Friday, March 2, 2012

The evolution of man or lack thereof

Always remember, a cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look man right in the eye and see his equal.” - Winston Churchill
This week I was in Orlando, Florida for a fairly high-profile product safety conference. The attendee list of this 4-day event included several major retailers, consumer brands and government officials. When I say high-profile, I mean HIGH-profile. We're talking executive level folks and very high level government officials.

The whole point of the meeting is to help improve consumer product safety and promote a dialog between different key players in industry to make sure that we're all thinking and acting towards a goal of complying with the law and putting safe products on the market. It's a great organization, driven by some really awesome people.

So, you could imagine my surprise when I ran into a man that we'll call Mr. Chau van Ist, a lawyer that represents companies when they have product safety issues. Mr. van Ist is boisterous and like any stereotypical lawyer, oozes an air of slimy.

He lurks in and out of conversations looking for connections to drum up more business. He laughs at jokes that aren't funny. He pretends to be intensely interested in what you have to say. He is a human bobble head and as phoney as a $3 bill.

Mr. van Ist is also very loud, vulgar and obnoxious. In his infinite wisdom he shouted to the rooftops in public, not once but twice, F [gov. agency name]! I'm telling my clients to F [agency] and not comply.

I'm not one to talk poorly about anyone. And this post would be boring if the point was that a lawyer was a moron. This is what happened...

After a long day of seminars, a group of us were outside enjoying the beautiful Florida evening. Mr. van Ist came over half inebriated and started shouting about some very insensitive things. It was all around topics related to work and while it was offensive we were polite and ignored his behavior.

When it got too much to bear a few of us decided to call it a night. I went back to my room and a couple hours later went back outside to get a cigarette.

Lo and behold, what did I find? Mr. van Ist alone on the patio of the conference hotel, slouched over a chair completely and utterly drunk. When he saw me come out, he struggled to his feet, staggered sideways and asked for a light.

No problem. I can be cordial. Mind you it's 1 am and my patience is about done, but I can be cordial.

Mr. van Ist starts to talk to me. Being polite, I asked something to the effect of "So, why'd you decide to be a lawyer? You have some pretty negative feelings about compliance issues."

He responds, half-chuckling, "Well, if you really want to know, why don't we discuss that up in my room."


Is it strange that a hormone-crazed guy asks a girl back to his room? No.

Is it absolutely ridiculous for someone who's meeting with you on a professional level at a formal event to talk to you like you're a nightclub pick up? Yes.

"Excuse me? You really do not want to go there with a woman who takes her career seriously and trains in 2 different martial arts."

I put out my cigarette and walked back inside leaving him on the patio with a look of dumb shock on his face. Mr. van Ist then followed me inside, walking into the elevator just as the door was closing.

As the elevator climbed he started apologizing sheepishly. I stood there for what felt like an eternity as the car climbed up to the 8th floor.

I left the elevator fuming. It's 2012. We should be past the point where a woman is put in a position like this in the course of doing her job. I work hard to build my reputation. I take my job seriously and my opinions matter. To have my intellect dismissed during what should have been a professional interaction, to be propositioned like a chick at a bar, made me feel like my opinions didn't matter.

What shocked me even more was the venue. This was a formal, highly professional event that included access to some very powerful people in the consumer products world. This kind of sliminess is the last thing you should expect in this environment.

In his mind, he's rich, he's connected and he holds all the cards. I was just a figment or a prop standing there with not nearly as much gravity or impact.

That was the first, and hopefully only, time in my entire career that I experienced anything like this. I know it seems like such a small thing but it really made me  think about how grateful I am for the women who broke through the glass ceiling during the feminist movement. I can't imagine how difficult it was to deal with this nonsense on a daily basis.

In my career, I've felt the disparity between men and women. I know how hard it is to be taken seriously as a woman at the office. Professional reputation is everything and I am fiercely protective of mine.

By the end of the conference today, the buzz around Mr. van Ist was very negative, not only for his inebriated behavior but also for some of the inappropriate things he said. Thankfully, his reputation people more powerful than him is getting exactly what it deserves.

Anyways, the point behind this story...While not nearly as prevalent, it seems that good old fashioned male chauvinism in business is not dead. But, the next time you run into a bra-burning feminist, thank her for making it a whole lot less acceptable. If this were something that I had to deal with on a regular basis, I might not have the will to maintain my womanly composure.