The intent of this post is raise awareness and it’s difficult for me to write. It is not a silver bullet to solving the problem, but I think the first step to solving any problem is to realize there is a problem to solve. I’m going to discuss several experiences that I have had or witnessed in the course of my career. All of these incidents were never reported and never addressed. They got no social media attention. Why, you ask? Because often women, even successful and outwardly confident women, don’t want to bring attention to themselves for these matters, may not want to rock the boat, or may feel they did something to “bring it on”. It’s sad for me to write this, but I’ve had all of these emotions, to some extent, myself. So. . . read on if you’d like to know some of the things that could be happening at your company without you knowing. All incidents, except one very personal one, are being attributed to fictional characters.
Early in Shannon’s career she was working with an internet start-up in the mid 90s. She loved her job and quickly became accepted into the circle of leadership focusing on the executive team. After working there for about one year, she was invited to attend the Leadership Offsite for the Operations organization. She was thrilled to have a seat at the table. The offsite was in Santa Cruz, CA, about an hour from company headquarters. Shannon drove herself to the meeting and arrived about 5 minutes early. When she arrived Bill, the head of operations opened the door, “Welcome Shannon! Come on in!”. Turns out the event was being held at his home. Nobody else had arrived, but Shannon chalked that up to being 5 minutes early.
She was offered a seat on the couch and was told the rest of the team would soon be there. After sitting on the couch, her spidey sense started to feel that something wasn’t right. There were various drugs on the coffee table, and Bill sat down very close to her on the couch. Shannon pretended not to notice and tried to ignore the sense that something was off. Focus on work, she told herself. After trying to engage Bill in conversation about the goal of the meeting and what they hoped to accomplish, more time had passed. It was now 10 minutes past the scheduled start time. It was still just Bill and Shannon
Finally, Shannon asked, “Where is everyone?”. Bill then confessed that nobody else was coming, placed his hand on Shannon’s leg and offered her a joint to relax. Shannon tried to make it clear that she wasn’t interested. Got up, started to leave, but also didn’t want to embarrass Bill and wondered what impression she gave that made him think she’d be interested. He coaxed her to stay. He offered to take care of her and put her up in an apartment. Shannon giggled, thanked him, but said she really had to go. She made the hour drive home, deflated that she wasn’t invited because she was respected and kicking herself for not handling it better. She went back to work, focused and told nobody. She was ashamed and she felt that if she told anyone, she would be fired.
What’s in a name?
It’s performance review time! I’m excited. I had been working so hard to build an amazing program with a well-respected public company. I was sure it was going to be a good review. We had the typical 5 scale system with 5 being the best and I wanted that 5! I walked into my boss’s office, nervous but hopeful. We walked through the review and I did it! I got the 5! Funny how important that is when you’re early in your career and the company bases pay and bonuses off a one-time per year evaluation. But (yes there was a “but) the VP two levels above my manager had some feedback for me that he wanted to discuss directly.
I scheduled the meeting with him and met with him 2 days. It was my first meeting with a VP at the company. He told me that I was “high potential” so he had advice to help me with my career. That sage advice was to change my name and cut my hair. Barbie wasn’t professional enough and would hurt my ability to have a strong “executive presence”. Having long blond hair made my image worse. Could I go by Barbara instead? What about BJ, since my middle name is Jane? No, I would rather not go by a nickname that is longer than my real name. No, I really don’t think “BJ” is any better, and could actually be worse. And, I would really prefer not to cut my hair, with my big ears and naturally curly hair, I prefer it long.
So, the result of this meeting was that I wore my hair in a bun for the next 6 months and changed my name in the directory to Barb. I did what I felt I had to do to grow my career. Luckily, that VP didn’t last long in high-tech and went back to banking. Now that I’m older and have grown my career quite well, even with the name of Barbie (hey, at least people remember it!) I realize how wrong it was to focus on my name vs. my work.
Can you hang with the boys?
I heard about what happened to Christine a few years after it occurred. She is a highly respected software engineer in the Silicon Valley. When Christine returned from her 4-month maternity she came back to a new manager, Rick. She was coming back part-time for 2 months before returning full time. Rick promptly let her know that he made the deliberate choice not to have children as “they always get in the way of a career” and he “chose to focus on work instead of family and has never regretted it”. He asked her to imagine the potential career she could have if she had made a similar choice. That is was really a shame she hadn't stay focused on engineering. She had management potential.
Christine was shocked at this career advice that seemed to demean her life choices and the love she had for her husband and daughter. She decided she shouldn’t take the last month to work part time and began staying later at work to show that she was still dedicated to the company. She was torn between work and home realizing that “work/life balance” is a joke. She felt it was all about work/life juggling and that no matter what she did, some balls would fall and someone would be let down.
On her first night working late, Rick noticed her still at her desk. He blatantly asked her if she could handle hanging with the guys. “We can be raunchy and have fun in the evenings and if you can’t handle that, you should go home”. All the guys heard this and said nothing in response, even though they had great respect for her contributions and expertise. Later they apologized to her but said nothing to the manager about that being out of line. Neither did Christine. She grinned and bared it like so many women do.
Boundaries are Different for everyone. Know your own boundaries and help others stand up for theirs.
When Sangeeta returned from Maternity leave she was excited to come back into the office. I innocently asked her how her son was. Her reply surprised me, “I don’t want to talk about my kids at work. I feel it distracts from what I’m doing here.” Wow, I thought in my head. I didn’t mean to offend her! But then I stopped to think. It’s great she was able to share this boundary with me. It’s not a boundary I have personally so I wasn't sensitive to that opinion. I’m happy to talk about my family and enjoy my colleagues taking an interest. But it was a great reminder to me that we don’t all have the same boundaries regarding what we are comfortable talking about at work or hearing at work. I was also very grateful to Sangeeta for making me aware of this boundary. While she said it with strength and confidence, I’m sure there was some degree of discomfort saying that to the VP of HR. I was also actually flattered that she felt able to share that with me.
Some boundaries are more obvious than others. Some things are more blatantly inappropriate than others. We should all try to identify our own boundaries and not be afraid to share them with our colleagues when they have been crossed, or are close to being crossed. Some things shouldn’t be tolerated at all, but there are times when we may need to help our colleagues understand. At the same time, we also must seek to understand other’s boundaries and to not be judgmental of them. Be appreciative when they share and try to respect their wishes. Clearly, stay away from the extreme, obvious offenses, but don’t expect to be perfect. We will all mess up sometimes. Be willing to apologize, learn from those mistakes, and do better in the future.