Searching for equality in the workplace

Equality Isn't (Just) About Not Making The Coffee


It was the first day of April and my first day in the IT industry.

Starting a new job on April Fools’ Day might pose some challenges in any circumstances. In my case there was an added twist: The company was Texas Instruments , and I was one of the first women the company had hired in a professional role in their Geophysical division.

I was prepared for anything, armed with a conviction that I was as capable as anyone. It had been instilled by my parents from a young age and strengthened by the spirit of my generation of young women who were determined to break down the barriers of the past. 

I walked into the office that first day absolutely determined not to be treated any differently than the men. Within 20 minutes that was put to the test. One of the men in the office introduced himself and then asked, “Do you want me to show you how the coffee maker works?”

This was not an April Fools joke. I knew I needed to take a stand right there to set the tone. So I turned to him with an icy look, and said defiantly, “I do NOT make coffee!”

I felt pretty good about myself. I’d made it crystal clear I was there as a peer and not to get him coffee. 

That lasted a second or two until he replied sheepishly, “Um, OK, but we usually just all take turns.” I joined the coffee-making rotation. 

Now contrast that with another first day, more than 15 years later. 

I wasn’t going to be the first professional woman at this company, though I was the first female executive in my particular group. I was hired to launch a new business and was ready to collaborate across our group to make that a success. I assumed I’d be welcomed by all of my new colleagues. At minimum, they’d have no issues treating a woman as a peer. 

That notion quickly disappeared during a succession of introductory meetings with my male peers. One of these guys pointed to my forehead and asked, “What is that spot on your forehead?” I was horrified at the thought that I had a makeup malfunction when he answered his own question: “You have a bull’s eye on you … and I’m going to hit it!”

In another of these first meetings, a male colleague literally blocked the hall outside his office as he told me I didn’t belong there. Determined not to cower, I told him in no uncertain terms, “I do belong here, so get used to it and get the hell out of my way,” as I forced my way past him.

I had no idea what I had gotten myself into, but I am very competitive and was not about to quit. If that is how it was going to be, then I was ready for the fight.

I hope no women still have to endure that kind of “welcome” in today’s environment. And none see making coffee as a threat to their competence. In fact, I would rather make the coffee because I do a better job and I’m a lot less messy. Yet both of those experiences reflect a basic challenge that so many women in the workplace wrestle with, especially in predominantly male industries like technology. 

Women know they need to be forceful in advocating for their ideas and for their long-term career aspirations. Yet, so many women I talk to are also sensitive about being labeled “aggressive”… or worse (see “The Bitching Point”). 

The answer I give to women who ask me about that challenge is that there is no single right answer. Both of those first days reflect a challenge for so many women on finding the right balance in asserting themselves. It’s a matter of dialing it up or down as circumstances require. And just as I learned lessons from those two first days and thousands of other interactions in between, it’s always a work in progress.

No one wishes for confrontation, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. It’s necessary on occasion to make your voice heard and advocate for your ideas and your own career. On the flip side, consistently alienating colleagues and achieving your goals by sheer force of will won’t serve you well–as a colleague, a leader or simply as a person. Career advancement that comes at the expense of your core personal values is a truly a Pyrrhic victory. 

At the same time, don’t work too hard in searching for that balance. At the end of the day, you have to be genuine to yourself.

We tend to be particularly sensitive to the reactions of our colleagues. We’ve all experienced slights in our careers. We’ve all felt like screaming during a meeting when a male colleague is praised for a “great point” that we’d made only minutes before.

Those scenarios are still too common and the frustration is very real. Yet if we dwell on them too much they can become almost self-fulfilling. When you are constantly on the lookout the next slight (and they won’t be hard to find), you can easily lose sight of your bigger goals. It can sap the faith you have in your ideas and your convictions. 

The same goes in the other direction. All of us want to be liked, but we can’t be constantly worried about stepping on a few toes. 

Machiavelli famously said “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” I firmly believe we can be both, and more importantly it’s OK to be a little of both. We can take our turn making the coffee, but not let anyone stand in our way.

I authored this in May, 2011 for Forbes.  Unfortunately we haven't seen significant change!