The Catch 22 of the 1970s
Lisa was already on slide six, but she knew she didn't have the attention of the group, and she was ready to call it quits.
In the darkened meeting room just off the bar of Stanley's Restaurant, there were mutterings here and there, little giggles and one outburst of laughter even though she didn't believe her presentation was not at all funny.
"Hush!" Terry, Director of Procurement for Brown Cow Dairy, finally interrupted. "I want all of us to pay attention to what Lisa's saying about this ad campaign. It could mean a make-or-break year for each of you as independent contractors."
It was 1979, and the women's movement of the 1960s had not yet reached rural Wisconsin – or at least it hadn't crept into Stanley's Restaurant.
As the new corporate communication coordinator for the regional dairy cooperative, newly hired Lisa was excited about leading the organization's corporate marketing program. She was the first woman in the entire company to hold a job beyond the clerical level.
She was telling her friends that she was the company's first female who didn't serve coffee to the men in the office.
But she was finding the coffee bit was only a small part of the challenge – even beyond the tendency of the women to call the men Mr. Chester or Mr. Luther when, at the same time, the men addressed the "girls" by their first names (Missy, Susie etc.). The real challenge was that she felt invisible – invisible even though she worked hard to come across crisp and confident in front of a group of men and those men happened to be milk truck haulers who had probably tossed hundred-pound cans of milk in and out of their trucks since high school.
But feeling invisible was not just a problem with the milk haulers. It was the whole corporate culture. One day, while meeting with representatives from another dairy cooperative located in Vermont, Mike, president of Brown Cow Dairy, failed to introduce Lisa to the visiting group, again all men. Lisa was just there but invisible when Mike went around the room to introduce everyone. She didn't count.
Lisa was ready to quit. She knew Terry, her boss, was also frustrated. The next day after the haulers meeting, he sat down with Lisa in his office to figure out what went wrong the night before at Stanley's. Lisa had worked for hours on that presentation, trying to show how every-day conversations with milk producer members of the cooperative – and prospective members – could complement and reinforce the cooperative's new ad campaign for gaining more milk from its competitors.
“Stories [and values] have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” – Sue Monk Kidd
"Let's make a list of the words you used last night which might have turned these guys off," Terry finally said. "They're not used to hearing words of authority from a woman – words they consider aggressive."
Remember, Lisa now reminds herself in recalling these particulars, this was rural Wisconsin in 1979.
Together, they came up with a list of directives ("hot button" words and phrases) to avoid in future presentations and tried to think of viable alternatives – words such as "we can get this done by..." instead of "I encourage each of you to ...," for example.
However, Lisa could see that "hot button" words were not the main problem. She felt invisible in that corporate environment, yet, at the same time, Mike hinted she was coming across as too aggressive and too intense. She couldn't understand why she could be both "invisible" (ignored) and "aggressive" (what in her mind was merely being "assertive") at the same time.
In her mind, she was caught in a "Catch 22." She was ignored by some but considered by others as an unapproachable authoritarian. How come Mike didn't seem to get the same reaction from others when he used those exact same words and phrases? What did she need to do to correct this situation?
The next day provided an answer. While walking through the accounting department, she noticed a group, all guys, gathered around the Thermo-Fax machine. They quickly scattered as she walked by – leaving an extra sheet of what they had been copying.
It was a four-color, letter-sized poster copyrighted as "Calco Productions 1966." It showed a blonde standing at a urinal, her backside to her intended audience, in calf-length black boots; tight, black leather mini-skirt; and red, free-flowing blouse. With both hands in front of her, she looked down into the drain and appeared to be urinating just like the man three urinals to her left.
In the poster, her male counterpart, brawny and dark-haired, duplicated her stance. Dressed in khakis and red-and-blue striped shirt, he glanced at her out of his right eye, unruffled but curious.
It was all Lisa needed to know. She decided to truly become "invisible." She quit her job at Brown Cow Dairy, and, over several years as an account executive for marketing firms in Milwaukee and Chicago, she learned the fundamentals of managing an advertising agency and leading a staff of creative people.
Now, at 67, she can look back on 30 years of successfully owning and managing her own advertising and marketing agency in Houston. Along the way, she learned the difference between being aggressive and assertive.
And Lisa learned how to listen to both genuine concerns and suggestions as well as gripes and distractions from associates in real time and dealing with them individually. She found herself routinely buying time for handling sticky issues by taking notes on her cell phone about individual queries that came her way through personal contact.
Her routine, simple reply to those queries: "I hear what you're saying, and I need time to think about your concerns. I'll get back to you shortly." And she did, promptly.
But, more than 40 years after her experiences at Brown Cow Dairy, Lisa now realizes the most important skill she learned in leading an enterprise is hiring the "right" people -- not necessarily the "best" people but people who reflected her values and acted accordingly on an everyday basis.
Is the opportunity for female executives to hire individuals who reflect their values (and to revamp corporate cultures) the right formula for the future, she now wonders? Could that revamping pull the women's movement from the vibrancy she felt in the 1970s into a new, exciting phase for the second decade of the 21st Century – the next step beyond “Me Too” and reproductive freedom?
Lisa's Takeaway tip from her story: Become active in the forefront of turning points in society.
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Here’s to elderhood and vulnerability!
Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF retired, author of “Opening Up” newsletter
“Story-guided Discussion for Finding Peace with Vulnerability”