My first exposure to women working in business was through my Mom. Fresh from a divorce, she was thrust into the working world while balancing a home life and two precious boys. It was from this experience I learned that Mom encountered the harsh realities of the working world in the late 70s and early 80s.
There may have been equal opportunity at this time but, from what I was told, there were far different experiences for women and men. Women seemed to still be struggling for equality.
Partly out of economic necessity and partly from desire, I started working as soon as I was legally able. With my first job, as a grocery store bag boy, I encountered women in the workplace. That job drew roles along strict gender lines. The women and teenage girls ran the cash registers and the teenage boys bagged the groceries and got the shopping carts from the parking lot. As one of the younger employees on staff at that time, it seemed to me that the business world wanted a pretty, smiling, female face to customers. As I got older and wiser to the ways of the working world, I became aware of what working with women meant to me.
Early in my career, I worked with women side by side on the retail sales floor. This was my first career. Women were in many different roles: sales associate, supervisor, assistant store manager and store manager, I supervised some and interacted with them all. Women were everywhere. In my experience, these women were all hard working and approached their roles conscientiously. They were evidence to me that progress had been made on their behalf.
The other bonus was that their care and compassion influenced all of us. When I left one retail job, all the women chipped in and prepared a going away gift. Since we were leaving the state, the gifts were all combined into a cooler. I was genuinely touched by the gesture and the cooler is still in use many years later.
There were both good and bad examples of both sexes in the workplace. In one place I worked the female owner was a savvy business person. She hung Christmas stockings with care on the cube walls and filled it with surprises. But, when it was determined you weren’t wanted around anymore, watch out. Work became a full on, pressure-filled, stress inducing, witch hunt in which everything was put under a microscope. The only ending to this chapter of my work life was a firing via progressive disciplinary action, the only one I’ve experienced in my life. To counter this there were a few other female bosses who I worked with who were great.
The best way to describe both of these great bosses was how they managed us. If you can imagine for a minute that work is a playground and your boss is a monitor of that playground, you’ll understand what it was like working on those teams. We were free to explore and experiment within the team and they provided some defense for the work we were doing.
And working with these women was not without a run in with sexism, I recall that a purchase order needed to be signed. My manager gave it to me to take downstairs to be signed. I took it downstairs to the corner office and presented it to the sales manager, a male. He signed it without a hesitation and I returned to give it to my manager. At first, I didn’t think anything of it but, something about they look she gave me when I returned gave me something to ponder.
Women co-workers offered another range of experiences. Some we’re backstabbing and conniving. In one instance, I was ignored as new office layout was being determined and desks were being ordered despite what the manager had requested of us. So, I did what anyone in this position would do, I requested a meeting to discuss, even going so far as to ask her about it face to face. She never responded, and I never chose to bump this situation up the ladder, there were more important things to focus my attention.
Other women co-workers became great workmates and when the opportunity came to share my knowledge with them, they were open to the opportunity. These opportunities overshadowed the negative ones by miles and made work (more) worth doing. For me, the overarching theme with women in business has been a bonus in my work life.4