By Lisa Bergson
Over her second-anniversary lunch, I encourage Robin Bielucke, our tiny, sharp-featured shipper, to consider advancing her career by taking evening classes at one of the local colleges. (MEECO offers tuition reimbursement.) Bright and very hardworking, she listens patiently, the hint of a smile in her bright green eyes. Robin has two children and puts in 14-hour days, with a second job in the stockroom at the new Target across the street from our plant. "I like the hustle and bustle of shipping," she says.
"But you could study history and English and major in manufacturing engineering," I wax, imagining how wonderful it would be. How I wish for enough time to learn more English and History!
"I never liked English or history," Robin says. "I took vocational ed in high school, and I only really liked one thing."
"What was that?" I ask, my voice a bit shrill.
In general, the women of MEECO/Tiger Optics are not what you would call ambitious about their careers. While they take pride in a job well done, work comes second to their families, which they tend to start young. Our smart, sassy, hyper-kinetic purchaser, Kelly Gaydos, turns down my offer to attend a materials-management certification program offered at a nearby college. It conflicts with family time. "Sorry, Lisa," she writes on the cover of the course brochure.
I respect their priorities. But what concerns me is the lack of support they and their male co-workers tend to show the rare woman who does try to bootstrap her way up. Often, such women are sabotaged at every turn -- the subjects of unfounded criticism, endless undercurrents of gossip, and almost universal disapproval. (Come to think of it, at least one of my male protégés -- promoted into management from the floor -- met the same fate.) No surprise, then, that I've yet to see one rising star survive and succeed at her job.
Compounding the problem, these talented but undereducated women often suffer from very low confidence levels and performance anxiety. They overcompensate by keeping extremely long hours, taking piles of work home, and sweating every ounce of small stuff, sinking under the weight of what my husband calls "administrivia." The harder they try to excel professionally while trying to be well liked, the worse it gets. I keep Kleenex handy for the days they show up teary-eyed in my office, behind a rapidly closed door.
Here, I've observed an unfortunate double standard. The women who come to MEECO with established credentials in, say, science, engineering, or accounting, garner automatic acceptance -- so long as they are "nice" and don't put on airs. Competent, confident, and down-to-earth, our CFO, Eileen Jacob, enjoys widespread respect. "Absolutely," she says. A small woman who's always looking to expand her professional horizons, Eileen reflects for a second and says: "It's been that way wherever I worked."
Perhaps working-class women who win promotions into managerial roles threaten the status quo and certain entrenched values. When Kelly did nothing more radical than come back to work after having her second baby, one of my apparently open-minded male managers expressed his conviction that a mother's place is with her children. "But Kelly would be restless and frustrated if she stayed home. She'll be a better, happier mother this way," I reason, alas to no avail.
I wish I could be more of a role model for these women. But as a childless, globe-trotting, twice-wed, self-styled sophisticate, my life and values are too removed to offer an acceptable alternative. My scrub-faced, 23-year-old newlywed assistant, a college grad, spends the better part of our monthly lunch rhapsodizing about babies: "Their eyelashes, their little hands and feet." Normally quite impassive, she reveals an enthusiasm I've rarely seen. It's so infectious, I find myself chiming in with goo-goo tales. But, at her age, my aspirations centered on bylines and adventures with grown-up boys. We really couldn't be more opposite.
What I share is the common tendency to hold ourselves back. The Haitian psychiatrist and social theorist, Franz Fanon documented that oppressed people internalize a negative self image, a sense of inferiority that, in turn, perpetuates their oppression. Up until a few years ago, I suffered from a severe case of "impostor syndrome." Lacking even an engineering degree, who was I to think I could run a high-tech company?
GETTING IT TOGETHER.
Short on self esteem, I surrounded myself with men and women who reined in my own expansive tendencies. My advisory board and my women's group both discouraged me from publishing my stories, pursuing new technologies, and setting up business in Europe. As a result, I was a wannabe writer -- and MEECO was a ho-hum little company, with excellent, but mature products that frequently fell prey to big, well-capitalized competitors.
Only now, after over a decade of therapy and almost as many years in a supportive marriage, have I begun to unbuckle my self-imposed professional straitjacket. I've started to initiate meetings with venture capitalists on behalf of my new business, Tiger Optics. We're using so-called lean manufacturing techniques and re-engineering to transform MEECO into a more dynamic enterprise as well. Maybe it's about time I applied to that owner-manager program at Harvard I've dreamed of for so long.
Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org