Smart women, dumb circumstances

10 11 2011

During my recently-relaunched job search I have been confronted by an attitude that I had no idea was still a serious a problem in early 21st century corporate life. Women have had the right to vote in most countries for more than a generation, in some countries more than two generations, and have been an integral part of the workforce for much longer than that. That the glass ceiling still exists at all is a crime in itself.

But here is a little more food for thought.

Twice within a short period of time I have been rejected for jobs on a premise and for a reason that for me is quite simply unbelievable. I was always told to work hard, and that there will be rewards. “You can do whatever you want in life,” was the refrain I always heard from elders and teachers.

Well, apparently, if you are a woman, and you work too hard, and do too much, and want too much and you are tall and blonde and strong and intelligent and outspoken, all these factors will conspire to work against you because managers are downright scared of you.

And if you wear heels, by God, you are in for it.

My favorite heels of all time. These boots were made for walking, but not only.

Earlier this year, I interviewed at a company that has a record of treating smart women well. I saw a TV feature on the company’s CEO, a rare bird indeed in a tough, manipulative and mildly corrupt industry. I saw myself learning a great deal from this person. Especially tactical things like getting ahead in territory that is generally dominated by men.

The rejection surprised me because I had the feeling from my interviewer (the person who would be my direct superior) that I was just what he was looking for. He seemed confident that I could do the job well, fit into the team and could offer me a perspective to expand my abilities and skills to benefit both the company and myself.

I ran into this person in a completely different context months later. Somehow, the topic came up as to what the real reasons were for why I was not offered the job. He said flatly, “You were too strong for my CEO. You would have scared her to death.”

A second incident happened shortly thereafter. The feedback from my interview, passed on to me by HR: “The department head felt threatened by you. He felt like you could do his job, and not the one you applied for.”

Well of course I could do his job, but the question that nobody bothered to ask me is: would I even want to? (Uh… no.)

So how do I get my message across in a non-threatening way? I have no idea. I don’t want to be the boss, I don’t want to have to deal with personnel management, and I could care less about the perks and the big bucks that go along with it. (I just left a job to which I was lured by money and status, and it didn’t make me happy.)

I just want to be left alone to my own devices, work as a member of a team, deliver my deliverables, and go home. I have no desire to have to pick up my phone in the middle of the night on the weekend to solve a problem for some impatient person who can’t wait till Monday morning. Been there, done there, got the stupid T-shirt. And a burnout.

In the meantime I have the feeling that I have to dumb-down my CV and my story to make it look like I am less qualified than I really am.

For real? Isn’t that just so… wrong?

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Of journalists and corporations

9 10 2011

Like many employees in these difficult economic times, I am disillusioned and disappointed in the place I have been lassooed to these past four years. While chained to my desk, I have become increasingly cynical and disgusted with the superficial nature of the corporate world as a whole. Of the relentless chase after the almighty buck and the daily soul-crushing acts of psychological torture.

A few months ago, I resolved to return to journalism, to my roots, somehow. I decided that I am probably far too critical of corporate hot air to really ever be able to breathe it with ease and spread it with pleasure. Or to drink the poison Kool-aid like I would need to in order to fully succeed as a media flak.

There is no way I will ever be as comfortable in stilettos and a suit as I was in hiking boots and cargo pants, with a reporter’s notebook in my back pocket.

Last week, I received a painful rejection for a journalism job that I felt like I had all sealed up. The hiring manager had (perhaps inadvertently) signaled this to me during my meeting with her.

After I spent weeks waiting for the final thumbs up (that was supposed to be just a formality), she called to tell me that she could not offer me the job covering the Swiss banking industry. Not because my qualifications or experience were insufficient, and not because I was too expensive either. The reason is much more banal and dogmatic: I was disqualified from a job for which I was the top candidate because… (drum roll)… I am married to someone who works at a large Swiss bank.

