Male dominated industries have beckoned me throughout my career. I was just 20 when I walked into a car dealership and asked, “What’s it like to sell cars?” I have no idea why the General Manager even entertained a conversation with me. I was on the way to my second shift job as night manager for a convenience store chain, so I was wearing my uniformed hat and smock. I also looked like I was 12.
Somehow though, the universe conspired to make me the only female saleslady in car sales that we knew of in the early 90’s. My naivety and unfailing honesty sold a ton of cars, and my sales career was born. The guys I worked with were mostly like having brothers. Super annoying most of the time, but there was an unbreakable bond created from spending 12 – 14 hours per day together. I remember being perpetually jealous of them. They got all the good demos. I had to drive an entry level car with manual windows and no AC, because the General Manager said he couldn’t afford to have his high-end cars, “Smell like diapers.” He also constantly reminded me, “The best thing I ever did was hire a broad.” I took it as a compliment.
A few years later, I went to work in another male dominated industry, selling commercial security systems. I did well at that job, too, but those guys didn’t bring me into their club the way the guys at the car dealership did. At least there were female administrative employees, so I did have folks to talk to during down times. I frequently found myself fighting for what was right. The guys were snaking leads from me (we had a rotation to keep it fair), they were excluding me from deals I brought to the company, and they were just downright assholes pretty much all the time. I didn’t realize it, though. I thought I should just work harder to make them like me, so I let a lot of stuff slide. I kept my nose clean, my head down, and I plugged away day after day.
My boss paged me one day, “Get to the office right away.” Well that’s weird. I stopped at a payphone and told him I had one more appointment and I’d be in right after. He told me to cancel the appointment and get to the office right away.
I was stunned to find the head of Human Resources, the VP of sales, and our Regional Sales Manager at the office when I got there. This was a Fortune 100 company, so these were authentic bigwigs. We assembled in the conference room, where the head of Human Resources explained they had received an anonymous letter with some pretty dire accusations. They asked if anyone wanted to fess up to the letter. No one did. They explained that they usually throw anonymous letters in the trash, but because this one had so many details in it they were forced to investigate.
I couldn’t wait to be called into the interrogation room so I could find out what kind of scandal was going on. The wait seemed like forever, and I was called in last. When I asked the guys what it was about they kind of scurried away from me, claiming they didn’t know. I believed them.
The bigwigs asked if I knew what the letter was about. “No,” I told them. They asked how I liked working there and I ticked off the benefits of my B2B job enthusiastically. They asked how I liked working with the team and I told them everything was fine. Why were they asking me that?
Then they dropped the bomb on me. “The letter was written about you, Lisa. The letter was anonymous, but it said ‘we.’ We believe the entire team wrote the anonymous letter collaboratively. Would you like to read it?” they asked.
“Well, what does it say?” I couldn’t hide my unmitigated shock.
They explained how it accused me of sleeping with our boss for leads. It said I was also sleeping with several contractors to get their leads. One by one, I went through each accusation and showed on the lead log how I had given every. single. lead. to the guys from the contractors because the buildings were too big for my level of expertise on fire code. I showed how our boss actually had to stop the guys from taking my leads on the lead rotation. I asked if they named any deals I had actually written in their accusations, and there were none. They thanked me for my time and said they would be meeting privately and would be back in the office in a few hours.
I was in a state of utter shock. Humiliation bubbled through my core and into my face. Reddened cheeks soon gave way to palpable anger, my heart pounding in my chest. How dare these guys make up such demoralizing allegations about me? Where did they even get these ideas? I pondered my fate for the next several hours while waiting anxiously for the bigwigs to return.
When they returned, we all assembled in the conference room again. One by one, the bigwigs ran through the accusations and their assessments. They glared at each of the guys and dared them to speak up against their assessments of each. My coworkers said nothing. They didn’t speak, and they didn’t even acknowledge the speakers’ questions with body language. The bigwigs told them they had considered firing the entire team, except me, but they had decided not to. They declared that instead I would be getting my own office to protect me (from my own coworkers). They explained to the guys that I would be receiving a company laptop so I wouldn’t have to go into the guys’ area to use the shared computer. They shamed those guys for even thinking what they did about me, and told them if corporate received another anonymous letter from anyone that they would all be fired, except me. They finished with the promise that I would be protected, no matter what.
It made me feel good. Power had spoken in my favor. The vicious fear-biters I worked with were shamed and put in their places. But oh my God, did those guys hate me. If I thought they hated me before, they definitely did then.
My boss later told me the whole story behind the bigwig’s private conversation with him. He had explained to them how I came back to work 21 days after giving birth, and how I paid for airfare for a sitter to come along to training so I could continue to nurse my daughter while I fulfilled my work obligations. The bigwigs went nuts over that. My boss told me that one of them slammed his fist down on the table, while exclaiming, “We will reimburse her for that sitter and her flight!” When he slammed his fist on the table, he accidentally hit his fork and sent it sailing through the air.
I worked through the remainder of my days at that job with my company provided laptop, my own office, a fat reimbursement check for my babysitting expenses, and the satisfaction of vindication. But nothing could fix the ache in my heart of feeling so loathed by my male coworkers. This was the first big lesson I got in the demoralizing need to be rescued by the patriarchy, from the patriarchy. I was rescued, but why did I need to be?