The shrill alarm rudely broke the morning silence. I'd been awake most of the night thinking about what I would be facing. I threw back the covers, and headed for the shower. This was my big day. I was going from a job as a part-time receptionist at a small insurance agency to one as a big time Customer Service Representative at a downtown company. It was a gigantic step for me.
Getting ready that morning was a major endeavor. I wanted to look sharp and professional. I prayed the wardrobe that Id so carefully chosen might help bolster the confidence I lacked. Everything had to be just right. I finished styling my hair, put on my new Nordstoms power suit, and slipped into new matching shoes. Gulping down the last of my morning coffee, I quickly kissed my husband goodbye. "Good luck, Dear. You look great," he called as I went out the door. He had no idea of how much luck I was really going to need that day.
The eighteen-mile commute into Seattle was bumper to bumper. By the time I arrived I was a complete wreck. Already sick to my stomach, I stepped into the elevator in a panic. To make matters worse the new shoes were hurting my feet, and the suit was hot and uncomfortable.
Reaching the sixth floor, I summoned up all my courage, squared my shoulders, and with great bravado walked into the office. Toni, the office manager met me at the door. As before, when I interviewed for the job, she was holding a cigarette with precariously hanging ashes. Toni was a two-pack-a-day, smoke-blowing little lady. She grabbed my hand, and in her husky middle-aged voice said, "You are going to love it here. Now dont you worry about a thing, Honey."
She seemed completely unaware of her clouds of unwanted cigarette smoke. And there was no doubt about it. Honey was my new name. Aside from the fact that she was asphyxiating me with her smoke, and doing the Honey this and Honey that thing, Toni was friendly in a motherly sort of way. But when she introduced me to the other employees, I had the strange feeling that they were feeling sorry for me.
I had only met one of the three owners, Mr. Patterson, when I interviewed, and I asked her when I would meet the other two, Mr. Carson and Mr. Miller. "Oh, you will meet them when they ask to meet you," she said. "Now dont be nervous, Honey. Everything is going to be just fine."
After showing me the office, she took me to the desk next to hers, and gave me a stack of policy attachments. Toni worked at her typewriter while I worked with the attachments. With her beloved cigarette pursed between her lips, and her fingers flying over the keyboard, she typed merrily away. Shed only stop long enough to take some long lingering drags and flick off her ashes. My head was throbbing from the stress, my throat hurting from the smoke, and my toes pinching from the shoes, but I worked diligently. I was determined to do well. It was then that I first heard the noise.
Clinkclinkclink. I looked up from my work, and there in an office right across from me sat this owl-like, bespectacled, bald man. Glowering at me he shakily held up a glass and tapped it with his pen. "Toni," I asked, "why is that man tapping on his glass and looking at me?" She looked alarmed and replied, "Honey, thats Mr. Carson. He wants you to get him ice water."
Now this was in the early seventies, before politically correct and smokeless offices were the norm, but even back then I was completely stunned. Fetching water to a man that summoned me by clinking his glass was definitely not in my job description. My new mentor whispered, "Hurry, Honey! Theres ice in the refrigerator. He gets crabby when he doesnt get his water."
So in the beginning there was the "Ice Water King."
My first thought was to tell the dreadful man to get his own water. But how could I do that? He was the boss. So I walked over and got his glass. That first day he shoved the glass into my hands without so much as a hello. There was no introduction, and no thank you. I later learned that he was a heavy drinker, and the ice water quenched his thirst until he could make it to lunch and the first of many martinis.
The task of getting Mr. Carsons water always went to the newest female employee. I was wondering what I would tell my husband about his power dressed wife, and her first day on the job. My pride and my feet hurt. So this was life in a big city.
That wretched man eventually learned my name, and on the rare occasions when he was feeling charitable and cheery, he actually used it. And when he wasnt too hung over, I had the joyous experience of his insurance lessons. "Now, Sharon, repeat for me again what co-insurance is. Very good Sharon. It is important you know what you are talking about when you are working with my clients." He treated me like a child who should be forever grateful that she had such a wise and good teacher. When I complained to Toni, she patted me on the shoulder and said, "But, Honey, he likes you. He thinks you are the smartest girl here. He wants you to handle his clients exclusively." In light of his condescending chauvinism, that was no consolation.
And I learned that I should never complain to Toni, or share anything with her that I didnt want the whole world to know. I discovered that my motherly mentor was a collector. She collected information about everyone there, and shared it with the owners. She told it all. Every mistake, misdeed, and secret. I swear that woman heard people whispering across the room. If she got wind that someone was ready to ask for a raise, shed be sure to let the owners know beforehand, so they could prepare to say no. When it came to Toni, I learned to watch my back.
Not only was she the favored spy, but she further ingratiated herself by working after hours. She made sure she told everyone about her selfless devotion to duty and the long hours that she worked. About two years after I started working there disaster struck on one of those nights she worked late. Right after she left, the office went up in flames. The fire started by Tonis desk.
