When I was very little, we had a big window in the family room, and every weekday morning when my dad would go to work, I would rush to the window and stand behind the drawn curtain facing our gravel driveway. My dad would start up the car and back out of the driveway, and my sister and I would wave to him as he drove away to work. This was before my Mom started working. I don’t have too many memories from that time as I was too young to have many experiences to lend meaning, but I do remember happy times spending days with my mother while my sister went to school, and wondering what on earth my father did all day while he was away.
Later, when I was perhaps 12 or 13, we went to Texas for the holidays to visit my grandparents. I guess
you could say it was my first experience in what would later be called “traveling for work.” The airlines lost our suitcases. So the second day we were there, my dad drove us all to downtown Houston to buy enough clothes to keep us living up to Southern standards. I didn’t grow up in a very big city, so I remember being somewhat awestruck by the large glass skyscrapers and busy metropolis of the downtown area, though Houston does not have a large downtown by any means. As we walked around the stores, giant malls spanning several bottom floors in behemoth buildings, Christmas lights twinkling and suit clad men and women bustling about, I pretended that I was a businesswoman. I rose as though ascending Heaven’s staircase up the grand escalators, chin up and dignified, clutching my teenage purse filled with lip gloss and word search. And an image formed in my heart about what I wanted to be.
When thinking of the defining moments that formed my initial image of life as a working woman, these two memories are the green lights along my long road to fruition.They crafted the foundation of what I thought I wanted my life to be. Throw in a few movies such as 9 to 5 and Norma Rae, and I saw myself as a future force in the world, shoulder pads and heroic speeches included. When Christopher Reeve’s Superman came out, I also began to form my image of a professional writer, pencil in hair.
Images. The images I created and the images I saw were actually quite different from the experiences I had just coming out of college. It went like this: Women are educated and empowered, and the moment comes when we either launch ourselves to an internship or strike out on our own with our folder of resumes to join the big wide world. In the next scene we are company heads with our own chef and we wear a bikini in heels while we take meetings at the pool.
Ok, maybe not the bikini, but that was the gist of my fantasy worklife. My actual experience read like this: I landed an internship at a stuffy PR firm run and populated solely by women who were still pissed about the shit they had to deal with to get that far, and set to work writing newsletter copy for health clients I knew nothing about. I asked for other work, I pitched ideas to my bosses, I brought in writing samples. A few months into it, it dawned on me that there had to be brighter horizons that didn’t smell so much like horse manure.
Pan forward to the image of me on the floor in my beach apartment stapling copies of my resume and stuffing them into crisp white envelopes addressed to a variety of communications firms and news outlets. I was casting a wide net but had merely guessed on the bait line. College and internship had taught me how to think, how to perform, how to manage, but not actually how to find a career. After floundering for a while, I went to the local newspaper and began writing stories for peanuts while working in a surf shop by day. But I kept writing. I would write anything that anyone assigned to me. I wrote resumes for friends, I wrote entertainment columns, I wrote restaurant reviews, I even wrote a very political piece on women’s empowerment even as I struggled to empower myself.
Other definitive moments came once I landed a few interviews with prestigious firms. In one, I was escorted gingerly to a back office where a 60-ish snow-capped effeminate man sat at an ironically oversized wooden desk. We reviewed my resume briefly but I remember spending the majority of the interview being asked about my hometown, hobbies, and restaurants in downtown. Quite honestly, the man gave me the creeps. I got an offer for that job but I didn’t take it because I didn’t feel I would be taken seriously. The second definitive moment came when another prestigious firm brought me into interview with the CEO, directly. The interview went fantastically until one startling question came: “What would you do to get ahead?” No joke, he asked me that. I fumbled through an answer but visibly unsettled, I left that firm with a sick feeling and internal questions about the darker aspects of the working world.
I would hope things are better now, that women don’t have as many of those experiences where they are basically viewed at best, as less than capable, and at worst, as accessories. But hurdles remain. If you are a strong woman with a solid work ethic, you will nevertheless be judged on your “likeability.” The worst is being unable to ascend a corporate ladder, not because of skill or ineptitude, but sadly, because you are a threat to other women. You may also still find, unless you own your own business, that your salary is not the same as your male counterpart’s.
I do think that women have more range, more possibilities now than when I first struck out upon the workforce. Social media has leveled the playing field a lot, by acting as both a cultural commentary and inequality whistleblower. Women have stepped up to challenges by bringing innovation into the workplace. Innovation in traditional work hours, innovation in use of companion technology, and innovation in approach. In other words, where women found roadblocks, they started building new roads. More women lead corporations and political campaigns. In a new form of Norma Rae’s standoff, our buttons protest outdated family leave policies and new 3-D printed hi-tech “glass” ceilings. And that car that drives off in the morning, children waving from windows, imaginations filled with wonder about their parent’s day job, is increasingly driven by a female.
So, my career journey that started with images of my Father dressing and driving off to work, of women crisscrossing busy city streets in suits and heels, scurrying to offices, voicing strong opinions and winning, getting assigned to the lead story, standing up for workers rights, or changing the world was not, in fact, reality.
Reality was more like, woman goes off to college, feels empowered, feels educated, is thrust upon world, like heat from a flame thrower only to be patted on the head and asked to make another pot of coffee.
Eventually, I changed that image to woman spurns outdated positions, goes rogue, gets streetwise, launches real career built on capacity. It wasn’t pretty. Along the way, I got into community politics and had a stint working for City Council before I moved on to the equally political but less egocentric field of corporate communications. Many years and many hurdles later, I finally feel like that “businesswoman” I had imagined. Turns out she wears converse to work, has colleagues over the world and takes meetings on her iPhone while driving her kids to sports. But I still have lip gloss in my purse.