternative. I tried it for 6 months, and quickly found that other mothers and PTA committees drove me mad. It was enough to push me back into the arms of the full-time workplace. But I respect every woman’s choice, and, above all, I respect those women who don’t have a choice.  And who, with no help and few financial resources, have to rely on the kindness of their employers, family members and affordable childcare.

Navigating the workplace, at any level, can be tricky. Especially for women, ambition is often mistaken for  bossiness. While it’s important to remember that work does not define us, what we do does occupy an important part of our life.

What sofagirl and I have learnt, the hard way in some cases, can be summed up into a few golden rules:

  • learn to speak up for yourself because no one will do it for you
  • ask, politely, for what you think is right and owed to you
  • 80-hour weeks are not the key to success – organization is
  • do not tolerate injustices especially, when done to others – your turn will come
  • working for people who inspire you is important. You can accept working with and for idiots, but only for as long as it takes to find another job
  • expect to be paid less than your male counterparts – so always ask for more than you are willing to settle with
  • assertiveness in a man is considered aggressiveness in a woman. Navigating that thin line is one of the toughest challenges women face (in hindsight, even the hairy lipped German was probably doing her best)
  • don’t let anyone define you

The last one took me a lot of practice. It’s in our nature to want to please, even in the workplace, even when it means adapting to a culture that is not your own. In my last job, I was called a big mouth, sometimes a bitch.  But I was also appreciated, loved (by and large) and appropriately compensated – without having to compromise on who I was.

So, has anything really changed in the last 50 years of gender equality battles? Or even since we entered the workplace just over 25 years ago? Definitely – but not enough to take gender equality off the list. But, one step at a time, we keep on climbing.

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  1. silvia

    So much to think about. Not sure if I could completely subscribe point where you invite not to tolerate injustice ’cause once I was fired for that. Generally speaking I would totally agree on that. And giving it a second thought my case was slightly different, to be loyal to the guy who hirer me I got sqeezed in between partners’ fight. I should have given it a second thought at that time before speaking up

    March 5, 2013
    • It’s hard. Standing up for others when your job could be on the line. But, depending on circumstances, there are many different ways to do so. I did what you did once and, despite not being fired, I was shut out for nearly a year.

      March 8, 2013
  2. I have never understood gender inequality and unequal compensation for equal work. Some of my best and most intelligent law partners have been and are women. They are who they are and they produce consistently. I also find it absurd that the food industry is a male dominated industry. Some of the finest cooks I have ever known have been women. Although not technically trained, what they can do with food is amazing. The bottom line is whether you can do the job.
    If you truly want to put a woman’s worth in the workplace to the test, consider this: When women could not find work outside of being nurses or school teachers (yes, I’m old enough to remember those days), the quality of education in the US was second to none. This was the result of many qualified women who wanted to work or needed to work that could not do anything more with their college degrees because of the good old boys club. Now that corporate avenues have opened (even high end corporate management positions, i.e. CEO, CFO, COO) those very talented women educating our children (me) found jobs worthy of their knowledge and talents. Now, look at the state of the US education system. This is by no means a spurious relationship. ‘Nuf said and I will now get off my soapbox. 🙂

    March 4, 2013
    • Thanks for getting on the soap box. That was an interesting take on what women in the teaching professions did for countless men. I never thought of it in those terms. I don’t think the majority of men is intent on discriminating, and there are certainly many illuminated men around like you, but I do believe that some behaviours are ingrained and take long to eradicate. And us women have to play our part in supporting each other and learning to be comfortable with the limelight.

      March 8, 2013

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