Today's The Day
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Why I #ChooseToChallenge | By Wet Cement CEO and Founder, Jennifer Willey
Someone asked me this weekend why I am passionate about helping women advance. This was the first time I've ever been asked this; It's been core to who I am for as long as I can remember, so I decided to look back and tally up all of the moments that added up over 30 years of working and may have brought me to where I am today.
Maybe it started at the age of 16 when I was a fitness instructor. One of the male owners of World Gym would ask me to turn around and show my “assets” before I could collect my paycheck. This happened in the middle of the gym on an elevated platform that everyone could see.
Maybe it was when I was a TV news reporter in my first job after college. My boss would yell at me to wear short skirts to work, even though I was wearing winter boots because there was two feet of snow on the ground.
Maybe it was when I was told I wouldn’t get hired as a news anchor in a larger TV market because “If we are going to have a woman on the anchor desk, she is either going to be blonde and blue-eyed or gorgeous, and you are neither.” Ouch.
Maybe it was when I landed my first corporate job as an IT consultant, and 100% of the lunchtime conversations resolved solely around cars, audio systems, or sports. While I had no experience or interest in the topics, I asked questions to learn and show interest. The favor was never returned. As the only woman on the team, I felt like a total outsider with nothing to contribute to the conversation, so I learned to keep my mouth shut.
Maybe it was when I transitioned into sales and team lunches and outings were regularly held at a strip club. My choice was to tag along or be the ONLY one excluded on the all-male team. When I eventually resigned, they threw me and another female colleague a farewell party… at a strip club. I decided not to attend the evening's festivities.
Maybe it was when I was eight months pregnant, and my OB/GYN forbid me from attending our company sales summit since it was a six-hour solo road trip and far from my hospital. But my male boss made it clear that if I couldn’t attend, I couldn’t do my job, and I would have to take the rest of my maternity leave off as personal vacation or unpaid leave. I didn’t give birth until nearly six weeks later.
Maybe it was when I returned to work as a new mom and asked my boss to create a nursing mothers’ room–– something that did not exist in our New York offices back in 2004. For a few weeks, I had a storage room outfitted with a table and chair all to myself. When two other women returned from maternity leave a few weeks later, we were forced to sit in that one tiny, cramped room together, facing each other awkwardly as we pumped. One particularly competitive colleague consistently interrogated me about why I was expressing more milk than her. She even hosted a meeting with other colleagues IN THE LACTATION ROOM while she was pumping. I was the ‘bad guy’ who needed to break up the meeting so I could pump without an audience.
Maybe it was when I was told by the male Head of Sales on my first day at a new job to make sure to pack “some hot bikinis” for an upcoming company retreat. When I arrived at the resort, I learned that the ‘Cocktails in the Pool’ kick-off event was where everyone received annual performance reviews. Women were picked out of the pool, one by one, and received their review on a poolside lounge chair, soaking wet in their bathing suits. Thankfully, I wasn’t eligible for a review as a newbie, so I was spared from the humiliating activity, but my heart sank for the other women.
Maybe it was what happened after an executive client dinner in Las Vegas that I had coordinated. While chatting with the two male executives after our clients departed, the CEO said "Let's go drink some scotch and shoot craps. We should pick up the two other (younger) guys from our company who are also out here." I nodded my head, ready to ‘man up’ and join the ‘Boys Club’ adventure, until the CEO told me to "Get home safe, Jenn." As he walked out of the room, leaving me standing alone and speechless, I'm sure he missed the shock and hurt on my face.
Maybe it was when a male colleague interrupted my conversation with the CEO and President at a different company cocktail event and blurted out “Wow, those are some serious guns" [referring to my arms]. "Does your husband feel like less of a man when he is in bed with you?” Neither executive said a word. Neither did I. I laughed nervously and walked away in embarrassment.
Yep, maybe that’s it. Because now, more than a decade later, I’m still so angry at myself for saying nothing. How dare I?!? I was so disgusted with my own behavior and the culture of misogyny that I resigned shortly thereafter.
Or maybe it's the sum of all of these collective experiences.
My mission now is to help other women find the courage to use their voice and have the confidence to know that they do belong so they can comfortably advocate for themselves. I don’t want another woman to walk away with her head hung low and face bright red. Rather, I want to help women stand up for themselves... while making the "instigators" feel shame and embarrassment. I want to help proactively "arm" women with the words they can say — statements like “That is not OK, Jim. You don’t ever speak to a woman like that, and certainly not in a professional setting. YOU need to walk away and think about how totally inappropriate and unacceptable that was before I will even entertain an apology.” I want women to be able to let their company's leaders--regardless of their gender--know in real time that they cannot stand by silently while a toxic culture brews before their eyes. True leaders take immediate action and are not bystanders to bad behavior.
The only way I can sleep at night is knowing I’m “saving” the next woman from bearing the burden of feeling unworthy, ashamed and excluded. Despite the progress we've made, I know this litany of slights, inequity and damaging unprofessional behavior will happen again. Perhaps it’s even happening to you right now. Or to a colleague. And if so, today’s the day to stop it.
Those who know me well haven’t heard most of these stories, if any at all. That's because I've tried to hide my self-loathing that accompanied putting up with this time and time again. I’ve kept my silent shame hidden, but 30 years is long enough. I'm setting myself free and letting go of the humiliation.
When I need a “reset,” I remind myself that ‘Today’s the first day of the rest of my life.
Today’s the day I stop letting people make me feel “less than.”
Today’s the day I stand up for myself.
Today’s the day I stand up for others.