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Response #3: “It’s an interesting choice.”

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This is a response not directly to but rather inspired by both Kate and Erika. Kate reminded me how much I’ve missed childhood lately, and Erika talked about her run-in with Oscar de la Renta complete with this gem of a quotation: “Never in history has there been a time when a woman has as much control over her destiny as she does today.” Thanks to their posts the wheels in my head went round and round, and now I have something to say on a topic not nearly discussed enough: women in the workplace.

Over Thanksgiving break I asked my mother to tell me stories of my childhood days. She retold what is arguably her favorite, likely because it speaks to my personality today. I was three and my mother had just been informed by the head nun at my Catholic preschool that I’d not be able to return due to behavioral issues. What was my cardinal sin? “Well, Mrs. Young, Tara had not eaten her lunch during the designated time because she was talking. When it came time to clean up and go to recess, we tried to throw out her lunch, and she responded by screaming, crying, and refusing to leave the table until she had finished eating.” Within a minute’s time my mother learned a) her only daughter could not go without a meal, and b) she was a loudmouth brat. Needless to say, Momma was mortified.

If I had the chance to go back and do it over again, I would change one thing. I’d have scrawled “FOOD” with a bright red crayon on the back of a paper plate, then stood on top of the lunch table, holding my sign high for all to see. I may have really gotten the boot then, but at least Norma Rae would have been proud.

I stand by my protest not because I’m hungry at present (I am) nor because I think an unjustified tantrum is how to win the day (I do). I stand by it because a fan of double standards I am not. Had I been a boy acting in such a fashion, I’m positive the nuns would have written it off as “boys will be boys” syndrome. But because I was a girl, my behavior was an issue, and it needed to be dealt with.

Fast forward two decades, and I find echoes of this behavioral double standard in the workplace. In my experience, albeit limited, a woman who goes against the grain is more often than not seen as a troublemaker, as emotional, as an issue. A man who fights this same battle is seen as someone with a valid concern. A woman who goes with the flow is not seen at all. Today women have more high-paying jobs and management positions than ever before. Yet at the same time, the roles of secretary and administrative assistant are still the most prevalent occupations for women. Puzzling, no? Perhaps it is because these positions allow for more time to be spent at home with the family (reasonable answer). Or perhaps it is because in these roles women find the most positive reinforcement, validation, and support in the workplace (uncomfortable answer).

In my opinion, and I’m sure to offend someone with this, women in the workplace fall into two categories: the secretaries and the ball-busters. Secretaries (a group that includes more than those in secretarial roles) are those women who play nice, defer to their bosses without hesitation, and prefer harmony over getting the job done in the most effective manner. Ball-busters (again, not in the literal sense) speak up at the risk of causing conflict, defer to reason over authority, and care about earning respect for their work vs. their kindness.

In my less than three years in the workplace, it seems I’m still that three-year-old. I stand up for myself, but oftentimes my arguments get mixed with my emotions. I’ve become a hybrid of the two categories, and it’s plain uncomfortable. My thinking tends to be black and white, and I’d rather fit into one category. I give you one guess as to which I prefer. Plus, as it turns out, if I subtract emotion from the equation, I come closer to being seen similarly to the man with a valid concern. But giving up my inner secretary and going full ball-buster is a move I’m not quite prepared for. After all, I was trained by nuns to be a kind-hearted, harmony-seeking lady. And not to use my experience as hard evidence, but I’ve seen grown men throw emotion-laden tantrums in the workplace, get their way, and still be viewed as professional. I repeatedly told my father growing up, and say again now, “If the boys get to do it, then so do I.”

Of course, feminist politics and gender relations in the workplace are much more complicated than my ramblings, and there are numerous categories of working women beyond the two I’ve concocted.

Thus, I’m crowdsourcing your wisdom, because I can’t wrap my brain around this issue. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it, and I know there are people out there who know more and come with better informed opinions than I. Here are the questions I need answered: Why is it that women who command money, power, and respect are regarded as bitchy, robotic, or masculine? Can’t they just be viewed as smart, hard-working people, much like their male counterparts? Isn’t there a way to balance harmony and ambition? Can’t women be emotional and successful?

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One Response

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  1. Tara,
    Your recollection is a little off. The nun was upset because you were playing on the awesome playground equipment instead of eating your lunch. You were supposed to eat first. So, when it was time to pack up your picnic lunch & go inside, you started screaming that you wanted to eat. But since Gingerbread House was on a strict schedule, Sister would have none of that(pun intended).
    On your real topic of women in the workplace, I understand your frustration and feel your pain. Although women have made serious gains in the workplace, the difference in being regarded as a “bitch” or a terrific manager is a very difficult road to manage. One defining quality is self-confidence and the ablity to not second-guess your decisions. A second one is a “people-person” quality; one in which you can empathize with your workers and see issues from their perspective while still maintaining your own belief system.. Yes, unfortunately, women do have to work harder at the “top” jobs to prove they are as capable (usually more so) than men. In my experience(old as it is) women without children have an easier time rising to the top or they have a mother or a nanny that lives with them or a husband who is willing to assume the role of a “wife”. As much as women want to believe that they can have it all, something has to give…You can’t do it all: high powered job, marriage, family, lovely home, time for one self, activities…something HAS to give. So you set priorities and each woman decides what is most important in her life and does the best she can. And while you’ll have a hard time belieiving this, and even though I love my chosen career of teaching, my #1 priority has always been my family. I love my family first and foremost;everything else is a means to take care of them.
    While you are impatient to get things done yesterday,it is because you are filled with ideas, energy, and wisdom. Temper your impatience;your brilliance will get you to your destination. Be kind and people will admire and respect you.

    Elvera Young

    December 7, 2010 at 5:09 am


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