What we all believed, but what never was confirmed, is that her ashes fell into the wastebasket, smoldered there, and eventually caught on fire. We arrived the next morning to a charred and gutted office. Only the files in the fireproof cabinets survived. Firemen were still mopping up when we arrived. The poor Ice Water King had to go home and start drinking early that day. And Toni? Poor little Toni was in tears. She just had no idea how such a fire could have happened.
Amazingly they didnt fire Toni, and unbelievably she kept right on smoking. We did notice though, that she was much more careful about her ashes. The reason we were given for the fires cause was that Tonis dictation machine might have had a short in it. Do you think we believed that? Certainly not. We all knew how careless Smoking- Woman was with her ashes. She was a cousin of Mr. Patterson, and that no doubt helped her. And they obviously found her watch and tell activities valuable.
Doubly beholden after the fire, Toni fine-tuned her spying skills into an art form. And Mr. Carson was so upset that he needed more water than ever. He was so shaky and sad looking that I almost felt sorry for him. Crammed into a small temporary office we all were working overtime. Never mind that there was insurance money to pay for extra help. Toni thought we should all work extra unpaid hours to help our dear employers out. I was tired. Tired of the long hours, the devious Toni, and the detestable Mr. Carson. The office was burned out. And I was too. It was time to get another job.
Despite the stress and unhappy circumstances I faced working for that company, I did manage to learn a great deal about insurance. It didnt take me long to find a new and better paying job. Finally, I was able to tell the petulant Mr. Carson a not-so-fond farewell. Toni said he was devastated. I just bet he was. Not only was I a good little water-fetcher, but I sold lots of insurance. I didnt make any commission. But he sure did. And the poor fellow was not so devastated that he offered me more money to stay. Unthinkable. I made plenty good moneyfor a woman.
Today when I tell people about this expeerience, they ask me how I tolerated working there. But at the time, it was all too common for women to be treated like that in the office. The womans movement was blossoming, but it had not yet made a huge impact. I smile with a delayed sense of justice, every time I think that today, good old Mr. Carson could be sued for behaving like that.
Im happy to say that things got better for me as time went on. I moved into better jobs with improved pay, and ended up managing a large personal lines department in a downtown agency. I have seen first hand how opportunities and salaries improved for women over the past thirty years. Looking at all the womens progress, it might be easy to echo those Virginia Slim commercials, and say, "Youve come along way Baby."
Butwait a minute. How far have women really come? Not nearly far enough, Baby. Not nearly far enough. Yes, women have made tremendous progress in closing the gap. But they still lag behind men in salary and opportunity. Men still dominate virtually every important political, social, cultural, and economic institution.
Despite all my progress, I always struggled as a woman in a male dominated industry. Although my salary dramatically improved, it was still less than most of the men in similar positions. And unfortunately, I found that there were still those Mr. Carson types to watch out for. Today they are sneakier and their actions are more subtle and insidious. They might not ask you to get their coffee or water, but they find snide little ways of telling you, that is exactly what you should be doing. Theyll sigh and talk about the good old days when a busy man was shown some consideration.
And how about the fine fellow, another manager in my office, who made like my best buddy? He would come to chat, and pick my brain for ideas. One day, in an office meeting, that weasel put forth one of my ideas as his. I was furious. His lame excuse was that he thought the top management would be more likely to listen to him than me.
There are also the ones that try to mask their bad intentions by emphatically using politically correct language. Their words of honey, dripping with venom, and their body language give them away. They might say things like, "Oh, shes a real little go-getter alright," but they say it with the intonation that really says, "Shes a real bitch." Yes, those Mr. Carsons are still lurking around out there.
But this is by no means a male-bashing discourse. I can honestly say that most of the men I worked for, and with, including those that were under my supervision, were friends and allies. And as I found out with Toni, all the nasty people in the work place arent men. There are plenty trouble-making women as well. Some women have developed a persona that can shred anyone who gets in their way. And believe me I have been in their pathway too. You dont have to be a male to be a sexist. We not only have the piranha women who want to prove how tough they are, but the would-be-victims, who sit with their antennas out, just waiting to catch a man saying the wrong thing. Some genuinely nice men, who have only the best of intentions, are afraid to say much of anything to a woman for fear they will be misconstrued.
But putting the natural born troublemakers from both sexes aside, it certainly became clear to me during my career, that even amongst the best intentioned men and women there is always a battle of sorts. Men and women often have trouble understanding each other. And our cultural conditioning has a lot to do with that. We have some stereotypical ideas of what women and men are supposed to be like. Couple that with the fact that we have some natural differences in the way we communicate, and you are at the root of sexist behavior.
We are conditioned from the time we are babies on what behavior is typical for our sex. What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice. What are little boys made of? Frogs and snails and puppy dog tails. The message is that girls should be sweet, submissive and nice. But boys? Well, boys are made of tougher stuff and expected to act accordingly.