She told her own superiors that she really, really wanted me on her team, and that she would reshuffle the reporting assignments, allowing me to cover an entirely different industry and focus on entirely different topics. Her managers reiterated their “no way”.

When she told me this, I was stunned and speechless. I had never before been rejected for a job because of the company I keep or the man I am married to.

For those who don’t know Zurich well, it is a small town chock full of financial service companies. It would indeed be strange, I countered, if I did not have close friends (or relatives) in the industry which employs the most people and generates the most tax revenue and economic value in all of Switzerland.

And the fact that the top editors at a high-quality international news organization would not even consider a change of reporting beats to accommodate a very qualified candidate indicates to me that they are more concerned with doctrine and ideology than finding the best people for a particular position. To me, this reeks of discrimination and middle management that has been intimidated into spinelessness by some corporate policy that is not worth the paper it’s printed on. How ironic.

So after this unusual, unbelievable and stinging rejection, I continue my search to be relevant. My search to find a place that will value my skills and experience, long for my writing and appreciate my personality. A place that will not judge me by who I fell in love with and married.

Can’t wait to find out if that place exists out there.





26 hours in Paris

11 08 2011

OMG. They let me out of the institution. Unchained me from my desk. Uncaged me from my glass cubicle. Released me into the great wide world. I finally got to go on a “business trip,” my first official mission out of the office in more than three years.

To Paris.

Snapshot from a taxi. (August 8, 2011)

Of course, it’s not that I haven’t been out of Switzerland in the last three years (I have, quite a bit actually, on vacation, personal leave or a long weekend). But travel just has a whole different quality about it when you know you are not footing the bill. Even the complimentary croissant in Economy Class tastes better when someone else is paying.

First of all, you are wearing different clothes. See you later, fleece and jeans and sneakers; make way for … a blazer and jeans and pumps.

Second, you get to finger your Blackberry with impunity, as if you have some absolutely lifesaving, crucial, time-sensitive nugget of information to deliver before take-off. Other people think you are on some kind of important and top-secret operation, even if you’re really just playing “Word Mole” to pass the time.

Third, upon arrival at your destination airport, you have no qualms whatsoever about grabbing a taxi into town, and paying 60 euros ($100) for the privilege. Even though public transportation probably would have been faster, cheaper and more environmentally-friendly.

And of course, at the end of the day, you have even less of a moral conflict when paying the restaurant bill after that fabulous dinner with friends you haven’t seen for at least five years. (After all, you had to check to see if your expense account was still active, and if they still accept your corporate American Express card.)

Remember, it was your idea to order that second carafe of wine.

And of course, don’t forget that you do sleep much better in the hotel’s 1500-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets than you would if you are paying for that overpriced hotel room yourself, or sleeping in your own bed, at home. Just sayin’.

Though Paris is at the lower end of my personal worldwide “Top-10” list (another topic for another blog), a lot of great memories came back to me as I sat in the back of a taxi, speeding through the arondissements. Like the time a friend and I blew kisses from the Eiffel Tower (her idea – God, we were young then), or when I attended a week of lectures at an elite French university, or when I watched World Cup soccer matches on the big-screen at the Trocadéro public viewing area, or when I saw the Mona Lisa for the first time.

My business trip to Paris was a short but sweet affair, exactly 26 hours on the ground, from touchdown to take-off. It was all very pleasant, with the most pleasant bit being the change of scenery.

I returned to my office as scheduled and am starting to wonder if there will be a next time, and when. Maybe next time I can stretch it to 48 hours or, goodness me, perhaps even 72 hours. Or maybe I will go and just not come back. (I wonder if my officemates would notice I’ve escaped…?)





Real life

17 07 2011

My managers recently told me that my job will be going the way of the dinosaurs soon. As in: extinct. Quite unsettling, especially considering I had no say in the planning or the timing of all this.

