Girl Talk: What I’ve Learned From Working With Other Women

In a piece she penned for the latest issue of New York magazine, Roseanne Barr discusses her experience as a feminist pioneer in media. Throughout the piece she shares anecdotes about struggling to make it in a male-dominated industry. Of the most interest to me were her anecdotes about the females she encountered along the way. She writes about women that screwed her over and disrespected her and others that supported her and stuck up for her. One description of a non-supportive female colleague stuck out:

“This producer was a woman, a type I became acquainted with at the beginning of my stand-up career in Denver. I cared little for them: blondes in high heels who were so anxious to reach the professional level of the men they worshipped, fawned over, served, built up, and flattered that they would stab other women in the back. They are the ultimate weapon used by men against actual feminists who try to work in media, and they are never friends to other women, you can trust me on that.”

I’ve learned, as Roseanne expresses, that there are two kinds of women in the workplace; the ones who cut you down, compete, and feel threatened and the ones that lift you up, teach you more, feel proud of your successes, and have your back.

I know this type of woman. I’ve worked with her a few times. I encountered her at my first real office job. It was no walk in the park — more like a walk through a mine field. I had just quit acting, the only thing I had ever known how or wanted to do. I had worked a lot of other jobs, but they were all odd jobs fit for aspiring performers; night club bitch, barista, lazy intern, nanny, and the like.

I wanted to be employed as far away from the Hollywood scene as possible. So I went to work as a finance assistant at a car dealership in the Valley. I don’t admit this very often because it kind of embarrasses me to have done a job that is so far away from my interests or talents. My dad hooked me up with the gig. He works in the automotive industry and had no intention of paying my rent while I puttered around professionally. This was not a glamorous instance of nepotism. Exactly the opposite.

There I was, an unqualified, self-important 23-year-old with an acting degree from NYU walking into an environment filled with professional women all at least twice my age. Naturally, they didn’t welcome me with open arms.

One in particular despised me. Her name was Linda*. She was pushing 50, wore power suits from TJ Maxx, spiked heels, way too much perfume and a chignon glazed with Aquanet. She was like a harder, older Sarah Palin. She was the head of the department, which technically made her my boss. She reported to our “big boss,” the man who occupied the only office on the floor. Linda kissed the big boss’ ass shamelessly. But the big boss liked me more and often asked me to do certain tasks without consulting Linda. She did not appreciate this and therefore, treated me like a leper and encouraged the other “gals,” as she called them, to do the same. Everyday, the gals went on afternoon power walks together. I was not invited. I ate lunch alone while Linda and the others chain-smoked, drank black coffee, and gossiped (probably about me). Did I mention they hated me?

One day, I arrived 17 minutes late to work. Linda was waiting by the door.

“You’re late,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, walking past her as quickly as possible to the coffee maker.

I poured the final cup of coffee into my mug.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” she screamed, backing me into a corner.

“No one,” I replied, choking back tears.

It was true. I felt like nothing. And the way she treated me only made me feel smaller. If only she’d known how lost I was, how dead inside I felt as I stapled packets of paperwork every day and filed them in manila folders for $11 an hour. If only she’d known, maybe she would have been kinder. But how you feel tends to be irrelevant in the workplace. If only I’d known that.

And if only I’d understood how off-putting it must have been for her to be told to hire some snot-nose brat whose dad was friends with her boss. If only I’d known how irritating it must have been that was that I was unable to show up for work on time or the how insulting it must have felt when the big boss and I chatted about my plans to go back to grad school or move back to New York. To me, it seemed like my career was over, but really it was just beginning. Linda knew that and that’s why she hated me. Perhaps I was the one who should have felt badly for her.

After five more months, I left that job. I did go back to grad school and eventually moved back to New York. I haven’t thought about Linda since the moment the door hit my ass on the way out.

A few years later, I was working at theater production company in New York when Lisa* was hired to be an assistant to one of the partners of the company. She was a bright 23-year-old with a theater degree from a prestigious university. She was a conscientious worker, although she usually arrived at least 17 minutes late and loved to talk about her plans for grad school. One day, I overheard Arlene*, a brown-nosing power hungry assistant, talking to a group of other women in the office about trying to get Lisa fired because she wasn’t “good at her job.” Did she mean Lisa wasn’t the big boobed, perky bimbo type the partner liked to have sitting in front of his office? Because that was really the only requirement for that job. Maybe Lisa wasn’t good at being a sex object in a headset. Should she want to be? The fact of the matter was that Lisa was smarter than Arlene, who had been waiting for a promotion. Arlene didn’t want Lisa around because she felt threatened, so she was trying to sabotage her. This made me livid. I knew I had to do something.

Later that afternoon, I knocked on Lisa’s boss’ door with a detailed job description in hand. I told him I needed more help, that my work load was getting to be too much for me to handle. I requested to take Lisa into my department. I made a list of tasks that she could do and I offered to train her. My scheme worked. I didn’t mention the other part of my plan — to leave that job to pursue a writing career. I also neglected to mention that Lisa was way smarter and more passionate about production than I could ever hope to be and was more well-suited for my job than I was. I knew she would be light years more successful than me in that industry.

I am a writer now. I have my dream job. I work every day with the most wonderful and supportive women who have taught me so much. As for Lisa, she has been promoted four times. She is arguably the most valuable junior level employee at that company. She is still thinking of applying to business school. I think she makes more money than me and that makes me happy. We are still in touch, getting together at least once a month for dinner.

I’ve learned, as Roseanne expresses, that there are two kinds of women in the workplace; the ones who cut you down, compete, and feel threatened and the ones that lift you up, teach you more, feel proud of your successes, and have your back.

My experiences with Linda, Arlene, and others like them taught me what kind of woman I wanted to be in the workplace; the latter. No matter how far away you seem from your career goals, it is important to remember that there is enough success for women to go around and that we are more powerful when working with each other, not against.

* Name has been changed.

Photo: Stockbyte/Thinkstock

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