“It’s not so much that I am resistant to people. I wouldn’t say that.”
“What would you say, then, Ms. Jenkins, about the comments referring to challenges working with you, raised by…six previous Administrative Assistants?”
“I would say that they are jealous.” “Of you?”
“Yes…Of me.” Lori Michele Jenkins, situated in a small conference room in the Human Resources building of Sea Ventures Frozen Products, shifts in her seat, looks to the door, and spins her wedding ring in a counter-clockwise motion. She then picks up her cell phone and begins to search for the Pomeranian she follows on Facebook to show the grievance investigator.
Rod Fabin of The BCM Mediation Group is not attracted to Lori Michele, but he finds her charming. In truth, though, he often mistakes charm for other things. He’s mesmerized by Lori Michele’s confidence, and for the first time in the many years of his career, Rod struggles to separate the facts of the client’s responses from the delivery of the information. Lori Michele, through her own evident belief, makes it easy for Rod to feel that everything she says is the scientific truth.
“I’d like to know more about that,” Rod states. He notices that Lori Michele’s left thumb suddenly begins rapidly stroking her left thigh. She has crossed her legs, and her knees meet the level of the conference table because of her stature. She is short and stocky, but had referred to herself as “petite” when they shook hands at the door earlier, facing each other almost eye-to-eye.
Rod is a noticeably short man, “always has been,” as he liked to joke, and in college, he instituted a series of methods to draw attention away from his height. What he originally thought was a cruel joke in going prematurely gray turned out to be a surprising point of attraction from women and of admiration from men, so he chose to let it be natural. He got and has stayed in excellent shape, motivating himself year after year with the reminder that he’s only one or two bad choices away from playing Santa for the Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club. He also cultivated a ‘look’: black and white only clothes, an easy dedication that was bold enough to distract from his vertical challenges.
“Well, the biggest problem is that I am overqualified for my position. I’m overqualified, and I have a Master’s Degree, and I used to work at Friar Brothers Cola Company, which is one of the largest carbonated beverage organizations in the nation. I had 14 people under me and was promoted twice by Gloria.”
“I’m sorry…” Rod flips a page of his legal pad up and glances down. “I’m not sure who Gloria is.”
“She was my supervisor at Friar Brothers Cola Company.” “Oh. Oh, ok.”
“Yes. Gloria promoted me twice, and by the time I left, I was a mid-Manager of the Distribution Analytics bureau.”
“Oh, I’ve not heard ‘bureau’ in relation to – well, not important. Actually, it might be helpful to talk about why you left Friar Brothers Cola, since you mentioned it.” Rod’s voice understands that he is annoyed before his brain does. He is impressed by Lori Michele’s poise, her impeccable nails painted in a neutral color, and her enunciation, but he’s intimidated by her responses.
“Oh. Easy. I left Prescott Valley and moved to Flagstaff.”
“Got it. Ok, and then, immediately, you started at Sea Ventures?” “Precisely.”
“Ok, ok. And, how were your relationships in general at Friar Brothers? Would you say you felt comfort and camaraderie? With your colleagues?”
“Oh, yes.” Lori Michele smiles. “Oh gosh yes.” She begins gesticulating. “They loved me there. Loved me. The men worshipped me. I had Admin skills they—and no other woman—definitely didn’t have, so I handled most of that, and they valued me highly for it.”
Rod pauses, and looks down at the notepad. “I want to get to one of the concerns brought up by your current employee, Melissa Porter. She’s submitted a formal grievance—which, as you know, my firm is evaluating—stating that she works in a ‘toxic, sexism-filled work environment, wherein exists preferential treatment of male employees, while simultaneously, the success of female employees is sabotaged through harassment and slander.’” Rod reads off of the document submitted by Melissa’s reps.
“Well.” Lori Michele smiles and lowers her voice in conspiracy, “Melissa didn’t write that.”
“But she submitted and signed it.” Rod held up the last page to reveal Melissa’s signature.
“Ok, she may have submitted it, but she didn’t write it.” Lori Michele’s pinky finger brushes a layer of bangs off her forehead. She shakes her head slightly but Rod is unsure if she is punctuating her statement or has an unseen issue with her hair.
