Well, of course I take notes. I got out of college with good grades. I got to the ABD (all-but-dissertation) stage of graduate school with boxes of file cards recording details and dry statistics from scholarly journals. And presently I am at the point of my life where so much information is packed into my brain (wry sarcasm here) that I find it helpful to write things down to remember them. But like many women my age or older, we wanted to make certain that we were not mistaken for the secretary or the assistant and so, in climbing our career ladder, we refused to perform some of the basic functions that were necessary in the workplace. For some of us, it backfired a bit, like the brilliant and accomplished woman I’m currently coaching who can’t type and needs to rely on temps to update her resume.
When I worked at The Times, my first promotion gave me the responsibility for Circulation Research. I grabbed onto it with both hands and designed a two-week orientation program for myself that had me shadowing every major job in circulation including hanging out at a depot at 5 am to watch how the paper traveled from the presses to the drivers to the depot to the home delivery people. It was a great example of a junior employee taking initiative and inspired the V.P. of Circulation to write me a note, “This is quite impressive. When are you planning to do my job?” He was as good as his word and even allowed me to shadow him for a day.
My boss was impressed, too, and took me to a high level meeting, asking me on the way in if I could take notes?
“I don’t take notes,” I replied.
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t take notes. I think the women in the room are always the ones who get asked to take notes and until we start refusing it’ll stay that way.”
She was older than I was. Helen Gurley Brown wrote her favorite book on career development. She looked at me incredulously. We went into the meeting and she took notes. She never mentioned it again.
Years later, many jobs later, I was the CEO of a market research company and we were acquired by a very large, German research company. I was invited to sit on one of the international industry boards our parent company had set up. The head of that board, when issuing the invitation, explained to me that the newest member was required to take the minutes of each monthly meeting.
“I’m so sorry but I don’t take notes. I will be the only woman on that board. And while I know you are not basing that request on gender but on tenure, I think it sets a bad example to have the only woman on the board keep the minutes.”
Another board member took notes.
Jump ahead many more years and I am in another stage of my career and I have returned to school. I am working toward my accreditation as an executive coach. The class has 10 women and 4 men and I am the oldest person in the class. We have been asked to break into small groups and discuss a group coaching assignment. At the end of the discussion, one person from each group will get up and share with the class the groups’ conclusions.
As we begin, one of the young women asks, “Who wants to take notes?” and without thinking, and, in hindsight, quite idiotically, I reply, “I don’t take notes.”
“Of course you don’t,” she says in a tone that dripped with sarcasm.
Now we’ve pledged honesty and directness in this class and so I have to ask her what that means.
“It means that you think you’re better than us. You were a CEO, CEOs don’t take notes, and they don’t do the menial things.” A few other group members rose to my defense but it was an eye opening interaction for me. This woman saw me on a power trip while I saw myself making a stand for women. She had never experienced a workplace where the professional women in the room were mistaken for assistants. She never experienced a workplace where they didn’t count male secretaries and assistants among their number. She had no clue that this was once a battle in every office.
To be sure, there are still battles to be fought for equality in the workplace. But was I tilting at windmills, fighting a battle that had been over for decades?
This past week, an article in The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, commented about Emma Walmsley, the new CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, and the most powerful businesswoman in Britain, was called Triff by her friends at university, apparently because she had “t’riffic tits.” Outrageous of course, but it is the Daily Mail.
Last month, one of my physicians (male), a very prestigious doctor at a very prestigious teaching hospital in New York City, told me that there was no longer any gender discrimination in this country. In fact, he, said, we need to start worrying about the young men who have been emasculated by the social change of the last few decades. This important doctor believed he was seeing men behaving more deferentially in work. They needed to remember they were men!
I left his office speechless and depressed. The same day I am writing this, two major studies were released: Lean In and McKinsey and Company released Women in the Workplace 2016 and She Runs It (AWNY) released Accelerating the Path to Leadership. Both studies use data to compellingly describe the barriers to women in the workplace.
There is much work to be done. We may no longer get asked to take notes or get coffee; that battle is long won. But the war is still raging on.
“Women face enough pressures and challenges in a workplace that is still depressingly biased against a female’s success.”