It's been eight years, and I'm still angry. Angry that I had so little control over my own destiny for so many years. I have vented my frustration and resentment amongst close friends and family for quite some time, but I have never spoken publicly about this pivotal part of my life. When I think about where I am today and why I became an independent equine nutritionist, I realize that gender discrimination is a motivating part of that story, and I'm ready to tell it.
Long before the ME TOO movement and long before I had the vocabulary, I experienced gender discrimination in the workplace. I finally recognized it when I was 29 years old and newly married. At that point I had been working for a large agricultural cooperative for six years. My boss was a regional manager (recently promoted), and we were meeting for my annual review. I can still see it in my mind like it happened yesterday. I can see the nearly empty restaurant, the salad plate in front of me, and my orientation in space. I remember shifting and seething in my chair.
The manager, attempting to wrap up the review, asked me where I saw myself in the next few years- I had only been married for a few months. For whatever reason, I turned the question back on him and asked where he thought I’d be in the next few years. His response is what awoke my consciousness to gender discrimination in its authentic form. He said something like "now that you’re married, I imagine you’ll slow down". What he implied is that I could not/would not want to meet the challenging travel demands of the job in my new role as wife. He assumed that I wanted children and that my obvious role was at home caring for them. In that instant I understood why I had been discouraged from applying for the promotion behind a colleague everyone knew as the class clown- who "networked" for business at the local bar. I understood why, a couple years later, I was turned down a second time despite my excellent employee record. And I do mean rockstar excellent. I had entered this company like a Tazmanian devil and transformed the distribution territory, the marketing, and what was possible.
Many of you will read this and think "what's the big deal? or "how can you be sure that's what he meant?", but that moment in that restaurant was crystallizing. It was one of very few SHIFT moments in my life time. A moment when the summation of your life experiences come together for "oh...now I see". The veil of naivety was removed, and the certainty of that experience was the most gut wrenching, demoralizing thing that has happened in my professional career. It changed everything.
This was not the first nor the last time that I would experience gender discrimination working in agriculture. My young, naive brain had leapt over previous discriminatory signals, comments, and challenges like road bumps, because it was "just the way things were"on the road to a fulfilling career. I accepted them as the only female in a male dominated "good ol' boy" sales team for many years, because I was young and I was "one of the boys". Several years later, when I once again was runner-up for promotion behind a colleague with far less experience in the company, I was told that other management would not work with a female leader. Of course, I called Human Resources, but that was before I understood that HR Departments are advocating for the company's protection not the individual employee. What was interesting about that call to HR several years after the restaurant moment, was not their reaction, but mine. I cried. So. Hard. That cathartic release to the HR woman made me realize just how deeply I had been hurt. I deserved those promotions. I believed it then, and I believe it now.
That manager had made false assumptions about my dreams and my capabilities as a woman, and in doing so changed the course of my life. To make the situation worse, I had looked up to this person as a mentor in my early career. I respected him. I trusted him. But here he was standing in my way. He was the enabler in the company. There were other discriminators, but their inappropriate behavior was second to the boss. I think about his high school daughter and how proud he was of her achievements and high ambition. I wondered if men like him would someday stand in her way too and how he would feel about that. After 10 years of very productive and engaged work, I left the company, because I was tired of being held down.
I always wanted more as an employee. At first I wanted to be in management, and then I wanted to be a nutritionist who formulated products, and then, with a new company I wanted more territory and more responsibility. Every offer I made to be challenged, I was turned down. After just one year with a new company but similar job, I was bored. Once again, I saw no way up, so I quit and started my own business. I value those 12 plus years, because they gave me the experience, the perspective, and the enormous network that I needed to be successful in my current role. I think I was always meant to be my own boss with my own company. However, I must admit, the bitter after taste is still there, and I think that I need to do something with that.
I control my own destiny now, but avoidance won't help fix the bigger problem. What can I do to awaken and support other women in the agricultural workspace? It certainly can start with awareness. Day to day gender discrimination is often not outwardly flagrant. It can be subtle, but its long term effects are not. Those subtleties redirect your timeline in profound ways. I think about the construction of the 630 foot Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I learned recently that their precision was so important that just millimeters off at the beginning of the construction would have moved the placement of the final keystone piece by feet. This is what happens in gender discrimination. Tiny retractions at the beginning of your career will set you back decades near the end of your career compared to your male counterparts. That first promotion early in your career is vitally important.
I was going to end my story about here, but then I asked my husband to read it before it was published. "There's no call to action" he said. "It appears like you've just accepted the experience and moved on". God, I love him so deeply for challenging me in this way. He kinda nailed it, because it's this feeling of helplessness and disempowerment that makes gender discrimination so difficult to talk about. I thought long and hard, but I could not come up with an immediate call-to-action. I have several ideas about how my story can create change, but I'm not ready to enact those just yet. I suppose it starts by writing this article. The worst thing that could happen is that nobody reads it, shares it, and/or has conversations about it with other women in their lives. So, if you yourself have experienced discrimination (in any form) in your workspace, please consider sharing this article with another. Just click copy and then paste it somewhere...go ahead...do it now.