What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
As Gloria Steinem observed, "Whoever has power takes over the noun — and the norm — while the less powerful get an adjective." Since no one wants to be perceived as less powerful, a lot of women reject the gender identification and insist, "I don't see myself as a woman; I see myself as a novelist/athlete/professional/fill-in-the-blank." They are right to do so. No one wants her achievements modified. We all just want to be the noun. —Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In
Today I was reminded, albeit in a roundabout way, that I am a changed woman. Gone are the days of swallowing voice, of sitting on the fringe, of not settling for anything less than extraordinary.
In 1997, I was one of the very few women accepted into the Chase Global Bank program, an MBA in miniature. It was implicit that acceptance ensured you were recruited by the top investment banks — Morgan, Goldman, Lehman. There were rumors on the Street that the Glass-Steagall Act would soon be repealed, and a merchant banking background was considered lucrative since future profitability was predicated on managing and understanding all phases of the deal process. While I found gender parity in college, where I majored in Finance and Marketing, the program was an old boys’ club — you were rarely the girl they studied with; rather, you were the girl they slept with. This was a time when women had their choice of three colored suits: navy blue, black, or a very somber burgundy. Skirts always cut at the knee, hose were required, and makeup was kept to a minimum. One had to look the part of a lady without drawing too much attention to the fact that one was a lady.
All of these rules started to annoy me to no end.
From birth I was a woman who would never take no for an answer. A woman who would not bend to bias or bullshit. After the nine-month program came to a close, I graduated number three in a class of ninety, was recruited by Morgan Stanley, and won approval from the boys. Until I stepped into the WASP-y hallways of Morgan Stanley, where Managing Directors routinely slept with Associates and it was commonplace for a man to rest his hand on a woman's thigh, inching up. Although I managed to artfully dodge sexual overtures (save the one time my belligerent, married boss asked for my virginity after a night of client entertainment), I felt protective of the women who didn't want to make waves, who just wanted to blend in. Our generation of women banded together against the boys and the older women who seemed determined to press their expensive heels down on our heads. After threatening a coworker with genital mutilation should he inch his hand up another thigh, I was labeled the difficult one. The smart one with the big mouth. I lasted two years at Morgan before I would trash my suits, enroll in Columbia's MFA program, and start a job at a burgeoning luxury goods dot.com.
Whether I was working at a luxury company that went bust, a Fortune 500 cable giant, or a publishing mecca, men have always been my champions, while women were the ones to be feared. My whip-smart, ambitious, collaborative generation — one that didn't trade on their sex, dole out favors, or accept fingers inching up the thigh — served as a threat to the old guard rather than a triumph. I repeatedly endured catty queen bees and ladies who rumor at lunch. Frustrated, I longed for a professional mentor who was maternal, smart, strong, and supportive. I wanted to learn from a woman who led with confidence, who understood that one shines not because she desires to glare but because she allows others to ferret out her greatness. As I shifted into my thirties, I was determined to be this woman. Maybe it was because my mother was such a heartbreaking disappointment, but I felt a maternal instinct that was not one of procreation, but of cultivating and grooming strong, passionate young women in the workplace.
In 2010, I was given the extraordinary opportunity to manage 22 accounts and oversee a team of 19 women at social media marketing agency. To say that the challenge was overwhelming was an understatement, but perhaps the most gratifying part of my job — beyond growing topline revenue, diversifying my portfolio, and implementing innovation and efficiency — was the impact I had on a team of mostly millennial women. When it came to salary negotiation, I taught them to fight for what they deserved. While I encouraged them to bind together as a team, I also made them celebrate their individual strengths. From the straight-out-of-college associate to the seasoned director, every team member had a voice, and I taught them how to shout. I made them sit at the table. I told them they were equal to any man in the room.
In 2011, when my two male bosses, my great champions, elevated me to partner status, there was a fever in the office. At the time, the agency employed a considerable amount of women, but I was the first to hold peer status in executive leadership; I now owned a percentage of the company. When my partnership was announced and I had to stand up and talk about my new role, my voice shook and my body was nerve-wracked. But then the thunderous applause. All the women I'd supported were my mentors; they buoyed me, proud that I'd earned this role because of my talent, ambition, confidence and compassion. When I look at my life, I can say with certainty that that day was one worth photographing. One worth remembering, always.
Recently I learned of a staggering statistic: 3% of executive positions in agencies are held by women. Hearing this coincided with my resignation, and as I made the rounds of catch-ups and lunches, some women joked, your leaving changes that number. Those words resonated with me over the past two months as I've been thinking about the things I carry. I think about my ability to see the world differently and write about it in the most magical of ways. I think about how I've been in a passionate, lifelong affair with food. And then I think about that day when I made partner, and I was proud that I had the power to lift other women up.
Today I spent the day with my best friend, a great woman with a heart that could blanket an ocean. A patient mother of two children, a devoted wife, a fantastic cook, a brilliant contract lawyer in a Fortune 500 company — she reminds me of our capacity to be fearless. Imagine what we could do if we knew we couldn't fail? Some would have children, run a home, and find flexibility in a career they love. Others would break ranks and find their love in their work, their art, and in mentoring all of their adopted children in the office. Barefoot, we'd run through the garden at night. We'd get our feet wet; we'd tumble, we'd fall and skin our knees in the gloaming. But here's the thing — we'd get up and keep running. Keep at it until the sun stretches across the horizon.
Today my friend reminded me of the greatness in myself, and slowly my next chapter begins to write itself. I'm meant to lead. I'm meant to buoy great women. I'm meant to run, run, run wild.