In my previous article, I examined the ways in which I used my business clothing—suits and other androgynous and stiff business attire—to gain access to a fairly male-dominated, conservative work world.
I fondly remembered by the bright green suit that I had purchased for my first professional internship at a bank, only to have it be one of the few original and “edgy” clothing ensembles that I’ve ever worn in the ultra-conservative banking environment. While I climbed the ladder (occasionally slipping on a few steps, and completely missing others along the way) I knew that the best way to arm myself in a sometimes unfair corporate work world was to appear to be a strong (yes, male-like) figure. Banking was, after all, a grey-suit, stoic, rational “man’s world.” Not so much in the branches, mind you, where 90% of the employees were female tellers, assistant managers and personal bankers. But, if you went much farther than that up the hierarchy, you would get pretty lonely if you were a woman looking for another female compadre.
I had great ambitions to break the rules of the past and accelerating myself to the top of the organizations that I worked for. I worked 14 hour days, weekends, did the work that was typically not done by women (collections and farm lending), and still never got invited to the client golf games, the poker parties, the hunting trips or the basketball games. (Even though I mentioned on more than several occasions the fact that I golfed, I played poker, I grew up hunting, and played centre on my basketball team.) I knew that by being excluded from these activities, I was also limiting my exposure to the senior leaders of the organization—many of whom held my professional future in their hands. Still, I continued to persevere and continued to build my collection of corporate armour—navy blue suits with pencil skirts, dark grey suits with A-line skirts and completely shapeless black suit dresses. My goal was to appear as unfeminine as possible so that I would finally be taken seriously, and taken to an occasional golf game.
Then, I thought I had nearly won the lottery with my career advancement. The president of my bank promoted me to officer status, which was a huge deal. I was over the moon, thinking that I had finally broken through the barriers of leadership. To celebrate, I immediately bought myself a brand new (grey, of course) suit with a pair of “She Means Business” square toe, mid-heeled black pumps. I cut my hair to a conservative chin-length bob, feeling that the corporate world was indeed my oyster, and I would finally be treated like an equal among my male counterparts. Boy was I wrong.
The morning after the announcement of my promotion, I arrived at my office to find that my desk had been sabotaged with various obstacles to make it impossible to sit and do my work. A rubber, life-like rat was hanging by its neck over my doorway, and a continually scrolling message on my desktop computer read, “White Males Rule.” I had a good idea who had done this—a small group of male credit analysts who had admitted to being bitter about me getting promoted before them. All of my excitement about finally becoming one of the chosen few quickly turned into deep sadness and humiliation. I was actually furious with myself for not being furious, and ashamed that I closed my office door and sobbed uncontrollably. This was NOT what an executive woman in a proper grey suit was supposed to be treated like. After some time, I snuck into the washroom to fix my makeup, then headed to HR.
After a brief conversation with our HR department about what had happened, I was told that, if I wanted to pursue filing an official complaint against the individuals who ransacked my office, I could. But her advice was to just let it go or else risk being labelled as an emotional, irrational woman. I took her advice and vowed to never talk to HR about being harassed ever again.
Through 20 years of working in banking, ranging from that particular role all the way to a senior executive role, I kept my corporate armour of the conservative suit to shield me from ever being considered an emotional, irrational woman. There were multiple incidents of exclusion from client events, sexual innuendo and harassment in as many forms as there were shades of grey in my professional wardrobe. But I never let them break my armour. The suit carried on, unwavering, even though the woman inside it was sometimes broken.
I still have many of those suits from my past—holding on to them is a reminder that I don’t need to wear the armour anymore, that I have an unrestrained voice, and can be an emotional, rational and colourful leader. As I talk to my daughters about entering the work world, I vow to encourage them to show their colours—all of them, not just grey, or navy or black. Strong women don’t need the armour of a wool suit to make it professionally. What they do need is the internal strength to stick up for themselves when they are being mistreated. They need sharp reflexes to dodge the bullets that may be heading toward them. And they need an army of advocates who have shed their own armour and are willing to help them slay some dragons of their own.