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Now, I Can Laugh
Back then, when I was young, it was definitely not a laughing matter.
As a college student in the late 1960s, I was one of millions of young women faced with rampant sexism and overt gender discrimination, yet lived on the cutting edge of the anti-discrimination movement. Some called it “women's liberation.”
I called it fairness.
The following vignettes are stories of my experiences with block-headed men, brainless women, and stupid, but legal-at-the-time practices. Only now, I can laugh at them, since laws are in place to prevent and penalize gender discrimination.
Every one of these stories is true. When I think of how many instances of bias I endured, I can only imagine how many millions of stories there must be!
Readers can view the vignettes as a history lesson in the struggles generations of women had to fight every day.
Sometimes discrimination was fought in a friendly setting with neighbors, often it was at home, and certainly it was in the work place, or going about performing daily normal activities. Then, sexism infiltrated every aspect of a woman's life.
It was exhausting.
It is better today; there are hard-fought laws in place to protect the dignity and equality of women, and today's young women are the beneficiaries of many battles. They, their mates, and children need to understand what the veterans, contemporary women’s predecessors, endured.
You may be amazed at some of the situations; and, if you laugh, please be grateful you can find them amusing. They weren't funny, back then.
Mid to Late 1960s
I took summer jobs while I was in college. Living in New York City, there were ample opportunities for seasonal work. Some of my jobs included secretarial work for a fish importer, working with a fashion publication, and as a telephone operator at a take-out restaurant that used runners to take meals to the Wall Street crowd. Despite the differences in the nature of the work, there was one thing they shared. “Girls,” as we were called, were paid less than young men. At that time, a typical newspaper classified advertisement might read:
Temporary workers needed to organize documents for an upcoming class action law suit. 30 hours per week; location in lower Manhattan. No experience necessary; will train; Girls, $1.00 per hour; Men, $1.25 per hour.
It was the norm to pay females less than males, despite the fact they were sitting next to each other, performing identical tasks. There was no differentiation in the work, just anatomy.
Today, when women complain about not being paid the same as men, they do so in a landscape where laws exist to prevent the situation. Companies who do otherwise are foolish.
Why Go to College?
My father and I rarely had arguments.
That is until, either through his personal belief or his desire to tease me, he made an incendiary declaration at the dinner table:
“The only reason women go to college is to find a husband.”
I rocketed out of my chair and shot back at him with a tirade that went something like this: “Dad, how can you say that? Do you think I am studying Non-Euclidian Geometry and Calculus to find a boyfriend? Do you think I've incurred student loans for the purpose of finding a husband? You're crazy.... I could just as easily have gotten a job and found someone. I can't believe you! You're insulting me. Suppose I never get married—don't I need a good education? What if I marry someone and he can't support me for some reason? Suppose I want to have a career? Did you even think of that? Did you???”
I do not know if he was amused at my outburst; I just know he smiled—a bit timidly, I thought. My mother seemed entertained. I banged my fork on my plate, stormed out of the room and didn't speak to my father for a few days.
My father never touched that subject again.
Several years later, when I turned twenty-one, he gave me a bottle of Drambuie, along with two crystal cordial glasses. His simple gift card read, “To my daughter, who has the courage.”
Still, there are those who think a woman attends college only to find a husband. Hey...that's way too much work and too much money to find a guy.
For five nights a week in my senior year at college, I had a part-time job at a firm on Wall Street. The job included organizing stock certificates to mail to shareholders. I never had so much “money” flow through my hands. For anyone with a brain, it was a boring job. But it paid well—almost three dollars an hour.
After about a month on the job, the supervisor of night-shift workers took notice of me. Mr. Slimeball called me aside toward the end of the shift.
“Pat, I want to show you something,” he smiled.
He led me into another room. It housed the industrial-size adding machines and certificate stackers. He leaned in close, and put his arm around me.
“If you are good to me, I can show you how to operate these machines. That would raise your pay about twenty cents an hour,” he oozed, as he squeezed my rear.
“Mr. Slimeball! Stop! I am graduating from college in a few weeks. I don't need any ‘help’ from you.”
I stormed out of the room, grabbed my coat from my desk and left the office.
My boyfriend—the young man who would become my husband in 1972—was waiting for me in his car. I practically tore the door off as I opened it and plopped in the front seat. A deep, angry sigh heaved through my clenched teeth. He looked at me before putting the car in gear.
“What's wrong, Pat?”
