“You can be anything you want to be when you grow up— including President of the United
States,“ my eighth-grade teacher proclaimed. She addressed the entire class of students—
teenage boys and teenage girls— without regard to gender. I was raised to believe in this principle; therefore, I never questioned whether or not I could do something because I was a female. I assumed that competency and qualifications were the criteria future employers would base their hiring decisions upon. I assumed that I was entitled to seek employment simply because I was an American citizen and that I was entitled to earn equal pay for equal work. I assumed that all American males in the twentieth century understood and accepted these concepts, until I ventured forth into non-traditional female work roles.
My first experience in gender discrimination occurred when I was twenty years old. I worked as a stand-by weekend mailer at the Philadelphia Inquirer to earn extra cash for tuition at John Robert Powers Modeling School and to repay credit card debt. Although I wasn’t a union member, I received over $13.00 per hour to insert the middle section (comics, coupons, etc.) into hundreds of Sunday newspapers. After putting in forty hours at a clean, sedentary office job, I entered the dusty, sweaty newspaper mailroom— a male-dominated sub-culture. Swiftly, I inserted, stacked and pushed piles of papers onto a black conveyor belt and then rapidly stacked them higher than myself onto wooden skids. My prime physical condition allowed me to keep up the pace with even the burliest male worker. One evening, as I wiped the inky paper dust from my forehead, a male co-worker yelled to me over the whirring machinery “Why do you get paid the same amount of money as me? There are men with families to support who need your job.”
Two years later, I was a Store Manager for the Casual Male Big and Tall clothing chain in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I worked seventy to eighty hour weeks— with no time off. I taught myself the business by studying the company’s instructional manuals at home and on my lunch hour. I climbed my way up the ladder by increasing sales 110% and maintaining a perfect inventory while I was “acting manager” at the South Philadelphia store (a high-theft location). Once promoted to my own new suburban location, I transformed an empty shell into a thriving business. One afternoon, a male customer requested to speak with the store manager and was visibly shocked when I appeared. He directly asked me, “Why is a woman the manager of a mens’ clothing store?”
After moving to Phoenix, Arizona, I was hired by Eagleson’s Big and Tall in Scottsdale. I accepted a sales position with the condition that I would be the store manager in three months (when the current manager was expected to leave the company). For three months, I learned the ropes at that location and thoroughly prepared myself for my upcoming management position. One morning, upon entering the quiet, formal shop, I was greeted by a young, unfamiliar man who gallantly introduced himself as the new store manager. Bewildered, I immediately rushed into the back office and telephoned the company’s owner in California. I asked the owner for an explanation and he told me that maybe one day I would be a store manager, but pending further notice I was to remain a sales person and cooperate with my new boss. After work, I raced home and called the former store manager to obtain the scoop on why I was bypassed as his replacement. He frankly informed me that the owner already had one token female manager and I would never be promoted unless it was to replace her.
As a woman, I am now knowledgeable about gender-based discrimination in the workplace. As an American, I am still shocked by the narrow-minded thinking of many men that women should do “womens’ work,” earn less money than men, and question their basic right to simply be employed at all. Unfortunately, even in this democracy and enlightened society, gender-bias pervades many workplaces. Although I have been confronted head-on with these issues in the past, I refuse to allow them to determine my destiny. I will continue to follow career paths I choose for myself and I will not accept a gender-based definition of my capabilities.
© 1994 by JoAnn Brown