by Leana Pardo
For our mid-year review my manager asked the 8 supervisors he managed to make a PowerPoint presentation that highlighted our team’s achievements. My manager was big on structured presentations that got right to the point. He wanted all the supervisors under him to make the same exact slides. He even gave us an example of a presentation we should model ours off of. Knowing my manager he usually doesn’t like any extra fluff, which he sees as extra nonsense. We were told to get straight to the point. The first slide gave us a chance to express the breakdown and objectives of the presentation. The next few slides would go into my team and their performance, how we stood compared to the rest of the teams in the department and so on. With this particular team I enjoyed highlighting their achievements, so making presentations were easy. My team was one of the top performing and producing teams at all times. Collectively we had only a 5 % error rate, the lowest scoring member on our team, who was extremely smart, had an 8% error rate. Compared to other teams we were doing great, our lowest performer would be another team’s best performer. One woman on my team even had a 0% error rate, which was close to impossible in the work we were doing.
We were frequently recognized at our department wide meetings, in front of well over 100 people; including top VP’s in the department. At the time, I attributed all of the success to my team. I would say, “No they are just super smart, I lucked out, it’s not me, it’s them.” Until later on one of my team members said to me, “Leana, we are all super smart and good at what we do, but you also relay all new information to us promptly and resolve our issues right away, so we are never sitting on files.” I later realized that it was a team effort and because I was never confident in my work, I would feel weird taking the credit for it. No doubt, my team was highly intelligent and diligent workers, but I also contributed to the success by communicating any change or issue to them immediately, and as they needed an answer to some problems right away so they could finish their work, I made sure the turn around time was fast and efficient. I was so proud of this team, Team Pardo. Highlighting our successes was an enjoyable task for me.
My bestie as I would call him, who has been one of my biggest supporters professionally and personally, sat right next to me. Our cubicles were actually connected. Anything I was doing he would peak over and either gave constructive criticism or would ask for help on what he could do better, with his own projects. We were inseparable. And of course the office immediately thought we were engaging in sexual intercourse, but we weren’t, he has a fiancé that is equally as funny and maybe even cooler, definitely hotter than he is. Antonio was my best friend at work. I could tell him things about my personal life and he would not only keep my secrets but always look out for me, as did I with him. We had spent the whole day working on our presentations, when I was stumped I’d squeeze my way through the cabinet that divided us and say, “Ok how did you do this on Excel?” He was an expert on Excel, and when I didn’t feel ADD and actually could sit and listen to his monotone boring tutorials on it, he taught me a lot. He helped me add links into some of the PowerPoint slides.
Not only was our 16 slide presentation close to identical but after looking over a few of my other colleagues presentations, they were exactly like theirs too. To some managers this would seem like a bad thing, but to my boss this was seen as doing the right thing. Anything different would be below standards. It finally came time to add colors and effects. This is the only thing that really differentiated any of our presentations. I remember laughing and making fun of Antonio’s coloring. He chose to do this neon color with a slate grey. It looked like some Nike ad from the 1980’s. I told him and he could careless, he just wanted to get back to his regular work, so he could get out in time. I saw another female co-worker of mine and hers had some type of wave motif going on. When I got back to mine, I decided not to make it gender specific. I did not want a flowery, womanly touch to it. I had one of the best teams in the department; I wanted colors to represent them, or us. After going through the color schemes on PowerPoint I came across a neutral one. It was a light blue, a grey and a burnt orange. It looked like colors you would see in a hospital. I thought it was neutral enough, not to show that this directly came from a female.
A manager came by to see how we were doing on our presentations for the ‘big boss’. He stopped at Antonio’s desk first and complimented him on his team’s achievements as well as his placement of slides. (Oddly enough all of us placed the slides the same way, we were given an example.) Then he came to my desk. I can be overly perky and hyper when excited, that frequently translates to quirky asshole girl, so I opened mine with a smile saying, “here’s mine.” Then I said excitedly, “I highlighted my team members that have always stayed at a 100 score or 0% error rate!” It was one of those moments where I knew I was going to get a compliment. I was waiting for a well-deserved, “Great Job Leana!”
“Cute,” he said.
As I sat there looking like a deer in headlights, he walked away. Cute? How was this cute? Why is this cute? What did I do that made it cute? If anything Antonio’s lime green sneaker ad was cuter than mine. Was he trying to say my over excited eagerness to show and tell was cute or did this man really just say that my presentation was cute? I was so insulted. I sat there for a few minutes taking it in. I took this project way more serious than Antonio, probably because when my manager and Antonio were together they talked like they knew each other for years; he had nothing to worry about.
Not me who had to constantly prove myself as a diligent worker to my manager. Why was mine cute? I was enraged. I ran over to Antonio and told him what happened. Most men would say, so he said it was cute, what’s the big deal? He listened to everything I said and was as shocked as I was. He pointed out that we had damn near the same exact presentation, besides his choice in trashy colors. This was an eye-opener that I would never forget, from here on out you could say I started clocking my male managers behaviors. They were never inappropriate, never sexual or weird, just down right sexist. On the outside I was this ‘cute’ young supervisor, but on the inside I was seething with hatred. I wanted to burn my bra and light this whole floor on fire. As I looked at the other women on the floor working, I realized we were working for nothing. Even though, many of the top performers were women, the ones that came in at 7:40 every morning instead of 8:00, because they wanted to make sure they were on time and ready to go, we were never going to be seen as anything more than ‘cute’. They allowed us in.