“I quit. I'll let them know tomorrow.”
“Why? You want to know why?”
I told him about the incident that had transpired in the back room, just a few minutes earlier. He listened and was both logical and calm in his response.
“You should tell his supervisor.”
“No, I'm quitting.”
This incident was a clear case of sexual harassment. Women usually handled it as I did—they found another job. It would have been more appropriate to make the company squirm with a lawsuit.
So Simple, Even a Woman Can Do It
My first apartment had a little hallway, about six feet long, between the living room and the bedroom. The floor was cold, hard linoleum, and I decided to make it a bit warmer for the winter.
My funds were considerably limited, so I went to a place, probably Sears, where they sold carpeting. I found the perfect, affordable solution.
I purchased several packages of adhesive-backed carpet squares. The package touted them as “easy to cut.”
As I read the instructions, there was a line-drawing of a woman installing the carpet squares.
The text accompanying the drawing proclaimed:
So simple, even a woman can do it!
I felt the anger well up and put the packages back. I looked for a different brand, and finding none, I bought the offending product.
After I installed them, I wrote to the company complaining about their blatant sexism. The company never responded.
But Weren't You a Cheerleader?
I taught middle school for eight years.
Yet, I decided to pursue a different career—computer programming. In the late 1970s, there was a shortage of computer programmers, and the field was growing quickly. After I had completed my Master’s Degree in Education, I enrolled in college courses for a new discipline called Computer Science.
Having taken several courses and written my share of programs in BASIC, COBOL, and FORTRAN, (the popular languages of the time) and experimented with the then-nascent UNIX operating system, I went to an employment agency that did not charge a fee for people applying for computer work, because programmers were in great demand. I secured my first programming job through an agency, but not from the one where the following incident happened:
Mr. Clueless arose from his chair, and I offered him my hand. “Hello, Mr. Clueless. Thank you for meeting with me.”
“Please sit down. Now, how may I help you?”
As I reached in my briefcase for two copies of my résumé, I thought Mr. Clueless seemed very nice.
“I sent you my résumé, but here is another copy. I am looking for an entry-level position as a computer programmer. Have you had a chance to read the résumé?”
“Yes, I looked it over. Tell me more about yourself.”
“I was a teacher for eight years, focusing on math and science, and I decided to make a career change. During the past two years, I have completed courses in Computer Science and Programming. You can see by my transcript I received “A’s” in all my courses. I have a Bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts, a Master of Science in Education, and over thirty additional credits in Computer Science.”
Foolishly, I expected some kind of positive acknowledgement, but instead, he asked “Were you a cheerleader?”
His question stunned me into silence. Finally, I replied, “A cheerleader? What does that have to do with the type of job I am looking for?”
“I like cheerleaders. They are easy to place. Bosses like them. So, were you ever a cheerleader?”
“Mr. Clueless, I went to an all-girls high school. Why are you asking me about high school experiences when I have an advanced degree and credits beyond it?”
“But weren't you a cheerleader?”
“No! I was not.”
The man was clearly not interested in my brains.
Do You have Your Husband's Permission?
The following encounter with another employment agency may seem outrageous today, but it was not unusual years ago.
“Hello, Mr. Oblivious, thank you for meeting with me.”
“Please, sit down,” he said. “I see you are interested in a computer programming job—entry level.”
“That's right.” I reviewed my course work with him, the computer languages I knew, and my desire to work for a company where I could have a future in programming.
“I don't know if I can place you in a programming job. They are hard to come by. But I can place you in a sales job.”
“I am not interested in a sales job. The market for programmers is booming.”
“I don't see that,” he replied; “but suppose I did send you on an interview for a sales job, and it involved travel. Would you have your husband's permission to travel?”
“I don't need my husband's permission.”
“But I would not be comfortable placing you in a sales job without his permission.”
“I am not interested in a sales job.”
At that moment, I wondered if I was living in some alternate universe where each word I said had a different meaning to the person I was talking to. He continued. “If you had to sleep with someone to close a deal, would you do it?”
“That question is in very poor taste. Again, I am not interested in a sales job. Even if I were, I would not answer your question.”
“Then, there is nothing I can do for you.”
I left the employment agency in disgust, and when I returned home, I called the owner. He said he would look into it. He never called back.
The Tupperware Party
I am not a homebody. When some women in my neighborhood learned I had never been to a Tupperware party, and I was older than thirty, they were shocked. They invited me to one. I went.
