Employment discrimination based on sex or age. It doesn’t happen, right? It’s illegal. So it can’t happen. Surely…
OK, so maybe it can. And, as I have recently found out, it does.
In the early stages of my career I didn’t understand the concept of the glass ceiling. My gender didn’t cause issues in the workplace, and even seemed to be a novelty in my chosen, male-dominated field. Men enjoyed working with me. And why wouldn’t they have? A young, fun, 20-something female who was working FOR them was great to have around.
I assumed that this acceptance by male counterparts was going to continue throughout my career. Thinking of my gender as a barrier to progression wasn’t something I did. I held a naive assurance that my intelligence, people skills and competence would be all the tools I needed to create the career I desired.
But there was something I wasn’t doing at this time that I hadn’t factored into the equation. Managing men.
Fast forward to my early-30s, and my illusions about the world of work were recently turned on their head. I applied for a management position at an internet company and was enthusiastic about the opportunity. I interviewed over the phone with the managers I would be reporting to and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive. They wanted me on board.
I then phone interviewed with the two late-30s/early-40s men who would have been reporting directly to me. The conversation covered only broad brush stokes of my career without going into any specifics around my people or technical skills, but on the whole I thought it had gone pretty well. So imagine my surprise when I received the feedback from this interview… that they doubted my technical ability and thought that I wouldn’t make a strong enough leader. We had not even discussed these points!
I was confused by the feedback but still wanted the job. So, determined to prove myself capable, I went along for a series of face-to-face interviews. The management I would have been reporting to still loved me. I also got along very well with the junior members of the team who would have my indirect reports. But the stumbling block once again? My two would-be direct reports.
I have never been so poorly treated in an interview situation. I walked into the room and they opened the conversation with “We don’t know why we’re here. We already asked you all the questions we had in the telephone interview.” WHAT? I hit back with “Well, I actually have feedback that you don’t think I have strong enough leadership skills for this position. So why don’t start there. Then we can move onto discussing my technical abilities.” After nearly falling off their chairs in surprise, they regained their composure and resumed their slung-back, arms behind the head “I am man” poses whilst I drove a conversation that attempted to prove to them that I (read: a younger woman) could be a strong enough manager to successfully lead their team.
Alas, their feedback from the second round interview was identical to the first. Senior management was understandably looking for buy-in from these men whom they saw as key to the functioning of the team, and didn’t want to impose an unpopular manager on them. I did not get the job.
Doubters might say that this is a case of sour grapes, that I am brandishing unfounded accusations. But I have a little thing called women’s intuition, which works pretty damned well most of the time, that tells me that those two men sitting across from me in that room didn’t even want to give me the chance to prove myself, simply because I was a younger woman. Their fragile male egos did not like the idea of reporting to me. Not one little bit.
Would the outcome have changed if either my age or sex was different? That I cannot know. And consequently I could never prove that discrimination on either of these bases occurred. But the glass ceiling faced by woman in the workplace has now become a visible reality in my career. I have only bumped my head on it this time, and I am sure I will find a role in another company where the ceiling is higher and I have room to develop my career. But I feel robbed of my naive notions of old, and wary of subsequent meetings with the ceiling. Maybe I’ll wear a crash helmet to my next interview.