I see the young businesswoman sitting by the courtyard fountain, checking her phone and looking a bit chagrined. She looks up at the sky, mentally chewing on something. It’s not a happy look.
I note the slump of her shoulders, the tight corners of her mouth.
And I am taken back a couple of decades.
I am 28. In grad school, juggling a hefty job and earning a masters degree at a prestigious university. I sit exactly where this young woman sits. I am her, with lighter hair and a better suit.
The name of the building has changed; Aon has taken over where Amoco used to be. But the fountains, the sculptures, the row of flags—all those remain. This building was a stone’s throw from the corporate headquarters where I worked for years. And its courtyard was a favorite quiet spot for me.
I wonder why the corporate life I have chosen for myself is so tough. I am too young and green to realize that I’ve joined a corporation that is one of the last bastions of sexism in the 1990s—an auto-related industry.
While I have earned a begrudging respect from many of my older male cohorts, I still am asked to hold a chart at chest level so an executive can “see it better.” When I instead give him a withering look and toss the chart on his desk, he feigns innocence and asks what is wrong. I tell him nothing but his eyesight. This man, married for umpteen years to a woman who has never worked and I am fairly sure has no idea he says things like this to young female executives, is such a relic. A dinosaur. I know this. I know the world is changing. He seems not to be aware. But that will change. There are still too many like him and it wears on me, day after day.
I hope, as I look at this young woman today, that the dinosaurs are now mainly extinct. That her chagrin does not come from the sexism women of my generation fought hard to ignore.
I look down the road and see the high-rise I stayed in when first visiting Chicago as a recent college grad. My boyfriend at the time lived on the 40th floor. I remember his mother looking at me as if I was some country girl from Ohio, out to steal her baby away. When I realized I had forgotten to pack a slip to wear under my dress, the closest store with said item was Saks Fifth Avenue. Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore, was my first thought. My second was, how the hell do I pay for this slip on a magazine editor’s salary? It cost more than a week’s groceries.
The city excited and terrified me at the same time. The honking horns, the pedestrian darting just feet in front of my car, the impatient drivers who all seemed to race toward an urgent meeting.
And I see, my 40-something-year-old self sees– oh yes–how far I have come. As I look back on the young exec me who wonders what she could be doing to further her career, the young grad me who is wide-eyed at the big city, I want to sit both me’s down and counsel them. To tell the exec: “It’s not you. It’s the environment. You’ll move on. You will get that graduate degree and move on to more progressive companies, more modern teams. You will win awards, get your teams recognition, deliver stellar results. Relax and take the long view.”
I want to tell the young grad that she could improve her taste in men as well as potential mothers-in-law. And I say that with a smile. She wouldn’t listen anyway. I’d add that the wide eyes will remain but the fear will go away. To tell her the sense of wonder at all that is new and novel will remain. And to enjoy it, hold on to it, embrace it. Because those eyes of wonder are precious.
Rarely do I give myself credit. Rarely do I see the distance I’ve crossed. I always feel if I can do it, whatever “it” is, anyone can. But today, I fought back tears as I realize the person I have become.
I thank those young girls, my former selves, for being who they needed to be, doing what they needed to do to get us to where we are today. Happiness will come. As well as children. A modicum of financial security. And the independence that the young exec so craved. She will work for herself and be her own boss, control her own destiny as much as she can.
I sit briefly, before heading to my meetings, and close my eyes. Listen to the fountains, the sound of the wind. It could be 20 years ago, easily.
But it’s not.