This morning in the July/August issue of FAST COMPANY I read about Cynthia Warner (pictured), former head of global refining for BP. The article was about former oil execs leaving their posts for jobs in the growing field of renewable energy – but that’s not what caught my attention.
Warner briefly described starting out as a woman in the oil industry nearly 30 years ago and the discrimination she faced, including what I would describe as “hazing” on an oil rig. I took one look at the confident picture of Warner and felt sure she had taken whatever they dished out and kept moving forward with a smile. This woman was bad-ass. She didn’t let it get her down and she didn’t sue. She succeeded.
Had I just thought that?
I don’t think less of people when they sue or file a complaint for legitimate reasons. That’s why we have employment laws – to rein in crap like hazing on oil rigs. In fact, when I read employment law cases I’m often appalled at the bad behavior of the plaintiff’s coworkers and management. Tied for my first two thoughts are: “of course they sued!” and “oh, I feel sorry for that HR department.” These are the legitimate cases. Naturally, I also do plenty of eye-rolling and indignant sputtering as I read the other ones.
Equal Employment Opportunity is not just a federal law I’m charged with helping my organization uphold, it’s a personal conviction. And yet Cynthia Warner, and my now-retired aunt who fought her way up through the ranks at Boeing, and thousands of other women who persevered and proved themselves day after day in the face of bigoted jerks and discriminatory policies, who succeeded without the help of the courts . . . these women are John Wayne to me.
It’s not that I think less of the women who have to take legal action; it’s that I idolize those in the generation before us who never did. As a Gen-Xer I’ve gone through my entire work life expecting that I would not be discriminated against. When I bump up against prejudice or downright mean-spirited bigotry in the workplace I’m surprised. Didn’t they get the memo? It’s not 1969.
How privileged am I to be able to have that mindset?