They allowed us to sit and work, they even allowed me to sit at a nice desk with cabinets and drawers, but we were in a different world. We weren’t in their world. I didn’t work in Corporate America, where my reports and presentations were described with adjectives like; effective, efficient, resourceful and proficient. We lived in a cute little island off Corporate America. We lived in a place with cute little blazers and heals. We lived in a place where we had to do well. We had to give 100 percent, we had to come early, because if we didn’t we would be seen as useless women who are always on the phone because of emergencies with their children or calling out because of sick kids. No matter how hard I would try, I would always be seen as cute, not a leader or assertive, but cute. And my friend who was a female, who was hard, assertive and aggressive, she wouldn’t be seen as cute, no she was a bitch. She was the bitch that was hard to work with. Even though, any team she managed was always top producing and performing, she was only going to be the bossy bitch, never the successful manager, only the bitch no one wanted to be around. Why, because she acted “like a man.” She wasn’t “cute” like me.
Like many times in my life, I started questioning myself. What did I do wrong? My work was seen as cute and Antonio’s seen as diligent, but why? When men would stare at my chest during my teen years, I quickly blamed myself. I stopped wearing any shirt that showed my cleavage. But it didn’t stop the staring, instead of blaming the perverted forty year old men, I blamed myself. Just like now, I was blaming my cute, flighty, hyper behavior. I was always great at modifying my behavior, or as my best friend would say morphing into something I wasn’t. I wanted to be taken more seriously at work. I didn’t want to be described as cute, like my PowerPoint slides. I started dressing differently in hopes that it would be less of a distraction to my male colleagues. Whatever was cute was the opposite of what I wanted. I began to wear baggier pants and flats. They were still dress pants and work appropriate, but they were less curve hugging and wider, less trendy. My blouses which were once professional button downs became long sweaters that hid my body.
If I had to wear a suit because of visitors or presentations, I would make sure to wear baggier slacks under the fitted blazer. I stopped wearing make-up. When I do not wear makeup I can easily be mistaken for a 16 year old. However, mascara and lip stick would make me look more like a sex symbol than a boss. Contacts were no longer an every morning task. I would start only wearing my glasses. My hair which was always long was now tied in a bun high on my head. Probably the cause of my many migraines, but to my surprise, this look was so easy to pull off. I was putting myself all out there. There was nothing sexual about me. I liked my new look, it was easy and people, especially men, became friends with me because of my sense of humor and conversation, not because I had breasts bouncing in their faces. For the first time in my life I had become comfortable with who I was. Fridays were dress down days. I also had plans almost every other Friday when I didn’t have my children, either going to dinner with friends or going to happy hour after work. On these Fridays I would dress nicely. I did my hair, wore a nice outfit and wore some makeup. The reaction on the floor would amuse me. People that I was acquainted with would comment on how nice I ‘could’ look, as if I was wasting my potential on the other days. But my real friends, the ones that I had lunch with every day that I talked to about everything that were all men, didn’t care either way. Nothing changed on those days, they still made fun of me, I still made fun of them, and we still complained about our jobs, I was the same girl they always had lunch with. And for my one female colleague, the bitch, she loved when I dressed up. She would always compliment me when I wore something nice on those Fridays, but the difference was, on those Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays and Thursdays, she did too. She would say I was naturally pretty. As ‘aggressive’ and ‘bitchy’ as everyone says she was I only got compassion and honesty from her.
As much as this change helped my own self esteem, it didn’t help what I was trying to prove. I was trying to prove that I was a good, hard, worker and not some flighty bimbo, but this new look, made me more of an intern or assistant. At one point our reporting team was not up to par. During one of our daily morning meetings I had asked if the reporting team could add a column in their report, a column I knew would be easy to add in Excel. My suggestion was immediately shot down. It was not only shot down, but was also criticized by saying; we could get the info on our own. So not only did I feel dumb, but now I was stamped as lazy. I told myself to stop talking so much during meetings, you’re just making stupid suggestions that they don’t care about. One of my best friends at work, Tom, a musician, who had fallen into foreclosure documentation review because he needed to get a “real job,” was always very encouraging and when I would tell him what happened in our meetings he would say that it wasn’t me that we just worked with stupid people. A week later we were in another routine morning meeting.
This time Antonio joined us, his schedule was freed up on that day so he could make it. As he looked puzzled at the report, he asked why the column I had suggested hadn’t been added. He was not at the previous meeting where I had suggested this nor did I complain to him about them shutting me down.
As Antonio slouched, leaning on the wall and pulled at his hair in frustration as to why this column wasn’t there since it was so pertinent to our research, the room of about 12 people stopped what they were doing and looked at the report. Antonio was a second year law student that used to make a six figure salary at a huge mortgage company before the recession. The same report liaison that had shut my idea down a week before was now stuttering over his words explaining to Antonio that it would be an easy column and that next week’s report would have the column he requested.