Mrs. Sunny Plasticware opened the gathering by passing an item around, and if you guessed what it was, you could keep it.
Sunny held up an oval piece of maroon plastic about six inches long and three inches wide. You could slip your finger through a cut-out slit on the back so the item cradled in the palm of your hand. The part of the device facing you had dozens of short tines, like a fork. I was clueless about it. I thought how it might be used.
Sunny directed her question to me. “The hostess of this party told me you have never been to a Tupperware Party. Is that right?”
“Yes, this is my first.”
“Well, if you can guess what this item is, you may have it.”
Self-consciously, I analyzed the gadget.
“Is it a meat tenderizer?”
“No,” she responded.
“Is it a soap holder so wet soap is gripped by the tines?”
“No, it's not.”
“Is it something you use to scratch an itch?”
By now, the other women were tittering. “No, it is not a back scratcher,” Mrs. Sunny Plasticware responded.
“Is it a vegetable scrubber?”
“No, that's not it either. Well,” Sunny said, “it looks like someone doesn't recognize what this is!” She smiled to the assembled ladies. “Everyone, together, let's tell her [meaning me] what it is.”
The ladies all yelled at once, “It’s a hair brush!”
I countered, “But couldn't you use it for all the tasks I mentioned?”
“It's a hairbrush,” they chorused again.
One of the ladies in the room asked me, teasingly, “How could you not know what it is? Any woman would know it.”
I felt like saying, “I'm not any woman.”
Until then, I hadn't realized I lived in Stepford, the fictional town of Ira Levin's 1972 satirical thriller, The Stepford Wives, where women were turned into androids who cared only about homemaking and satisfying their husbands.
What Would a Woman Do with Computers?
After landing my first job as a computer programmer in a bank, I met some wonderful programmers—almost all of them men—who mentored me. I was paid less than most of the men; but then, they had been programming for years, knew many more programming languages than I did, and were responsible for critical systems that kept the bank running. There was no way I should have been earning as much as they were being paid, at that time. As my experience grew, and my programs worked well, I steadily enhanced both my pay and my titles. That was fair.
During those first few years of programming, I joined a women's gym. It was an attractive place with decent equipment, trainers, showers, hot tubs, exercise classes, a sauna, and hot tub.
It was in the sauna one evening after work when a woman in her late fifties, Mrs. It's-a-Man's-Job, started a conversation with me. I was about thirty-two at the time.
“Do you work?” Mrs. It's-a-Man's-Job asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“What sort of work do you do?”
“I am a computer programmer.”
She leaned back and scrunched her eyebrows. “Why on earth would you want to do that?”
“It's a growing field,” I answered. “The pay is good, and it challenges me, too.”
“I just don't know what a woman would want to do with a computer. That's a man's job. Aren't computers heavy to move around?”
“I write the instructions that make them work,” I said. “I don't physically move them.”
“Huh?” she responded.
“Computers need instructions so they know what to do. I write the instructions to tell them what to do.”
“That's a man's job!” she replied.
This woman was from a different generation and didn't understand, or apparently want to understand, anything about emerging careers. Even my own mother never understood what I did after I left teaching, and she always hoped I would return to the classroom. Nursing, teaching, homemaking, and sales were the fields they understood best.
I just wish they weren't so eager to be content in their ignorance.
The Worth of a Woman
In 1983, I left my original programming job for one at a big-name, prestigious hospital in southeastern Pennsylvania. I was chosen for the job because I was working with a new software product that allowed the person using the computer to type a question in English. The computer would then search its databases and make calculations to produce the answer. In order for the software to give the person asking the question the right answer, it was necessary to map businesses phrases and terminology to the data in the databases. I was the person who did the mapping. It was cutting-edge technology in the early 1980s, and I was happy to be involved with it.
Since I had some experience with the software, the company gave me the exact salary I requested. I was ecstatic.
As part of my job, I was able to access all the personnel records of the hospital, including my own and those of my fellow computer programmers. Imagine my shock when I learned I was underpaid by almost $10,000 per year, compared to the average salary of the programmers in my department. That was a lot of money in 1983.
I stewed about it for weeks, realizing I did not know my own worth, sometimes questioning if I really deserved the extra money. After all, although we were all computer programmers in my department, our experience levels differed; the systems we worked on varied in criticality, and they had given me exactly the salary I requested.
