The Female Version of John Wayne

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?

About the Author

Holly Via Gorski

Holly is an HR Director in Washington State with 13 years of public- and private-sector human resource experience. She earned her SPHR certification in 2010 and is a local and national member of SHRM and the Public Employer Labor Relations Association. Away from work she and her husband raise three boys and take turns pursuing and neglecting a myriad of interests. You can connect with Holly on Twitter as @HollyMVG.


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Krista Francis

As a young person, I was sexually harassed by a manager. After a particularly offensive and detailed suggestion about what he would like to do to me, I picked up my handbag, walked out and never went back. It was an interim job, so it was no big loss to me. Trying to lodge a complaint didn’t seem worth the hassle since they were a small company with no HR department. But what would I have done if it was a job I actually cared about? I’m not sure.

Fast forward to now. As my boss said once when we were discussing a sexual harassment charge, these situations are usually no-win. It’s usually one person’s word against another, and often it appears that one or both are lying about some of the facts and it’s pretty darn hard to reach a determination that means very much. And one or both parties will be embarrassed by the process and unhappy with the outcome. Do I sound cynical? I wish it were different, but without a crystal ball, it’s not easy.

Robin Schooling

A very inspiring post – the individuals who persevered in the workplace, absent the protections that subsequently were put in place (Title VII, ADA, etc), truly WERE heroes and heroines. And if not John Wayne… Calamity Jane? 🙂

Jennifer V. Miller


As a women on the “cusp” of Boomer/Gen X, I really appreciate your candor. While I never had to “fight” for my rights in the workplace, I still recall enough instances where women were not fully valued. When I read blog posts here I often wonder if the issues the 40+ crowd raise on this site ring true to younger colleagues. Your blog post speaks to this issue.

It’s reassuring to hear you say that you don’t take it for granted and that you admire those who went before you. Thanks for acknowledging the heroines of the workplace. We truly do owe them a debt of gratitude.


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