“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
John Love Elementary School.
His name was Leroy. Yes, that’s his real name. At the time, I had another name for him, which wasn’t appropriate for a seven-year-old. You see, Leroy was my tormentor for weeks until the unthinkable happened.
I was in second grade, and that year in school was the first time I had a male teacher. I found Mr. Lawson to be a bit of an oddity, not because he had orange hair with a matching mustache and beard, but because he was a man. My previous teachers for kindergarten and first grade had both been women, and I just assumed they would all be female.
On the first day of school, he arranged us in assigned seating. Vertical rows. For more than thirty kids, there were five rows. Mr. Lawson’s process for assigning seats was not to organize us by alphabet, or by who had the best-looking book bag, which I thought made more sense, but to sort us in boy-girl-boy-girl fashion. That’s how I ended up seated between a rock and a hard place, AKA Eric and Leroy.
Leroy occupied the seat immediately behind me and announced that he’d be trouble by gleefully commenting, “Ha-ha. I get to sit by you.” And not in a “good, let’s be friends” kind of way. More of a “I’m going to make your life a living hell” kind of way.
As a young girl, I often wore my hair in two pig-tails or pony tails. My hair was also long, and so my pony tails extended past my shoulders. Based on how my mother styled them, they hung more so down my back. It wasn’t long before Leroy started yanking on them whenever he felt the urge, determined that it would be fun. The first time he did it during quiet reading time, my knee-jerk reaction was to turn around and face him.
“Stop,” I hissed.
What that got me was a stern look from Mr. Lawson and a snicker from Leroy.
This went on for days with me thinking that I would just deal with it on my own. When I finally decided to enlist the help of Mr. Lawson, his response told me he didn’t think it warranted his intervention.
“He means no harm. That’s his way of letting you know that he likes you. Sometimes boys do that. Just ignore him, and he’ll soon get bored and stop.”
If this is how boys show girls they like them, then what the heck is marriage going to be like? And how am I supposed to ignore him yanking on my pony tails when I’m trying to do my work?
I wanted to scream at him. “But Mr. Lawson, he pulls my hair . . . a lot.”
“Well, have you thought about wearing your hair differently, so he doesn’t have anything to pull? He’ll get the message.”
What?! Are you kidding me?! That’s your solution?! You’re supposed to be the smart grown-up, and that’s your solution?! What’s a clearer message than “stop” issued by a teacher?
The message that my seven-year-old brain couldn’t process back then was that Mr. Lawson believed that I should be the one to adjust and adapt. It was my fault for wearing my hair in a style that provoked Leroy.
Perhaps I should just wear a paper bag over my head, so he can truly focus on his school work?
In my naivete, I took Mr. Lawson’s advice to heart.
But as it turned out, he was wrong.
For a week after his advice, I wore my hair in a pinned-up secure bun at the top of my head, a request I had made of my mom without providing her a reason, and about which she didn’t say a word. I still maintained that I could handle Leroy without getting her involved.
The last thing I wanted was my mom visiting the school. If you remember ever living with the fear of embarrassment that your mother would come to your school to get to the bottom of something, then you’ll understand it when I say that her visit would not have ended well for anyone involved. Especially for me. As a single parent of three girls, my mom had been clear to us about speaking up and standing up for ourselves. If she had known about Leroy, she would have demanded from me why I had let it get this far.
Leroy must not have liked my new hair style as it had deprived him of his hair-yanking ritual. Without my hair to pull, he had resorted to light thumps on the back of my neck.
“I said quit it.”
It was like a sick dance, and he was enjoying every minute of it.
What would be Mr. Lawson’s advice now if I asked? Keep my neck covered with a turtle-neck during August in Florida?
One day on the playground as I was talking with friends, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Leroy heading toward me. He looked possessed. Like he had had too many pixie sticks at lunch or something and needed to let off some excess energy. As he got closer, I could see the determination in his wild eyes.
He picked up speed and started running toward me yelling, “I’m gonna getcha, Theresa!”
His buddies were over in the corner, and they were laughing and cheering him on.
Oh no! He’s coming for me!
Out of sheer panic, I took off running. My friends just stood there in shock watching as Leroy chased me across the playground and onto the blacktop.
My anger was bubbling up to the surface. Anger at Leroy for habitually tormenting me. Anger at Mr. Lawson for not doing anything about it. Anger at myself for running and not dealing with this once and for all. I mustered up all my adrenaline-induced outrage, and while running, turned around and screamed at the top of my lungs.