I had been toying with the idea of quitting for a while now; I wasn’t particularly happy in my job. The issue of dealing with clueless and socially incompetent superiors is tough enough. But returning from a 3-month sabbatical to find no less than eight close colleagues had decided to flee the institution is a rather large blow to one’s enthusiasm.

Photo out of a recruiting brochure for a large bank. Exciting, huh?

So anyway, I have been chewing on this news for the last couple of weeks and trying to figure out how to make the best of the situation. My concentration often wanders while I am at work, I look out my high floor window at the world below and concoct complex plans involving idealistic notions of the way the world should be – and the positive difference I want to make in it.

The other day I applied to a job with exactly that in the description: “We are looking for people who want to make a positive difference in the world.” Well hell, where have you been all these years, dear potential employer?

The truth is, though, it never is like what they tell you…that’s what bothers me most about being an adult. Parents, teachers and other people of authority dangle this image of the perfect world in front of kids’ noses for the first 18 years of their lives. They are told a million times that a good education and lots of hard work will get them whatever they want, and enable them to live a life of happiness and prosperity. That anything is possible if only they put their minds to it. That there will be a reward in return for years of exertion, good sense and following real and unwritten rules.

When I was a kid, most of us actually believed it all.

And in the second 18 years of life, we found out that that’s simply a bunch of horse manure.

In the meantime – and currently motoring along in my 3rd chunk of 18 years – I am all for telling kids their dreams will never come true, no matter how hard they work or what sacrifices they make. As in: “Forget it kid, your ambitions are toast, especially in this economy.” That would be much more honest than sending them on a wild goose chase for a nonexistent pot of gold.

Certainly every generation has its winners, those superstars who proverbially fly to the zenith of their professions and are not only phenomenally successful, but also genuinely happy. But for all the rest of us who forewent things we believed in in order to bust our chops and never reach that level of success anyway because someone just doesn’t like the way we dress, or the friends we have, or the way we express ourselves, well, then, that’s just time wasted, is it not?

So now I wait for a new employer who will graciously invite me to exchange my brainpower for a pay check. I am “talent”, waiting for a place to be “managed”. Nothing more. My next job will be a transaction – a deal sealed by two signatures on a piece of paper – performed five days a week, for 47 weeks a year, for the number of years it takes before the one side is sick of the other.

Maybe I’m just tired. I know there will be idiots, intrigue, incompetence, injustice and inequality wherever I go, and I will make a sincere effort to deal with them in the best way I know how: to (try to) never again allow myself to get emotionally involved.  Hence, the positive difference I make in this world will be elsewhere.

And never the twain shall meet.





Unemployment and resilience

19 03 2011

It’s hard not to notice the after-shocks of the financial crisis here in South Florida. There are still a lot of houses with “for sale” signs on them and the media are still reporting about long, soul-crushing job searches. Millions of highly-qualified, experienced folks looking for work. Anything at all. Going back to the basics they thought they had graduated from and left behind years ago.

Too many people, too few jobs.

And as I come face-to-face with these stories, I am increasingly thankful that I made it through the crisis with a stable job, in a stable environment. I complain a lot about toxic levels of arrogance, but yes, okay, it’s complaining at a very high level.

The other night out at the beach, I met a woman, about my age… let’s call her Carrie. We got to talking. She had a very slight British accent and she told me that she moved to Florida from London 20 years ago, and then from here to the West Coast in 2005. She was back east on business this week.

She asked me what I was doing in Miami, and I told her I was on an unpaid sabbatical.

Carrie said she had just gotten off a sabbatical of her own about a year ago. It was 18 months long, and involuntary. The sabbatical she had, however, is generally known under another name: “unemployment”. She had been a marketing manager for a global motorcycle manufacturer, and was laid off after 15 years in the industry.

Carrie spent more than a year and a half with no idea what her future would bring, living off her savings and hoping every day for some kind of turn for the better. She sent out more than 200 job applications and heard little, if anything, back.

