And of course there was discrimination. The question that they asked was, “Did I ever feel it?” And not at work, I didn’t. There were not a lot of women, and there were hardly any black women, but the biggest push that I got at work was my age. It was that I was too young to have this kind of responsibility. Ursula Burns, CEO Xerox, Bloomberg Businessweek, Aug 12, 2013.
I had an appointment with the new senior scientist. I showed up promptly on time. She was sitting at a small table in front of an oversized desk inside an oversized office. The problem was she was crying.
I stopped and said I could come back later. She said no, just give her a moment, and then we’ll start. I sat down.
After a moment I offered, “Are you OK?” She said she was fine, but that she had not expected to find discrimination against women going on at this prestigious institution. After a moment and feeling a bit brave and curious I asked “what happened?”
She quietly listed off things such as being ignored by the other senior managers, not being included in impromptu hallway discussions, and being given trivial assignments by the center’s director such as showing a VIP around. She continued on in this manner describing her experiences but my mind was reeling with surprise.
She was describing what I had experience all my life. Yet, I’m a caucasian American male. You know, the alleged privileged class that the world gives everything to.
What I was hearing was what typically happened to me when I was not part of the inner circle, an outsider to any group. I was just about always an outsider primarily, I had come to realize, because of my passion for “doing it right” and my quirky (I call it creative) ideas. Add to that the fact that I always looked 10 years younger than I was (which is great now) I always had to fight hard to get the respect and attention I needed to get a job done.
My thoughts were “she’s still an outsider but doesn’t get it!” Here she was labelling her observations as sex discrimination. I absolutely agree that it was discrimination but I had great doubts from her description that it was because she was female plus the fact that one of the “insiders” was a female senior manager.
Years earlier, I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force. While I was 25 years old, I’d been told I looked like I was 15. It was hard to get anyone to pay serious attention to me when I was trying to get something done. My best strategy was to walk into the middle of an office and just stand there and look lost. It was amazing how many people would come running to help out “the poor little Lieutenant.” They figured they would help me find the right room or even the bathroom. Instead I’d pelt them with detailed questions and ask for needed actions on one of my projects. That always surprised them and it was then too late for them to escape.
Going shopping as a young man was always frustrating until I broke the code. If I walked into a big appliance or furniture store or a new car lot it was nearly impossible to get anyone to talk with me. Even when they did they were curt, annoyed, and when someone else came in they’d quickly walk away with “I need to help someone over there.”
I broke the code when one day I walked into a store but still had on my Air Force officer’s uniform. Wow. Lots of help. An officer, even a young one, clearly meant I had money to spend.
Being young, single and working all the time I always had lots of leave time coming (vacation to you civilians). I would take 30 days and simply drive around the US. I would visit people I knew and places like Mount Rushmore. I never had a plan. I just drove until the sun started going down and I would stop then to get a motel for the night. Boy, I was always amazed that all the motels were filled up! It took searching forever and finding some pretty dilapidated half-star motels on the edge of town before I could get a room.
I figured I’d find more places available if I stopped earlier in the day. Nope. Still no one had a vacancy, even when it said vacancy on the sign and there were a line of people getting rooms in front of me (and behind me so it seemed).
Searching one evening I went into one hotel where the clerk, not having a room, was otherwise very helpful. He told me they had another property several miles away that should still have some rooms left. I said thanks and drove off, hopeful.
I passed several other motels, but decided to not try them and just head to the place the clerk suggested. I found it. Not too bad looking. However, the big neon signs flashing “we have waterbeds, vibrating beds” left me thinking — great, another dive.
The clerk in this motel greeted me neutrally and asked me “how many?” I said just me. He looked at me skeptically (gee, I was a geek, no chance I’d be trying to sneak a girl in!). I quickly explained how I had come to this area hoping to get a space available room at the nearby military base, but they were having a military exercise and so all rooms were taken. I was on my way cross country on leave and I was having a tough time finding a motel. He gave me a room.
What did I learn? In the future when I went into a motel, I would normally bring a briefcase I had with me. My first words to the clerk’s aloof “how can I help you?” were something like “can I get back on the Interstate going west from here?” I would then ask for a room and a wake up call and where was the best place to get breakfast in the morning. I always got a room. I never again had a problem getting a motel room at any time of the night.
Understanding anyone’s reaction to us can be very challenging. If we are someone who has been discriminated against in the past then, I’ve concluded, unless we are a Christian saint or Zen enlightened, we are going to have great difficulty sorting out what kind of discrimination is going on. Once we figure that out it can be, in my experience, a lot easier to work with the situation. In my case, even with all my alleged advantages, I had great difficulties until I perceived what people were assuming and found ways to make them more comfortable dealing with me.
Do you understand the many possible reasons behind your challenges to get support for your projects?