And so did my feet. But the rest of me kept flying forward. I fell over, landing on a concrete ridge, smashing my chin, and splitting it open, resulting in emergency transport to the hospital for stitches. The permanent scar, I still carry today.
I recall Mr. Lawson picking me up from that cold concrete slab to carry me inside while I continued to scream, soaking his white shirt with blood.
I stared up at his crazy, orange beard and heard him muttering.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I had paid for that apology with my blood.
More pressing in my thoughts, however, was Leroy himself. I remember thinking that despite the hole in my chin, I had won. He would surely never bother me again.
And he never did. For the remaining three years of elementary school, he never did.
I later discovered that he had told his friends that he’d stopped bothering me because “she’s crazy.” Imagine that.
Crazy brave is more accurate. On that playground that day, there was so much at stake for a girl being chased by a boy and not knowing his end game. And so, not knowing his intent but carrying the context of prior interactions, I was brave enough to turn and scream out a four-letter word that had immediate power once I put the force of my whole being behind it.
My previous “stops” had been hissed whispers. My “quit it’s” had been low mutters. I had been the one embarrassed by the unwanted attention and on some level, I felt both ashamed and responsible.
After all these years, forty-five to be exact, my scar hasn’t completely faded. Today, I proudly bear it on my chin. It’s visible to others when I hold my head high and serves as a reminder for me to turn and face challenges head-on no matter how big and scary they might seem. When I hang my head low, the scar disappears as do my courage and fighting spirit. Despair and defeat are much heavier to bear.
As evidence of our wounds, scars are sometimes on the outside for others to see. Other scars are on the inside that others can’t readily see. Every collabHERator within these pages bears scars. Reminders of what we’ve endured and overcome, our scars dare to defy what others may deem ugly and damaged. We’ve paid the high cost of our scars and have persevered to now recount our stories to others.
I’ve embraced my scar and the power its story represents. I and the women in these pages have made conscious decisions to reclaim and control our own narratives and to draw strength from our experiences no matter how scarred, abused, neglected, harassed, or wronged we’ve been.
I learned several valuable lessons that day on the playground, one of which is that my voice is indeed powerful, but I must first believe that it’s powerful. Sound will always pierce silence. Voiced will always trump the unvoiced.
The Ban on “No” Lifted (And That There Was Even a Ban in the First Place!)
As I write this introduction, a major story has hit the news. Maybe it flew under the radar for some, but for those who pay attention, it carries with it far-reaching implications. As reported by CNN on February 13, 2018, Kaneysville Elementary School in Ogden, Utah, holds an annual sixth-grade dance on Valentine’s Day, intended to promote inclusion and kindness. According to school tradition, students are instructed by their teachers to say “yes” when a classmate asks them to dance.
This year, however, parents were not having it. No doubt influenced by the current shift in the gender conversation and angered by the audacity of the school, parents were quick to launch an all-out social media protest against the school’s tradition. Specifically, girls were getting the message that they have to say “yes.” And boys were getting the message that girls can’t say “no.”
It appears the school also got the parents’ message. The school district quickly released a statement, effective immediately, that the instructions for the dance will be different moving forward. All students will be free to say “no.”
Where to even begin? It’s the Leroy-effect all over again. As the expression goes: “Same shit. Different day.” From an early age, girls (and boys) receive gender messages that get constantly reinforced such that by the time a woman reaches the workplace, certain behaviors and expectations are imbedded. That girls are expected to adapt and adjust is an especially damaging paradigm. Particularly, that girls are expected to be agreeable and say “yes” has already had far-reaching implications in the realm of sexual assault.
At the age of seven, I was advised by an authority figure to change my hairstyle so that Leroy would not act badly. The girls at Kaneysville Elementary School were instructed by authority figures to say “yes” and not say “no” to boys’ dance invitations so that the boys would not feel badly. And it was a message that the boys were aware of, which makes it even more dangerous.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on girls at any age, being made to feel responsible for another person’s actions and feelings without any regard for our own preferences and feelings.
And consider the false sense of entitlement being fostered in the boys.
Today, I’ll ask for a dance that she can’t refuse.
Tomorrow, I’ll demand [fill in the blank].
See where this is going?
O-Syndrome in Context
Do any of us even remember when we first experienced gender-biased treatment? Sometimes it was subtle. Sometimes it was blatant. Some of us may have been too young and lacked life experience to recognize it and call it for what it was because we’d become so conditioned that it was normal. The best we could hope for was to try and navigate it and not let it be a blocker.