“Well, I’ve got to go with what I’ve got, and I have this statement here, signed by Ms. Porter, and submitted on her behalf by her labor group representative. So, I am eager to hear your…thoughts on her…thoughts.”
“Well, just so you know, Melissa didn’t write that statement. I usually have her submit her outgoing emails to me to review so I can correct the grammatical errors.”
Rod breathes in. He leans back in his chair, away from the legal pad. Perhaps if he appears less interested in recording Lori Michele’s response, she will answer the question. “Ok, thank you for that background information. What I—”
“My pleasure. You’ll want to have that information.”
Rod squints at Lori Michele. He’s unsure if Lori Michele is capable of picking up his confusing feeling about her. She is smiling, and Rod senses she often operates like this: rigid, but satisfied.
“Ok. So, let’s see what your comments are on the statement made by Melissa—whether or not she wrote it, it was submitted by her legally, so the insinuations she’s made, I’d still like to discuss.”
“Sure, that’s easy,” she says. Lori Michele, Rod notices, hasn’t changed body positions since she crossed her legs. Her hands are neatly folded in her lap. “There is no sexism at Sea Ventures.”
Rod waits for her to elaborate, but she stares at him, tilts her head a millimeter, and stretches her closed lips into a horizontal smile. Rod visualizes himself as a racecar driver, a tactic he uses with certain clients. He imagines the jerk of his body steering around a sharp corner. He could tell himself ‘Change gears, Fabin,’ but he realized at some point in his career that to be consistently sharp, he’d need a more dramatic, visual tactic. Even in a quiet conversation like this one, he had to act swiftly before the client got too far ahead.
“What does the word ‘sexism’ mean to you, Lori Michele? And not, you know, the standard definition, but, what does the concept or context of the word in the workplace mean to you, specifically?”
“Well,” Lori Michele begins, and her left hand pops up beside her face. As she speaks, her wrist moves in circles away from her, like gears supporting the formation of her thoughts. “Sexism is a systemic issue facing many organizations.” Lori Michele tilts her chin down toward the left and averts her eyes for a beat. “When I was at Friar Brothers, there were several litigations involving sexism. My friend Barbara was associated with one. Very expensive.” Lori Michele stops and drinks from the water bottle she carried in with her. “I line six of these up on my desk every day to remind myself to get in all my ounces. What they call ‘a hack,’” she had explained before the interview began.
“Ok,” Rod says now. “Ok, got it. So, your…familiarity of sexism is based on knowing the financial liability it carries?”
“Oh, yes. Big. Big liability. We’re lucky not to have those liabilities at Sea Ventures.”
“Oh, ok. So…would you say…you have? Or have not encountered specific instances of sexism at the organization?” “At Friar Brothers, there were a—”
Rod puts up his hand. “Sorry, I’m really only interested in your response regarding Sea Ventures.”
“Oh.” Lori Michele pauses. “No.” “No encounters?”
“No sexism. At Sea Ventures.” Lori Michele sips again. Rod’s front teeth graze his lower lip back and forth as he flips through the legal pad to stall. “Beautiful blazer, by the way.” Lori Michele looks in the general direction of Rod’s chest as his eyes pop up from the table.
“Oh,” he says, and a breath he didn’t know he was holding releases. He leans back, uses his left hand to tug at his right cuff as he looks at it. “Thank you.”
“No, Indochino.” He can’t hide his surprise at her knowledge. His left eyebrow raises, and he smiles.
“Oh, very nice. My husband has an Indochino suit. I’ve been trying to get him to splurge on a Kiton—it’s such gorgeous fabric, and I just think the cut is so…masculine. Of course, it’s like ‘Oh, how could he wear a wool suit in Arizona?’, but I just wish he would.” Lori Michele parts her lips and a low, staccato nasal laugh emerges, and then suddenly stops. Rod runs quickly through a few ideas of what her husband looks like, but he doesn’t have enough context. He loops to young male models on Google searches for Kiton suits. Doubtful, he thinks. He’s pegged Lori Michele at late forties, and he recognizes her ability to enhance her good features and to downplay the bad—hence the buttoned jacket hiding her belly, the shorter skirt. Her legs are strong, and the high heels feminize them. She’s pretty in the way that one is forced to be by makeup, which she has done a good job with, but there’s a lot of it. A man for Lori Michele would see her face unpainted, her blazer open, and her feet flat, Rod thinks. Who is that guy?