“It was just like writing into a big black hole,” she told me.

I had heard exactly this sentence on the radio earlier that day. And now the story had a real face. Carrie said she ended up doing what she called “internships”. But, I asked, what company was willing to give someone in their mid-40’s an internship when there are long lines of young university graduates applying for the same thing?

“Well, they weren’t internships in the classic sense. More like… loose consulting. Or just sitting in on conferences, going to company events, volunteering my time to do… anything, really, and networking.” All for free, of course. And she never gave up.

Her big break came just over a year ago, as a direct result of one of these “internships”. She got a job as the national sales manager for a maker of motorcycle protective clothing. She now supervises more than 100 sales representatives working for her and regularly travels across North America visiting and training her employees.

“It’s my dream job,” she told me, back in the industry and sport she has loved since she was a kid. But it came at a high price. She said she had to take a 65% pay cut. “It’s been really, really hard. Really hard. But it’s getting better now.”

This looks dangerous. But hey, if it's your thing....

Carrie’s story had a happy ending. She made me think about myself, and how I might react in a situation like hers. Four years ago, I was unemployed for three lousy months, resting in a generous European social security net, and still I was close to a nervous breakdown.

I’m wondering if I could be as resilient as Carrie, if I found myself in her shoes. What would it take to not lose faith in my skills and abilities, in humanity, and in the system? Where would I get the positive energy to keep trying? And what would be the alternative?





Stuffed shirts and other friendly co-workers

25 10 2010

They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. How very true. But – surprise! – you can’t choose your work colleagues either. As most of you who are laboring in the workforce have already figured out, every group has its real winners. One has to learn how to deal with them, somehow, respecting them for who they are, and loving each for their own special…shall we say…talents.

Now that I have been back from vacation for a while and interacting with my co-workers again, here is a short list of a few folks with whom I spend most of my waking hours. We will soon even get to spend a  w-h-o-l-e  weekend retreat together. Oh I just can’t wait!

The Stuffed Shirt

  • a yes-man extraordinaire with arrogance oozing out of his pores.
  • has no qualms about telling you directly how stupid he thinks you are.
  • will kill and then step over (and sometimes on) the dead bodies to further his career.

Not really my type.

Queen Shit

  • acts like she owns the place, including appropriating the parking spot closest to the door.
  • spends most of the work day taking breaks, sipping green tea and gossiping.

The Tragic Heroine

  • one of the longest-serving, hardest-working members of staff.
  • was forced to watch helplessly as most of her department was decimated in a cost-cutting exercise.
  • bends over backwards to accommodate others and always delivers ahead of every deadline.

The Ogre

  • tolerates no resistance, takes prisoners.
  • always in a bad mood and always right.
  • always.

The Ageless Intellectual Hippie

  • spent the final years of the 1960’s tossing Molotov Cocktails from barricades across Europe.
  • hairstyle and politics have changed little since the summer of love but ideals have been modified to suit the modern mainstream.
  • is most comfortable quoting Ché Guevara while nibbling on sashimi and sipping a flute of Veuve Cliquot.

Onward comrades!

The Snake

  • female, sinister, cold.
  • has a sharp tongue but can also inflict lethal injuries with a single nasty look.
  • “it’s all about me, me, me.”

The “Office Mattress”

  • is an explanation really necessary here?

The Consciencious Objector

  • smart as a whip and possesses an uncannily accurate bullshit radar.
  • has a strong sense of justice and is very vocal about it.
  • an excellent source to have hanging around the watercooler.

The Company Clown

  • free entertainment, no matter what the occasion.

The Company Joke

  • a detriment to the collegial atmosphere in more ways than one.
  • spineless as a tasered amoeba.

The Fish Out of Water

  • obviously uncomfortable in office clothes and shaky on high heels.
  • has not mastered the art of silly management politics yet and probably never will.
  • regularly invests in EuroMillions lottery tickets.