Finally, after too much time had passed, my girlfriends and I managed to coordinate a dinner date. As we sipped chilled white wine, we picked up on our conversation and it was, as it is with old friends, as if it had never stopped. The first subject was, of course, our kids. My friend talked about the high level of competition her daughter encountered trying and then failing to get an internship on Wall Street. Like most college seniors, she was worried about finding a job once she graduated.
Her daughter's roommate, however, managed to get a high paying internship on Wall Street. Her roommate happens to be at the top of her class, a very ambitious, very capable young woman, hungry to get into the game. But it turns out that all those admirable qualities alone were not enough to land the job.
After several interviews, she finally landed a phone interview with the top honcho of the Wall Street firm. "He said, 'I have two questions for you.''" My friend said to me, "Can you guess what they were?" When she told me, my jaw dropped open.
"He said, 'First question. Do you have a boyfriend?'" The roommate said no.
"The second question. 'Do you want to have children?'" Again she said no. They hired her.
My first reaction was that she should have told him it was none of his business. My second reaction was to turn it right back on him, "Do you have a girlfriend, wife? Do you have children?" Bet he does.
My friend's reaction was how could a twenty year old know if she will never want children?
But what did these questions really ask of this young woman? You can have a job in the Big Time if you deny being a woman? If you deny having a life outside work? If you hang out as a boy?
It made me think of Marsha Firestone, one of the women I interviewed for my book, Iron Butterflies. Marsha is the president of Women's President Organization (WPO). Originally, however, she had wanted to be a lawyer. After she had graduated from college, she applied to law school. During an interview, the dean of admissions said to her, "You have a boyfriend, don't you?" She said, "Yes, I do." He said, "Why should I give this spot to you when I can give it to some guy who can support his family? You're just going to get married and have babies anyway."
Marsha had been a straight A student and involved in lots of leadership activities at school. She didn't get into law school. The dean apparently considered Marsha's being a woman who might have children reason enough to turn her down, despite her obvious academic qualifications. Had she been a man, it would have been a breeze. Although the dean stopped Marsha from becoming a lawyer, it didn't stop her from becoming successful. She went on to get a doctorate in communications, and founded WPO, a global collaborative peer learning organization for multi-million dollar companies run and owned by women.
Many ambitious baby boomer women have encountered such barricades in their time. It was bad enough then, but we thought we were past such in-your-face discrimination in 2011. Aren't we past that? Apparently not, as my friend's story about the Wall Street hotshot's blatant questions attests. Stopping women advancing in business because they are women and potential mothers?
Young women don't often encounter the blatant gender bias the way baby boomers did. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. After the interview, the roommate called her friend and said, "You won't believe what he asked me!" This young woman knew there was something wrong with this type of questioning, but also recognized she wasn't really in a position to challenge someone in a position of power. Sometimes moving on to a better work environment is a better solution, which is what the roommate eventually did.
When my friend told me the story, Barbara Boxer's remark at the 2004 Democratic Convention came to mind: "Women have to fight and work for our freedom, and every generation has to do it again. If you want freedom, we cannot rest."
There is something to be said for learning to play the game, as this young woman was eager to do. However, when do women together and of all generations, change the game of the two question interview?