“Right. Very true, we do miss out on the whole East Coast or London look, huh?” Rod places his hands on the table to refocus. Lori Michele makes the nasal laugh but doesn’t speak.
“Ok, so you stated that there’s no sexism at Sea Ventures. I’m presuming you mean you feel none exists, not just that you’ve not personally been impacted by it? Is that right?”
“Ok. Then, I do want to share something with you…” Rod shuffles through his papers until he identifies the printout he’s looking for. He doesn’t hand it to her, but holds it up. “This is a post Ms. Porter made on Instagram—”
“I have Facebook.”
Rod pauses, then ignores her. Lori Michele blinks several times.
“It’s a rather long post, almost an essay, and it seems that it’s been included with her grievance charges.”
“Claims.” Lori Michele’s eyebrows raise, like she’s sharing a secret with Rod. “Ok. Anyway, I have to say I have not seen many grievance charges that include a social media post, but it seems like Ms. Porter felt that the comments it received, including several from some of your previous employees, were significant. And, because your company’s social media policy is…let’s see, what did your HR Director tell me…” Rod searches through loose papers in a folder, “’still being developed, the post itself is not only admissible for the file, but also, has not violated any company policy. At any rate, I’d like to share it with you. I may have some followup questions. How does that sound?”
“Did she include any pictures with the post? That would be key.” Lori Michele smiles.
“Um. Well. I did not see the actual post, I only have what she submitted. Um, actually…No pictures.”
“Great.” Lori Michele sits back and sips her water. Rod drinks also, from his Starbucks cup, and runs his thumb and fingers down his tie, preparing for the Instagram post reading.
“It’s so nice to talk to you.” Rod looks up. Lori Michele’s hands are cradling her left knee.“Unfortunately, I don’t get a lot of intellectual talk at Sea Ventures. It’s nice to have a conversation with you. You get it, and it’s nice. I can tell we work well together. You’re educated, and that’s refreshing for me.”
Rod sits back. When was the last time someone had recognized his intellect, specifically? His skill, hard work, yes, but his intelligence? He can’t remember. Rod smiles without trying. He sits up. “Thank you, Lori Michele. I appreciate that.” He pauses. He wants to talk to her more, but suddenly feels pressured by time. “I’ll go ahead and share this.”
“My pleasure. Sounds good.”
Rod picks up the paper and sits back. Normally he would have sat with his feet on the floor, and the paper flat on the desk, but he’s feeling relaxed. He reads.
I never wanted to be a feminist.
Let me amend that. I never wanted to be this mad. But I had to, it was inevitable, because I am a modern-day secretary in an old-school organization.
And, so I decided that vagueness in leadership was my cue to teach the people I worked with how things should be now.
First, I recognized the source of the problem. It isn’t the men’s fault they are sexist. It’s the women’s.Or, I should say, it’s ONE PARTICULAR WOMAN’S FAULT. The seed, the encourager, the AMBASSADOR – the one that could have embraced me as another woman in the workplace, was my own very FEMALE boss. Yes, folks, women can be sexist. Let me repeat, WOMEN CAN BE SEXIST AGAINST WOMEN. Let me explain:
- When a man comes to you to ask you a question on how to do something, and instead of just answering/telling him/empowering him, you say “I’ll do it for you,” and what man turns that down? What man says OH NO THANKS I REALLY JUST WANTED TO LEARN, I DIDN’T WANT TO HAVE YOU DO IT SO I COULD GET BACK TO THE FORMULA ONE YOUTUBE VIDEO I’M WATCHING ON MY WORK COMPUTER.
- To top off the above, because of ALL THAT, all day, every day, the men in the office say how they “couldn’t do anything without you,” that you are “amazing,” and that you secretly “run the place.” BECAUSE YOU SET IT UP THAT WAY. THEY WIN, YOU WIN, NO ONE ELSE WINS. Is that clear?!?! #DYSFUNCTION
- When you make up a story about a bad back, then CALL a man who works DOWN THE HALL and ask him to come to your office to pick up the ballpoint pen you dropped on the ground.
