Yes, yes, we know already: Carly’s abrupt departure from HP leaves just eight women CEOs atop Fortune 500 companies. But it’s just as lonely in corporate America’s vast, anonymous middle. Sure, employers are trying to fill the talent pipeline with women, but let’s face it: Business is still a man’s realm. It doesn’t have to be; it shouldn’t be. But it is, all the same. Women often sell their extra X chromosome just to stay in the game.
I know. I played the game by the boys’ rules myself. I once had a glorified sales job in a male-dominated department. The hiring manager had said, “We could use a woman to balance things out.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I was grateful to have work. At first, that is. As times got tougher, the job changed. Translation: I cold-called for my supper.
As much as I hated this work, there were some redeeming aspects. At trade shows, I occasionally had enjoyable conversations with people, some of them nonprospects, who told me very interesting things: the state of the industry, how our product was perceived, what they would or would not pay for it. It turned out I was good at building relationships.
At one of these confabs, I was obliged to tour the floor with my new boss, who wanted to show me how schmoozing the client should be done. “You don’t talk enough,” he said. “You let the customer dominate. You should be taking control of conversations.”
I didn’t agree with him. I had learned by then that just listening, enjoying those conversations with people, gaining their trust — arguably, acting like a woman — often opened the door to opportunities later on. It was about much more than the cold (and basically useless) 90-50-10 prospect calculation that was expected of me on an Excel spreadsheet once a week. But I wanted to keep my accounts, so I let my boss take over my client meetings. I just smiled and handed out cards.
Over beers that evening, I joined in the postmortem and added color commentary to my boss’s insults of our customers: “Stupid cow. Can’t even understand the product . . .” I wanted to fit in the best way I knew how — by being one of the guys.
But as the boss and my other colleagues got drunker, the conversation progressed to our administrative assistant, a woman. Apparently, she had gone over their heads and asked to be moved out of her position. She had been promised, yet again, that if she put in a good effort for a year or so, the boss would “see what he could do for her.” She had finally decided that “we’ll see” wasn’t enough.
My boss’s attention turned toward me: What would I do about the admin? I knew what I was supposed to say (“Can her ass!”), but that’s not what I was thinking. All this woman wanted was to be heard. Hell, that’s all our customers wanted too. Honestly, I was proud of the admin for speaking up — but that view would hardly go over with this crowd. So I said what I thought was politic.
“What she did was a stupid thing,” I said. “But she’s still young. Don’t fire her for it.”
My boss jumped on me. Not only had I sold out, I had done so unconvincingly. I didn’t have what it took to sell to clients, he said. I had brains but not guts. More words were said — the sort that, had I not taken them to heart, might have yielded a handsome harassment-suit settlement. I really felt I wasn’t man enough to handle the job. And I did the worst thing one can do when trying to be a man: I excused myself to go cry.
“My boss thought we got the win because of chutzpah, aggression, balls. He was wrong.”
A week later, I signed our largest client. When the contract arrived, my boss dropped it on my desk. “Here,” he said. “Cry over this.” His point was, all the nastiness and degradation were worth it for this big deal. He thought we got the win because of chutzpah, because we were aggressive, because we had balls.
He was dead wrong.
Looking back, I don’t regret not being man enough to handle the job.
I regret not being woman enough. I came to understand what the hiring manager had meant about needing feminine balance. We had no problems closing business, but we had a hell of a time keeping it. In feedback meetings, customers complained that they’d felt duped during the sales process, but the “nice girl in customer service was great.”
I quit a few months later, when I felt depleted, or, I suppose, misused. All the things that led to my getting the job — the “great communication, creative, and people skills,” had been chopped into cells and pasted into a spreadsheet. And they didn’t transfer very well into Excel.
So, where are all the women who haven’t made CEO? Perhaps, like me, they gave it a go in a male-dominated corporation. Perhaps, like me, they humiliated themselves. They had to do something to fit in — accept lower pay, take on menial tasks because they’re praised as being “more organized than the guys,” agree not to make a stink. But most of all, conspire not to act like women.
Consider that the nation’s largest-growing group of entrepreneurs are women. Carly will bounce back into some other boardroom. But many working girls with faux pearls don’t want to get burned again. We see no other way but out.
Jory Des Jardins blogs at www.jorydesjardins.com.