I Know How it Feels

Council of the Baltic Sea States Summit 2012…when the handshake isn’t returned…when the answers to your questions are directed to the man in the room…when the good point you make is ignored until it is restated by your male peer…when eye contact is not made, invitations are not extended, emails are not returned, smiles are for the wrong reasons, hard work is not rewarded, …

As a woman executive in a technology field I’ve often been asked if it was harder for me to progress through my career as a woman. When I try to think of the big stories, I come up empty-handed. I was not blatantly discriminated against. No boss ever hit on me. I wasn’t asked to get the coffee or clean up the dishes in the break room. I have done well in my career. I started as an engineer and have been at the VP level at several exciting companies. Based on outward signs I’ve “made it”. But there is something not quite right about the journey that I only now am able to articulate and even now it is blurry and inconclusive.

The challenges faced by a woman in business are usually very subtle and thus are often dismissed or minimized. As a 30-year-old manager working with a Korean supplier I was surprised to find that the leaders would only talk with the men on my team. They would not shake hands with me. I had to convey my messages through the guys to get action. It was appalling and disheartening. But hey, this was another country with cultural hang-ups. It wouldn’t happen in the US…. But it did. As I rose through the ranks and engaged with other companies I realized that some men across the table did not make eye contact with me. Perhaps they answered my questions, but the answer was directed at the man in the room. At the end of the meeting there were awkward moments when I stuck my hand out with no response from the other. It was subtle. Maybe no one else saw. But I saw it and felt the impact.

The first reaction to a discriminatory snub is disbelief. That didn’t really happen, did it? I must be imagining. And then you try to write it off. It wasn’t personal. I don’t need to be bitchy about it. And then anger creeps in. What the heck. I was just dissed. Finally, you try to fix it. I’ll be more direct. I’ll call the guy on the phone.  A happy ending to this kind of cycle is when I pull the offender to my side. I show him my capabilities and he comes around. He listens and I’m given respect. Ah, but the energy expended takes a toll.

Next time I’m asked if it was harder for me as a woman I plan to say yes. But the stories aren’t grand and there is nothing obvious about the slightly steeper slope that I had to climb, but it was steeper for many subtle reasons.

I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”                              Nora Ephron, screenwriter

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