And just how does society say we should behave? Our typical picture of a "real man" shows him to be mechanical, scientific, ambitious and assertive, in control of his emotions, and knowledgeable. Whereas we see a "real woman" as emotional, dependant, domestic and nurturing, preoccupied with her appearance, and maternal. Scientists keep trying to determine to what degree gender behavior is caused by basic biological differences and to what degree by socialization (Cyrus 59). I believe that both biological and cultural conditions play a role in how we see ourselves. The fact is, though, no matter what causes these perceptions, they can lure us into the trap of stereotyping, and creating myths regarding gender. And those perceptions influence our behavior. My Ice Water King experience is a good example of that.
When I first started working, I had the idea that a womans true place was in the home, and if she worked away from home, it was only to supplement the family income. I really didnt think I deserved to make as much money as men, because men, after all, were the primary providers. As a child I was taught that it was more important for the men to be educated, because they supported the family. My parents theory was that boys get educated and girls get married. So with those perceptions, it is easy to see how I allowed myself to be the willing water-fetcher.
Of course, many of the Ice Water Kings problems were caused by alcoholism, but no doubt much of his chauvinism stemmed from his perception of what it meant to be a man. He truly believed he was superior and smarter than women were, and that was reason enough to justify his bad behavior. He was a product of his time. When I worked for him twenty-seven years ago, he was in his mid-sixties. He was of a generation that that had even more limiting ideas of men and womens roles than mine.
And what about the two-faced Toni? She probably didnt even realize it, but she believed the stereotype, that women were not as good or as smart in business as men. She believed it so much that she felt she had to do something extra to keep her job. So she became the office spy.
Toni is not the only woman who believed she had to do something extra to make it in the business world. Negative perceptions cause many women to believe that they cant make it on their own merit. I have known some women who slept their way to the top. One female insurance executives affairs were legendary. She actually worked her way up to a Vice Presidency. She was one of the most hated women in the industry, and was affectionately known as Ms. Ball Breaker. Not only did she have affairs, but the more power she attained, the more arrogant and mean she became. Here she was in a time when women struggled against the "Good Old Boy," mentality, and what did she do? She became a good old boy herself. The sad thing is that this woman was intelligent, attractive, and capable. She probably could have made it without such tactics. I guess it is justice of sorts that one day her dynasty came crashing in around her, when someone, no doubt somebody she crushed on the way up, investigated her credentials and found that she had claimed a college degree she didnt have.
So it is clear that our own conscious or unconscious perceptions about being a man or woman affect our behavior. Once we can get a clearer understanding of what motivates our behaviors, we can take some steps to throw off negative perceptions. We not only have to learn to control our negative perceptions, but we need to understand that we have culturally conditioned and natural differences in how we communicate. I can think of far too many office problems that started not out of meanness, but because both men and women just didnt feel they were being heard or understood by the other gender.
Author Deborah Tannen, compares cross-gender communication to cross-culture communication. Just as we attempt to bridge gaps between cultures, by learning how they communicate, we need to do the same between genders. Cross-gender communication is not unlike cross-cultural communication. If we can understand that neither style is better than the other is, and in how these styles vary, we have taken the first important step in bridging the gender-gap.
I want to be careful here not to build more stereotypes. Although there are two different styles, there are wide variances among individuals. Candy Tymson, a business communication expert, says that generally speaking men use an Informational Style that preserves independence and maintains their position in the group, and women use a Relational Style that generates a connecting intimacy. The Information Style is a means to negotiate, and maintains status. The Relationship Style is a way of negotiating relationships. Women tend to discuss things with others, seek their input and feedback before making recommendations, and they want everyone to feel that they have contributed to the decisions. In contrast, men usually make the decision on their own or by only by asking for discreet consultation. They tend to believe that too much input takes away from their position of being in charge.
Tymson goes on to say that we generally have different styles of body language. A female director described a meeting of senior executives, half men and half women. All the women were nodding and saying things like "yes", "O.K.", "I understand", while all the men remained motionless except for writing some notes. The men focussed only on the subject being discussed. Whereas, the women, focussed on the speakers and tried to relate to them. The head nodding was a means to build rapport, but might not mean that they actually agreed with the speaker.
It is not hard to see how misunderstanding and irritations happen given these two distinctively difference styles. Men might not understand what seems obvious to women at all, and the reverse is true for women. But we can solve so many problems if we make an attempt to understand the way the opposite gender approaches life. Once we grasp on to why and how we have differences we can start bridging the gap.
I suppose there will always be some battles between men and women, but I know we can do better. For me it has been a continuing battle. As I progressed in my career, and gained confidence my perceptions changed. I realized that my job was important, my contributions valuable, and my work deserving of equal treatment and pay. And I did learn to communicate and understand men better over the years. I listened with an ear to where they were coming from, and I asked them to listen the same way to me. Yes, I have come a long, long way. But I keep on traveling. I keep traveling because I have not come nearly far enough. I keep traveling farther and farther away from the days of the Ice Water King.
Cyrus, Virginia. Experiencing Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1999.
Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand. Sound Ideas. Magnetic Tape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Tymson, Candy. "Business Communications--Bridging the Gender Gap." 6 Nov.
2000. 24 Nov. 2000