By Jawa Al Ahmad
I’ve been working for six years now. I always knew I was made for the corporate life. Vacation mode or not, I was an early riser. I loved the office atmosphere, the routine that came with a corporate job, the dependability of a steady income and a clear career path. I could not, for the life of me, understand how people could wake up whenever they wanted, rely on being creative, and form some sort of career out of it. Don’t get me wrong, most days I envy those people, but that life was not and is not for me. In 2012, many things happened in my life at once.
I got my first job (after a year and a half of job hunting), I got divorced, and I was trying to figure out how to parent my one-year-old daughter. Yes, it was a stressful time, but I like to think of my life in that moment as a pivotal turning point. I was in a state of new-found independence, I needed a distraction, and I was hungry. Hungry for success, hungry for something of my own that I could control (during a time where everything seemed to be spiraling out of it) and most importantly, after fighting to end one chapter of my life, I was hungry to start building one worthy of the struggle I had endured.
I majored in journalism, had a passion for the written word, and worked part time at a local magazine. I was certain I would end up somewhere along that field spectrum. Another magazine or newspaper, maybe, or a young edgy advertising company. Like most people will learn in life, what you study and what you do will be two very different things. I ended up in a random field of work, one I had absolutely no knowledge in. Again, I was eager and I was optimistic, so I hit the ground running.
Very quickly, I came to love everything about my new job; the laid back atmosphere that was unusual to such a large powerful company, the location (next to my favorite coffee shop, major win), and the people. I was quick to make not friends, but more aptly described as family. I wept with a coworker who had fallen incurably ill, I made a best friend whom I consider today more of a sister and I shared personal goals, passions and life changing setbacks for hours with others. Those first few months I swore I had hit the workplace jackpot.
Then something happened; I realized that I was good at what I did.
The industry, to me, was easy to understand and unlike many people in it, I quickly found out that it did not bore me. I decided to pursue a certification in it. Managers encouraged me to go ahead with it and even before I had registered for it were letting me know that it would take me a couple of years before I would manage to pass all the tests. I nodded and smiled and went ahead and ordered the texts I needed. Instead of applying for one exam at a time, I took all three of them on the same day. I was hungry, remember?
Unfortunately, I fell ill that same week and I had to have a minor procedure at the hospital. That night, at two am as the anesthesia wore off, my father drove me home. What he didn’t know was that during that car ride, I had set my phone alarm for six am. Four and a half hours of sleep later, I was dressed and driving myself to the testing location. I spent five hours taking the various tests and by a midday I was back at home. My parents thought I had been in my room sleeping the entire time.
At this point in my life I was dedicated to only two things: my child and my job. My routine consisted of waking up at dawn, making it to work before most people left their homes and spending my afternoons at home surrounded by family and seeking nothing else but an early bedtime.
At work I began to find my footing. I was confident in my abilities and I pushed for more responsibilities. I wanted in on everything, I wanted to learn everything, and most importantly, I wanted to be taken seriously, which is hard when I kept being told I needed time to learn and that maybe I should for the hundredth time, “go read a textbook or some old files”.
A few weeks later, the results of the exams came in. I passed all of them. I was certified in three months; a task many people at the company had spent over a year or two to accomplish. This certification brought me to the same level as people who have been working in the field for almost a decade and to my surprise, everything went downhill for me after that.
I had the attention of upper management, which at the time, was something thrilling. Apart from a woman who headed a certain department, I was the only other woman that seemed to be going places in the company. I got hungrier; but I would soon learn that there was a price to pay for being an ambitious woman. I was given a month long project to work on and when I had finished with it, I was asked to hand over the information to a male colleague who would be meeting with the other companies involved. I asked why, even though I knew what the answer was and that it was never going to be said aloud. They insisted he was senior and should be at the meeting. I argued and persisted and eventually was taken along with them to the meeting. It left a certain taste in my mouth, but I went nonetheless, proud of myself.
Over the next few months I fought harder to be taken seriously. I bit my lip when certain comments were made about women (“make sure you hire an attractive secretary, we don’t want to stare at someone ugly everyday”) because I was glad just to be part of what I jokingly called “the boys club”. I put up with a manager while he leaned back in his chair every other day and recounted stories of his ‘good old days’. I had better days. I lived a more exciting life. My stories are funnier and more interesting. I didn’t point all that out, instead, I smiled and nodded, and acted like I was in awe of him (I should point out that he didn’t seem to notice that some stories were repeated three or four times).
I am not proud of some of the things I am admitting to but at the time I loved it. I felt like I was in an eat or be eaten environment and I was eager to outdo my opponents. If it meant laughing at an inappropriate joke or faking awe at a story for the tenth time, I was willing to do it. I was focused on something bigger than what they were throwing at me. I had my mind set on three letters….C.E.O.
During this time my personality began to change. I became more aggressive and less tolerant. For every small accomplishment I made, I had to work ten times harder than my male coworkers did. I began to feel bitter and I started to battle with an uncomfortable thought: I was becoming unlikeable. Likeable woman were not threatening or aggressive and they smiled and stepped aside when they were told to.
Certain coworkers started looking for ways to find fault in me. I became paranoid; checking my work a hundred times because I knew one mistake from me would be equivalent to ten from him. When during one incident, when I felt the need to aggressively pursue an assignment because I was being overlooked I had to bite my tongue when one manager snidely remarked that he now understood why I was divorced. And in another incident I had to silently step aside when I wasn’t allowed to attend a three day overseas business trip (on a deal I had worked on) because the head of the department didn’t believe in sending women. He insisted that women could not be trusted to be reliable when at any moment they could cancel because their fathers or husband said they had to, or if that wasn’t the case, because of their children. I smiled, nodded, and wondered how much longer I could stomach all of it.
The final straw came when I mentioned my long-term future with the company to someone in upper management who called most of the shots, and I implied that I would like to work my way up to a manager at some point (keeping in mind that I met all the of the qualifications of the other managers at the company). My request was met with a firm shake of the head, “I don’t put women as managers anymore, I did it once and it was a big mistake.”
I was certain for a moment that he was joking.
“They keep having babies!” he continued, and I realized he was serious.
I resigned a little less than a month later. I did the math; if I had to fight ten times as hard to move half a step forward I was going to kill myself before I could reach any sort of finish line.
This experience in no way encompasses all companies and their working environment nor is it a reflection of how all women are viewed or treated in the workplace; but it is one that I experienced and one that I will forever look back on and question whether I had done the right thing or not. I continue to look for the strength to play my part in pushing the proverbial glass ceiling upwards and to all the women who are joining me in the corporate jungle, I hope you do not feel the need to smile and play dumb and I hope you have the strength to be unlikeable and like it.
Featured photo by Thimo van Leeuwen on Unsplash.