- When you tell the Arrowhead water deliverer that you are tired because you have to help everyone all day with their work, and specifically say ‘I don’t understand why people don’t get an education, there are so many opportunities for women these days.’ #overheardfromtheconferenceroom #doorwasntshut
Sorry, I said I wouldn’t go there. For the record, that’s just a sampling. But it’s real. It’s so effing real. And I’m done. I’m so done with being nice, of looking the other way, of trying to find the humor in it to counter my fury. I’m tired of sitting back and letting the subliminal instruction of ‘if you don’t like it, just leave’ waft around me like the unfiltered office air in an aging building.
Well, today, I took my feminist b*$&h self seriously and did something about it. I took action, and am sharing my story, first with you, and then with authorities.
Today, I’m Burning My Bra in the Conference Room.
Rod puts the papers down and takes a sip of coffee. Lori Michele is silent. She stares at Rod. Rod thinks her eyes have darkened. “Any thoughts on that, Lori Michele?”
Rod taps his back molars together three times. “Ok.” He breathes out through his nose and tugs on his left earlobe.
“It’s odd that she doesn’t use names.”
“Ms. Porter is talking about you.”
“Oh no, I don’t think so. There’s no name—”
“She does seem to state clearly that it’s her female boss referenced in those examples.”
“Well, there are many women mid-Managers at Sea Ventures, any of whom could instruct her to perform a task.”
“So you don’t believe you are the female boss in the Instagram post?”
“No, I just don’t think it’s possible. And, also, there are a lot of individuals, including men, mentioned in that…report.” For the first time this afternoon, Lori Michele’s voice raises, surprising Rod. He involuntarily raises his left shoulder to his ear, something he does when an ambulance passes.
“No, you’re absolutely right, Lori Michele. One hundred percent, but—”
“We’re not considering it a report, per se, and to be clear, you’re not on trial.” Rod softens his face with this phrase, which he uses often with clients. “This is just us having a talk. I’m trying to get a general sense of the environment and culture of your workplace, so I have a full picture.”
“Great.” Lori Michele sips. “You’re doing a great job, by the way.”
Rod’s face flushes. In spite of myself, he thinks, and then thinks, God, I am such a dork. He hasn’t said either thing out loud, but he’s suddenly extremely aware of Lori Michele, lightened by her comment. He’s incapable of responding. He swallows, and it morphs into a sloppy cough.
Lori Michele goes on. “I’ve supervised a lot of people – a lot – and I know good work traits. It’s like an instinct.” She holds her palms up and wiggles her fingers.
Rod shifts his head left to right like the hand of a clock moving forward one minute, as Lori Michele’s eyes dart back and forth in an attempt to display either mischief or mystery. “What are some examples of good work traits? Could you list, or describe them?”
“Oh sure.” Lori Michele’s left wrist appears again, in the air to do the winding motion as she speaks. “Accuracy, details, professionalism, mindset, typing speed, discretion, and respecting authority. But, to be a good supervisor, like I am, it’s not just knowing those fundamental work traits. You also have to know about the differences between people.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. I’m glad you’re—”
“Like, people who are educated think differently than people who aren’t.” Rod’s head tick-tocks again. He’s enthralled and terrified by the idea of her continuing. “You have to communicate with millennials very differently than anyone else, because they’re very creative-minded. And men and women operate differently in the workplace, because of their biological differences. You have to remember all of that to supervise people properly.”
“Ok, great. I mean, I’m glad you’re bringing up the men and women idea, or…thoughts you might have. Can you tell me more about how you view the way men and women operate differently?” Rod uses quote fingers on the word ‘operate’ and regrets that it implies teasing, but Lori Michele appears unfazed.
“Oh, definitely. Men have egos.” Rod accidentally shifts in the chair and the movement forces the seat position down an inch. He reaches below to use the lever to bring the seat back up. Lori Michele has stopped her statement to allow the task.