I decided to let it go; only, I couldn't really let it go. It gnawed at me. I would often ask myself if I was right about thinking I was worth as much as the other programmers, almost all of them men. Then, I would be annoyed at myself for even thinking I might be worth any less.
Did I mention those years were exhausting?
I made an appointment to see my boss, who was Mr. Wonderful-but-Knows-a-Good-Deal-when-He-Sees-It. I'll refer to him as Mr. Wonderful.
Here is how it went. Mind you, I was scared standing up for myself. Was my opinion of my abilities inflated? Would he tell me “no,” or fire me?
“Mr. Wonderful, thank you for seeing me. Something has really been bothering me for a while.”
“What's on your mind?”
“You know I have access to our department's salaries, based on the needs of my job.”
“You and your own boss told me the work I am doing here is groundbreaking, and has given the department some serious positive visibility.”
“Yes, it is outstanding work. You were a great hire for us.”
I looked at him. I liked him as a boss, yet my heart pounded. “I don't think I am paid appropriately for the work I do. I should be earning more.”
I let my pronouncement rest on the air. He sat back in his chair. I continued, “I know you gave me the exact salary I asked for; I just did not ask for enough.”
Mr. Wonderful sighed and was silent for a moment. I didn't interrupt his ponderings. Finally he said, “Let me see what I can do,” as he nodded his head. “Give me a day or two to work with Human Resources, will you?”
“Yes. Thank you, Mr. Wonderful. But I want you to know I love working here; yet my being underpaid has been weighing on my mind. It would be difficult for me to be effective here if I were not being treated fairly.”
“I understand, Pat. I'm glad you came to me.”
I left the office, shaking. Why did standing up for myself do that?
The following day, Mr. Wonderful called me into his office.
“Pat, thanks again for bringing your concern to me. I talked with Human Resources. We are going to increase your salary $10,000 over the next four months, a few thousand at a time. I can't do it all at once, but by the end of the four months your salary will be a number more appropriate for your talents and value to us.”
“Yes! That will work. Thank you, Mr. Wonderful.” I left his office and floated back to mine. Within twenty minutes, the phone rang.
“Hello,” I answered.
“Is this Pat?”
“This is Tonya from Human Resources.”
“What may I do for you, Tonya?”
“You go, girl!”
By standing up for what I was worth in terms of salary, I had set the stage for all my future jobs. I truly did not know my worth, and once the problem was fixed, I was never again paid inappropriately in any job.
Many years have passed since I had to confront the sexist experiences of my young womanhood. None of them should have occurred.
The 1970s were particularly brutal for women entering the workforce.
I did my share of raising consciousness by writing to the manufacturer of the carpet tiles and to the owner of the employment agency, offering a frigid response to the bank clerk, and asking for a raise when I believed it was appropriate.
All of them were small steps, but collectively, with others who were doing the same thing, they helped to create immense gains.
But other, braver women filed punishing lawsuits against egregious organizations. The lawsuits contributed to the advances women have made in the workplace. My regret is not suing Mr. Slimeball and his company.
Employment opportunities and salaries are much better for women today, but there is still room to improve. I attribute a good portion of the progress to the parts thousands, if not millions, of women played in the wearying everyday battles for gender equality.
There are some who claim that women are paid less than men, and it is true, in gross generality. It is also true many women do not pursue demanding careers.
Just as being female is not a basis for lower pay, being male is not a justification for higher pay. Pay needs to be tied to the nature of the work itself.
Bolstering the pay in a job category just because the majority of its inhabitants are female doesn't make it “fair” to increase their pay. How in demand are those jobs? How much skill is required? What are the ramifications of mistakes? What level of ongoing training is required?
Those are a few of the questions that need to be answered when addressing pay.
I have worked with dozens of women during my career. Most were both mothers and career women. They held jobs for which education requirements were high, ongoing skill building was demanding, and the errors could have serious consequences. This profile was, and remains, where the money is.
Mistakes could cause a bank to falter, a plane to crash, a multi-national company to experience a computer network outage, a utility unable to manage its grid, a person to die, or our national security to be compromised.
If women don't believe they are capable of thriving in jobs like these, it is unlikely they will ever increase their paychecks.
The wisdom of age and my personal satisfaction in seeing great advancements for women permit me the freedom to recall, without seething anger, the absurd and painful situations I endured in the last half of the twentieth century.
I still think many women must learn to see themselves as capable of thriving in demanding occupations, where they are evaluated on the quality and effectiveness of their skills.
Today, at last, I can laugh at the situations I endured.