It took me 30 years and reflecting back on my roots as a young, unintentional feminist to become a seasoned, intentional one
Growing up, my middle school ended at fourth grade, and then you went to junior high for fifth through eighth. This transition meant a lot of things — including being able to join the marching band. The band was terrible, but at nine years old we had no sense of that; we were just excited to play a big instrument and be part of something. For a few days at the end of fourth grade, the band director would come to the middle school to help us select our instruments for the next year. I was pretty excited. I was going to play the drums.
The band director arrived. In a room filled with all kinds of shiny, exciting possibilities, our conversation went like this:
Band Director: What would you like to play next year in the band?
Little Lori: The drums!
BD: Girls don’t play the drums. How about a nice flute?
LL: No thanks, I’d like to play the drums.
BD: What about a clarinet?
LL: I don’t want to play those instruments. I want to play drums.
BD: How about the oboe. It’s still little big for you, but it’s the biggest instrument for girls.
LL: If I can’t play the drums, I’m not joining the band.
BD: You have to join the band. Go home and talk to your parents and tell me tomorrow what you choose.
I did go home to talk to my parents, who told me that I didn’t have to play anything I wasn’t interested in, and that I definitely didn’t have to join the band. The next day I went back and told the band director that unless he let me play the drums, I would not be in the band. He did not acquiesce, and I didn’t join.
At the time I wasn’t thinking at all about “resisting the patriarchy.” I simply thought being denied the drums for a reason that made no sense to me was unfair, and I wasn’t going to go along with that BS. I’m proud of that kid. She had more courage and gusto than I have had most of my adult life.
I went through the rest of my education with no real awareness of the limitations of being female. When I wanted to take woodworking class in junior high, girls were allowed, no problem. In high school, I joined the backstage crew of the drama club, and there was no resistance to girls building sets or suspending heavy lights from the catwalks. I even took a leadership role. In college I never received unwanted advances or felt unfairly judged — I just did the work and made the grades.
When I joined the workforce, there was plenty of talk about the glass ceiling that not enough women had broken through. However, the forces that kept the ceiling in place were still somewhat invisible to me. I often felt underappreciated and underpaid, but assumed it was because I was still paying my dues. I once had a male boss who paid more attention to me when I wore this one bright red dress I owned. Frustrated by my lack of autonomy and inability to make progress without his approval, I had the idea to dye my hair red to see if it would help. It worked for about a week. The color looked better on me than the job, and the red hair stuck around long after I was laid off. It was a heavily male-dominated industry and I wrote the experience off to a bad fit and one sexist bad apple.
Early in my career, I observed that the women who were getting ahead were often referred to in negative terms. They were “bitches,” or had slept their way up, or knew someone who was protecting them (not advocating — I would later learn there was a big difference). There was always a caveat to female ascension, and the rhetoric was often coming from women. Later I encountered women on the rise who seemed to be actively kicking other women below them off the ladder, and it completely baffled me. I learned the hard way that those women were not to be trusted.
Around the middle of my career, I was lucky to have a supportive group of women just above me who were active mentors. They weren’t competing with each other, but they were making progress in a different way: by modifying their behavior to gain favor with those in power (who, I was starting to notice, were still predominantly men). I softened my speech to not sound “harsh.” I asked for help — even when I already knew the answer — to massage egos. I dressed in more feminine clothes. I went out of my way to make my age known because I looked younger than I was, and didn’t want to be further underestimated.
This approach, under the guise of “managing up,” was outwardly successful. I was being promoted each year and recognized as one of those rare unicorns of great value, though I was still underpaid compared to what male colleagues on my level were making. All the while, I was walking a tightrope which I was constantly on the verge of falling from. If I was too soft, I wasn’t strong enough for the next level. If I was too assertive for even a moment, I wasn’t ready to ascend.
Thanks to the herculean effort of walking that line, I reached upper management, and squarely slammed my head into that ceiling I’d had trouble seeing from below. The compensation gap between myself and my male peers had become immense thanks to the compounding nature of what was once a small salary gap, and men being given access to increasingly challenging responsibilities while I still suffered from imposter syndrome. I realized that my behavior changes were actually conforming to the female stereotype that makes both men and women feel more comfortable with women in their expected maternal roles. I had become completely exhausted by the unending slog of being someone else for most of my waking hours. As a leader, this was negatively affecting my relationships with those I was managing and fostering distrust (egads — exactly who I didn’t want to be). I was 100% fed up with having to do a job for a year before being promoted into that level. While men were promoted on potential, I had been promoted on proof of competence. Year. Over. Year.
So I started reading and listening and talking, and I discovered my struggles in trying to get ahead were not unique to me.
There is a steady stream of unconscionable, sexist behavior coming to light in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Washington D.C., and it is just the beginning. I want to be an active part of the positive change that is at all our doorsteps.
Little Lori was unafraid to stick it to the man, but she also lost out because she didn’t get to learn the drums. She missed out on learning something new and the opportunities that experience would have given her. Big Lori is wide awake to the systemic inequity that creates situations like that and can do something about it. My goal now is to break through the bias to open those previously closed opportunities. I will lead by example. I will be my authentic self and an outspoken advocate for women and all diverse individuals (because, whoa, gender equality is just the tip of the iceberg). I’m going to continue to read, listen and speak with an empathetic heart and strong voice.
A feminist was reborn. 30 years later. It’s never too late.
I hope that you will join me in being an advocate and ally for inclusion and diversity. As a kid, I instinctively knew it was wrong to be judged by something as trivial as gender, color, disability, sexual orientation or religion. That’s the instinct I hope we can all be guided by.