On International Women’s Day recently I was reminded of this odd tale from my younger days. Not a journey to another place, but to another gender.
I had recently started working in the oil business. It was the early 80s, there weren’t many women around. In fact out of that year’s intake of graduates there was only me.
Part of our three month training program was a week learning Selling Techniques. Useful stuff. And a very experienced trainer to show us the ropes. This was challenging for most of us. It required a level of confidence and persuasion that was certainly new to me after years of hearing how important it was to avoid being bigheaded or opinionated.
So part of me was relieved when the trainer said “you don’t need to do the next exercise Catarina, it might get a little tough”. Part of me was all too ready to sit out and watch the boys struggle, fail and eventually succeed. But of course another part of me got that this wasn’t the idea. That already, in my second month of working, I was being treated differently and developing less skills than my male counterparts. I swallowed it that first day, after all there were an odd number of us, maybe it was a one off.
But the next day it happened again and I realized there was a problem here that I needed to address. I discussed it with the rest of the group that evening in the bar and we hatched a plan.
The next morning when I strolled into the training room there was a moment when time stood still. Not in my head which was racing through my qualms. Was it over the top? Was it ridiculous? Had I over-reacted? Would I ever be taken seriously again. In my man’s suit and tie, with my hair scraped back and a pencilled on mustache I looked a bit of a spin. Good for sales right?
The trainer looked over. His first instinct was to laugh, his face started to get ready for that and then a look of confusion passed across his brow, maybe it wasn’t a joke? Maybe it was a message? If so, what did it mean. For what seemed like an age but was probably a second or two, reactions raced across his face like clouds scudding across the moon. He finally settled on not knowing what it meant. “Good morning” he said and carried on handing out the papers for that day’s exercise while calmly announcing “Mike, you sit this one out please so we can work in pairs?”
It was a pivotal moment for me. When I took direct action, in a slightly tongue in cheek way. I was out of my comfort zone already so being a bit more out was no problem. And at the course evaluation it was all my male colleagues who complained about the sexist attitude of the trainer, not just me. We built a sense of team on that course that stayed with us for years even after we had been scattered to the four corners of the earth in our various career tracks. I stood my ground, I set the tone and in my own way – mot be shouting or complaining but by shining a light on someone’s behavior so they might see for themselves what they were doing. It’s one way to make change happen.