What the F*^k are you doing?
When a mentor really changes your life, and they didn’t even know it.
So, this woman changed my life. She probably doesn’t know it, and she probably does it all the time without realizing it.
Many years ago, I was in a terrible position. My boss was in love with me. It wasn’t cute. It wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t Hollywood, where I was eventually wooed by his persistence and we desperately fell in love. It was exhausting, stressful and emotionally and physically draining. I was younger, insecure, and feeling very, very vulnerable.
It was an awful game that he forced me to partake in, which I called “Reel me in, reel me out.” Reel me in: have amazing, collaborative sessions where we’d dissect our business and then create, build, and plan our strategies to get our teams to the next step in their successes. Reel me out: when I wouldn’t respond to his flirtations, or if I gently admonished him for his inappropriate BBMs or chats, he would block my progress in my role. He would present my ideas and my work to senior leadership without giving me attribution or credit. He wouldn’t even have me in the room.
He wasn’t an evil man, and in this case someone that I would say was not entirely aware of his behaviour, but sadly, this is something that professional women face all too often.
It was probably the most difficult professional experience of my life, and I had so few people to talk to about it. My husband, who’s an RN and who has zero experience in the halls of Corporate Canada would read the IMs, BBMs and emails and try to be as supportive as he could (“What’s going on in his life to make him act like this?”), and another female manager that I turned to could really only commiserate with me as she had gone through the same thing, but was unable to resolve the issues for herself.
So, I went to see a lawyer. She was recommended to me by two very successful attorneys who both regarded her as one of the best labour lawyers in Canada. I needed to know where I stood and what my options were. So, armed with a two inch stack of printed out IMs and BBMs, I sat in her office and with bullet-speed, blurted out my story.
She calmly sat back, asked me a few questions about my career with the company to date, about my compensation and my other relationships within the company, and then said to me,
“Karen, I’m going to talk to you like we’re having a glass of wine, okay?”
“Okay, I like those conversations,” I responded with a small smile. Then she looked at me quite calmly and said,
“What the fuck are you doing?”
Huh? It’s not often that I’m dumbstruck. The look on my face must’ve relayed my shock.
“What the hell are you doing?” she repeated. “Clearly this organization is showing you that they don’t value you.”
It was like getting cold cocked right on the side of the head.
“Here’s what you need to do. First, you need to have a better understanding of what your compensation really is. Fix that. Then, every single day, do something to get yourself out of there. Every. Single. Day.”
She went on to tell me what I could reasonably expect from filing a case; the realities of the investment of time, money, and energy. She told me my options, and the likelihood of success (being quite low). And then she sent me on my way.
It was the most compelling hour I’ve ever had in my career. I literally walked out of her office that day, and changed my life.
In that hour, Beth Symes reminded me of my worth, and inspired me to action. Whenever I find myself in times of doubt or frustration, it’s that conversation that I come back to, time and time again. Years later, her words are as empowering and uplifting to me as they were when I sat gobsmacked across the table from her.
In women’s business circles, we often talk about the power of mentoring, and we actively seek out networks and opportunities to connect that will fill that gap in most women’s professional lives. That experience taught me the real power of a mentoring moment, whether it’s over weeks and years, or a $500 hour in a lawyer’s office. Mentoring can come in all shapes and sizes, you just have to open your eyes and your ears and be ready to receive it.
So, because I never did follow up to let her know, I wanted to write this post today to let Ms. Symes know, you really changed my life that day, and I’m ever grateful. And this is why I continue to pay it forward whenever I can, advocate for women’s rights, create opportunities for women and girls in technology and refuse to forget my value.