Growing up and throughout undergraduate and graduate school, I was blessed to be surrounded by people who never made me think that being a woman would put me at a disadvantage in the corporate world. I was naive enough to think that being a feminist was something left in the 1960s or 1970s.
At 23 I was hired by a leading clinical research organization, and by age 25, I was managing eight employees. By 27 I was an associate director overseeing contracting activities in two regions and the youngest person ever accepted into my company's Executive Leadership Development Program. By 29 I was director of a global department spanning 300 employees in 40 countries. I presented to the board of directors, led global initiatives, slashed budgets, reorganized departments, interacted with the executive team on a daily basis, had executive parking rights, flew on the corporate jet, and traveled the world. Before the age of 30, I had checked off every definition of success I had learned from my MBA.
I was young and blonde in a male-dominated executive team. At a client dinner, a well-respected director attempted a compliment by sharing that the executive team referred to me as "Contract Barbie." Everyone laughed, including the client who I had just helped settle a multi-million dollar pharma trial. I felt a piece of myself die right then and there. I was embarrassed, but I was embarrassed for being embarrassed. Did I have a right to feel that way? Was I overreacting?
The confidence that I always had in myself was suddenly shaken. I had always subconsciously known that I often looked like the answer to a "What's wrong with this picture?" challenge—I was young, blonde and the only woman in a boardroom of 40 to 60-year-old men. What I had never thought, however, was that they did not respect me. I consistently received glowing reviews, was put on the most difficult projects, presented to the CEO on a regular basis, held my ground when challenged—I did everything that the men did. But from that day onwards, I stopped sitting at the table. I never sat at the boardroom table again—I sat in the overflow around the back of the room at every meeting, attempting to blend in. I consciously wore darker suits, pulled my hair back and kept my questions and input to myself, emailing them in later, rather than speaking up in the executive meetings.
I seriously doubted whether I belonged.
Several months ago, the company hired a new CEO, and with him came several new executive team members. My department was in a period of transition and I was asked to present at a town hall meeting of the executive team to give an overview of the 2013 change management plans. I slaved over my presentation for weeks. I chose every word carefully, thought and rethought every action plan, and cut every possible dollar from the budget. I was ready. I put on a black suit and went to the meeting. That day, I left my hair down. I decided to sit at the boardroom table so that the camera broadcasting to our other locations would clearly be able to see me and my slides, and so that I would be seated directly to the left of the new CEO. First impressions are important.
As I sat down, I began greeting my colleagues quietly when one of the new members of the executive team turned to me. I extended my hand, and he leaned over and asked, "Sweetheart, could you grab me a coffee? One sugar?" before turning his back to me and resuming his conversation. I felt another part of myself die. He thought I was an executive assistant and that I was there to take coffee orders and meeting minutes—because I was young and blonde. I had a split second decision to make: Should I get his coffee or should I introduce myself? I got up and got him coffee.
Although I had grabbed myself a coffee too, as I re-entered the room with the cups, I heard snickering as several of the older male executives realized what had occurred. Then I heard: "Contract Barbie is Coffee Barbie." Every single ounce of me wanted to hurl the coffee against the perfect glass walls. Instead, I gave him the coffee, sat down and began my presentation. I saw the shock on his face when I turned to make my first presentation point. Yet he never apologized.
Around that same time, I discovered that I was being paid about $30,000 less than my male colleagues despite having significantly more responsibility than them. I brought this to the attention of my vice president and to HR, but neither took it seriously. I was done. I leaned in.
I'm blessed to have found a better role working for the leader in the clinical research industry—with equal pay and strong, smart women as part of its executive team. And, with a bigger boardroom table.