As I revived myself from having a slight heart attack, I whispered into Antonio’s ear that I had suggested the same thing last week when he wasn’t there. He smiled and started laughing quietly, dumbfounded. When the meeting was over we quickly walked back to our attached cubicles to discuss. I explained in detail how I had brought it up in last weeks meeting. I had him 75 % convinced. He just wasn’t sure if it was a miscommunication or not. I knew this was not a miscommunication. When Antonio spoke they listened, when I spoke I was still some dumb little girl that was better at making cute reports than running meetings. When my female friend spoke she was being bossy and pushy to them.
We made a deal that next meeting I would suggest something and see how far the suggestion would go. The following meeting after that, he would say the exact same suggestion, verbatim, and we would see if they listened, to him. I fully understand that testing and hypothesizing during work hours, was wrong. I was getting paid to work, not to run some feminist science experiment, but I wanted to know if this was really happening or was it just a coincidence. During another morning meeting I asked why something was on our ridiculously confusing report. I asked what it had to do with what we were doing, how could this feature help us? I wanted to know so I could start utilizing it. Once again I was quickly shut down. The answer I got was, “You don’t need to know this, just don’t worry about it.”
“But what is it?” I pushed.
“Nothing that you would understand or need to know.’ I was told.
Antonio and I took a mental note of this. The following week in our morning meeting he asked what this feature was. The response was very different.
“Antonio, I am not sure, let me get back to you guys on that one.”
Floored! We were floored! Unfortunately I proved my point. When I had asked for answers I was told not only did I not need to know it, but it wasn’t for me to even know. We were both disgusted. Instead of being outraged, we laughed it off. I felt incompetent and down, but I hid it with laughter. I felt stupid, but after sharing our experiment with our lunch table, they all made me feel better because they thought I was smart. I wasn’t in law school; I didn’t travel the world composing music. I was a single mother who had once been on welfare and the scum of the earth, but they made me feel like I was smart. Like it wasn’t me who was stupid, it was these dumb misogynistic animals that we worked for that were stupid, and as long as they knew that, as long as those three men I ate lunch with everyday knew I wasn’t some idiot bimbo then that’s all that mattered. They had my back and we were in this little club where we could be ourselves. Tom could be his inappropriate hysterical self, Antonio could crack us up with his dry humor and make fun of himself, while Mark could curse up a storm in his New England accent, the wicked pissah that he was, and me, well that was easy, I could speak freely about my kids, about my past, I could curse, I could laugh and be witty. And they would remind me I wasn’t stupid or incompetent that I was perfectly fine the way I was and it was them not me.
Antonio and I would play our game a few times more in the months we worked together. The last
experiment came out to be the best one. This is the one that I realized maybe I wasn’t a sexy bimbo, because of my outfit, I was now the intern and the assistant. Antonio and I would meet with a group of foreclosure specialists in a conference once a week. The conference room would be Antonio, managers, NY foreclosure specialists and on the phone would be about three or four other foreclosure specialists from all over the country. We had one specialist that was heading the project and acting as the liaison between NY and the others in Florida and Texas. He was very busy and pulled in many directions, so when I requested that he is at our weekly afternoon conference call I was quickly shut down by his peers, who said he did not have to be there. That afternoon as we gathered in our conference room to speak with the specialists from other offices, Antonio sternly asked, “Wait why isn’t the liaison here? How can any of us be on the same page if the person that is connecting us together and relaying information, not here?” This was my point exactly. I kicked him under the conference table, letting him know this is exactly what I said earlier. He couldn’t help but smile because he knew this is what I asked earlier in the day.
In a hurry a manager exclaimed, “Where is he? Why is he not here?”
After heavily sighing and cracking a smile in Antonio’s direction, I was surprisingly brought into this conversation, but not because I was getting the credit I deserved. Shockingly enough the manager looked at me and said, “Leana, please go get him!” My eyes bulged out of my head.
“Excuse me, what?” I said. Antonio was now almost in tears laughing.
“Go find him, we need him here!” The manager exclaimed. Not only was I shut down earlier for suggesting this to the same people, but now I had become a gofer of sorts that needed to go find this person and bring him back to face Antonio and management. I got up from the meeting that I was fully engaged in and now I had to go downstairs to another floor to find the man I thought should have been there from the first place. I was disgusted. This went down in the record book. Antonio and I couldn’t let it go. We talked about it constantly.
Thinking back about the situation maybe I should have done something. Maybe I should have brought it to management’s attention, even though management was enabling it. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to look immature for setting these scenarios up; I didn’t want to look insubordinate, and most of all I didn’t want to look like I was complaining. Me, the single mom that needed to leave early at times to get sick kids, the one who had to make doctor appointments and awards ceremonies, I was grateful enough to have a job, I didn’t want to mess it up so I lived on this island, just being cute. Not smart or competent, I lived in Corporate America not making too much noise and doing what I was told, I can’t figure out which one is worse, being cute or being the bitch.
At least when you’re the bitch, you don’t become someone else’s.
Leana left her job at JP Morgan Chase and is now pursuing her masters in social policy within gender studies.