We were all seated around the conference table. The Regional Executive Vice President and each department manager, me being one of them. It was 6 men and me. I was new to the company and new to the team. It was 1999.
I had come to the meeting prepared – both with my notes and with my coffee.
“Julia, I see you have your coffee. Could you grab coffee for the team?” the REVP asked.
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to the request. I was a bit dumbfounded. Although I didn’t outwardly react, my insides were churning. I can feel the churning even now, as I write the words. This wasn’t the first time I had been the only woman in the room. This also was not the first time I had been asked to “grab the coffee”. It would however, be the last.
To gain some context, it started from childhood: Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s was a carefree time. We really had few rules other than 1) be home when the street lights came on and 2) be good. We also didn’t have much more guidance than we had rules. So, we learned by watching. “Don’t do as I do…do as I say”, was their mantra, which was paradoxical, because…we were watching. And listening. And learning. Through the “lessons” they were teaching.
And, this is what I was taught through their actions, right or wrong. I was taught that there were very specific roles for women and men. I was taught that women, even working women, did all the housework, child-rearing, cooking, bill-paying, laundry, and cleaning up after dinner. I was taught that men left their dishes on the table and went to watch TV and relax.
I was taught, through their actions, that men did the outside work – cutting the grass and taking out the garbage. And, women…well, women, did everything else. Including, serving the man breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And, serving them their damn coffee.
And, as we got older, even our chores were split up between the boys and the girls – very specifically. The girls did the laundry, changed the sheets, scrubbed the floors, cleaned the bathroom (even the “poor aim” of the boys had to be scrubbed off the floor). The girls swept and mopped, dusted, made the beds – yes, even the boy’s beds!!!! (As I write this, I can feel my outrage and I have to take a deep breath, and let it go.)
And, in return, the boys mowed the lawn and took out the garbage.
As we became teenagers, I watched the rules change – different rules in our house for boy and different rules for girls. Boys – no curfew. Girls – in by 11. Oh…and don’t get pregnant. Yes, that was a rule.
And, I watched them – our parents. And, I noticed and could not reconcile the disparity in what they were saying, what they were doing, and who they were being. My mom told me I could be anything. My sister told me about the Women’s Liberation movement, as she washed the dishes after dinner, exhausted from her long day at work.
And, I watched and I listened, as my father figure (long story) told a male dinner guest (who got up from the table with his dish in his hand to take to the kitchen): “Leave that dish, boy. The girls do that. We don’t want to spoil them now, do we?” and he laughed.
Not funny. I wasn’t laughing.
And, I watched. And, I listened. To all of them…and eventually, to my gut. And, something, even in my youngest years, didn’t feel right or okay or acceptable. It felt unfair. It felt biased. It felt wrong. And, it hurt me, deep down.
And, although I did as I was told (I am a rule follower), I resented, and I questioned, and I rebelled. And, I lost respect for those who could not respect me. As a person. As an equal.
And, it was still the 1980’s when I went into Corporate America. And, the rules remained the same. Women were the secretaries and men were the managers. Women accepted what was offered and those of us who didn’t, well, we had to find another job. I’ve been in many HR offices complaining of unfair treatment, sexual advances, outright intimidation. And was told to go back to my desk and put my head down and do my work. I never did…
And, in 2000, I left Corporate America to find my power on my terms. My reason for leaving, as I explained it to my husband “they are stealing my soul.”
I do what I do because IT (bias, prejudice, unfair treatment) still exists – in life, in our neighborhoods, in the workplace, and in our families.
We continue, 50 (100, 200) years later, to treat people differently based on their gender, their race, their country of origin, their beliefs, their life’s circumstances, the street they live on, area of town they are from. We treat people as less than, more than, enough, not enough, worthy, not worthy – and we do it, not always through what we say, but also through our actions and who we are being.
And, they are watching. And they are listening. And they are learning. And, they are responding.
My life changed because of what I allowed to be my truth. My life is and always has been the result of my choices. There were many on my path, including my family, who directly or indirectly influenced my desire to be the change – I now choose to offer my learnings and experiences to those who have been marginalized or have been taught that they are not worthy.
I know the ripple effect of one person’s change, by their personal choice. I know the ripple effect of one person’s mindset shift to the truth of their power. And, from the learnings on my path, I can guide them to find their truth from within not from without.
And, there is gratitude. Gratitude to those men who asked me and others to get their damn coffee. Gratitude to my family who did the best they could with what they understood as truth. Because, as I look back, I can see the learning.
I realize now I use it all as fuel. Fuel to be different, to do different, to speak up, and to change the world.
I use it to consciously teach my son, my daughters, my clients and myself.
Because they are listening. They are watching. They are learning.
And, I may still grab you a coffee. Because I choose to. Not because you require it of me.
I was recently asked why my work and volunteering is focused on girls and women. I reflected deeply. And shed some much-needed tears so I could let go and forgive and learn. And, so I wrote this to explain why I do what I do and how I got to where I am.
Author of She Strategy