“Go on,” Rod says, resituating himself.
“It’s not a bad thing, but men have egos, just by nature. And someone who supports a man needs to understand the fact that men have egos.”
Rod nods slowly, keeping eye contact with Lori Michele. He is otherwise still. She takes this as a cue to continue.
“I read in a book that men need a certain type of validation, and it’s true. So, I have a little note at my desk to remind me that men need to feel masculated by certain types of language or action. All day long, men feel emasculated at work, which is where they expect to flourish. I need to help keep them on the masculated side whenever I can.” Lori Michele sips.
Rod hasn’t moved. “And how do you do that?” His tone should be neutral, but it comes out low, deep, and sarcastic.
“I acknowledge their abilities, recognize and remember facts about them, and provide support so they can succeed in their career.” Lori Michele’s face is coloring red, and her voice is higher. She talks faster. “For example, men lack follow-through and time-management, but those are skills that women—except for millennials and uneducated women—excel in.” Her eyes widen. “If something needs to get done, it’s important to have a woman do it. So, I just offer. Not really offer, I just do it. I don’t care if anyone knows it was me. Maybe some of the men here think there’s a magician on payroll.” She laughs that nasal staccato sound again.
“Do you provide that kind of support for the women at Sea Ventures, too?”
“We don’t have any women in top level leadership roles here.”
Rod covers his teeth with his lips, presses them together, and then releases.
There’s a throbbing in both lips where he was biting. “Would you say that you think that the women here all feel the same way you do? Specifically, do they feel the same way about men?”
“Oh, I have no idea. I’m not close with any of them. They outcast me, so I don’t really know. I just worry about myself, put my head down and work, and do what’s best for the organization to get the work done.” She pauses. “Melissa’s article lacks understanding.”
“It implies that any of us here are responsible for changing people, when we are here to serve the mission of the organization, which at Sea Ventures is ‘Providing Easy, Healthy Food To Nourish and Support Your Premier Life.’ It’s not a good use of time to hope people will change. Her time would be better spent taking an Excel class, because her skills are extremely basic. I offered to send her to one, but she said no.” Lori Michele shrugs her left shoulder. “It’s ok. Again, I can’t change people. If I appear a certain way because other people stay who they are, that’s not in my purview. I work as a Category Manager at Sea Ventures Frozen Products, and I serve at the pleasure of the leadership team. I worked my way up from mid-Manager to Manager. That’s my potential. The potential of anyone else is in their purview. I’m not here to rewire anything. Or to rewire men or women.” Lori Michele sips her water. The bottle is almost empty.
Rod twists his wrist to check the time. “Well,” he says, exhausted, pushing himself back from the table a foot. “I’ve taken a good amount of your time.”
“Have I answered your questions?”
Rod breathes in. “Yes. Yes. I have a good grip on your perspective, thank you.” Rod stands and his left knee clicks. He pushes the front of his pants down where they have scrunched. Lori Michele remains seated.
“Is there anything else you need?”
“No, I’m good—we’re good. Thank you.”
Lori Michele stands and gathers her phone and water. “Oh, by the way, you should try Barclay’s on First Street before you leave. Amazing espresso, and their hazelnut scones are incredible. I could call in an order for you, so you don’t have to wait.”
Lori Michele and Rod are at the conference room door. “Oh,” he smiles. “Oh, thanks, that’s ok, no need.”
“Are you sure? It’s no trouble.” Lori Michele taps in her phone password and begins typing.
Rod pauses, then reaches out to her shoulder with his left hand but doesn’t quite touch her. “No, no, it’s ok. But thank you. Really.”
“Oh, ok,” says Lori Michele. She takes a step out from the threshold and then turns back. “It’s nice to see how aware you are of the time. Gorgeous Turtle, by the way.” She nods toward his watch. “It serves you just right.”
Liz Lydic has studied creative writing at Santa Monica College. Some of her nonfiction and essay work can be found in print and online publications for the theatre industry, including the American Association of Community Theatre newsletter, ‘Spotlight,’ and OnStage blog. By day, she is an Admin for a municipal hazardous materials program, where her writing is far from fiction. She lives in the Los Angeles area with her daughter.