When women arrived in the workplace in droves during the 1960’s, the seeds had already been planted as to how we would be received and treated by a patriarchal system that was vested in the status quo. We joined male-dominant work teams, many of which went through the motions to welcome us, but their words and actions quickly betrayed check-the-box pretenses of welcome.
Fast forward to 2018. Women’s and men’s lives, both inside and outside of the workplace, have grown busy. In fact, incredibly busy. The busy-ness and its effects are the reason for my first book, O-Syndrome: When Work is 24/7 and You’re Not. I coined the term O-Syndrome, because, having served as a corporate facilitator for more than twenty-five years, I noticed the sheer number of professionals self-reporting being incredibly overstressed, overwhelmed, overcommitted, and overloaded. Many had fallen into the O-Syndrome habit, largely due to the tremendous pressure at work to perform and achieve.
As I conducted research and compiled my notes for that initial book, I was intrigued by the clear pattern emerging that underscored what I had been hearing many years prior from women with whom I’d worked. Women were citing gender issues as a major source for their overstressed and overwhelmed state. Specifically, women were pointing to the impact of gender bias and gender inequity both inside and outside of the workplace. (And adding to this, women of color were contextualizing the intersection of gender and race within their experiences.)
Where We Stand Today
Though I didn’t fully realize it, the foundation was already being laid for this follow-up book to address women’s unique experiences with O-Syndrome. (My entire career journey is also a part of that foundation.) While working on that first book, it grew obvious that this book had been pursuing me. In my conversations with women, what we had experienced and were experiencing continued to dominate the ways in which we talked about and characterized O-Syndrome. It was evident early on that the subject of gender was much more prominent for women and demanded an expanded treatment: How are women’s experiences with O-Syndrome informed by their shared experiences with systemic gender bias and discrimination?
Over the years, I’ve been privy to the experiences and perspectives of hundreds of women. I didn’t find them. They found me. We found each other. As a facilitator/speaker interacting with audiences all over the world, I am naturally drawn to women and their experiences. Once I issued the formal call about this project, the responses were immediate. Accomplished professional women were eager to talk more about what they’ve experienced and what they’ve learned. They detailed the costs of being female in male-dominated environments.
Why should you care about their experiences and what they have to say? Because of their titles. No. (I rarely include that.) Because of their industries? No. (I rarely include that either.) Because they were gracious and generous to set aside an entire day to be interviewed or because they wrote and submitted their stories. No. You should care because they embody the voices of our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters, and our best friends. What they have to say transcends title and industry, spans across time and place.
There has been much time with not much difference separating my John Love Elementary school’s Leroy experience from Kaneysville Elementary school’s dance rules. Different time. Same timing. Condition our thinking while we’re young. Different place. Same placement. Condition our thinking when we’re under school authority. While it’s important to celebrate the progress we’ve made in gender equality, if we don’t address what’s still broken, we forfeit our chance to fix it and are bound to keep repeating it.
I’ve devoted my career to helping others be their authentic whole self in all areas of their life. What women are experiencing threatens that. This book was voiced into existence because it’s time to unite and widen the conversation such that our experiences are validated. It’s time to work collectively for change.
Once this project grew and took on a life of its own, I knew that it was not mine alone. Specifically, during the face-to-face interviews, through the questioning, the listening, the aha’s, the insights, the lessons learned, the raucous laughter, the frustrations, and yes, even the tears, I couldn’t help but think about how empowered we each are when we have a voice. How empowered we are when we rise up from the shadows of misplaced expectations, imposed invisibility, and unfair treatment to say out loud what needs to be said. This book is our say.
Think about how much more empowered we become when our voice joins up with another voice that joins up with yet another voice. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have clearly illustrated what collective voices can do, while the #MentorHer initiative shows what advocates and champions can do.
Free to De-FINE Yourself
For some of us who have stayed quiet out of habit, when others ask, “How are you?” let’s think twice about whether a response of “fine” accurately captures our reality, especially if what we’re presently experiencing is not fine. This book is our permission to declare that things are not always fine. Let it serve as our rallying cry to give voice to our hurt, our frustration, and our outrage at the gender inequities that continue to plague our community, our workplace, and our world. When our voices are silenced and stay silent, and we bear our challenges alone, we miss out on our great power.
I feel like it’s not just me.
I feel relieved.
I feel fired up.
I feel validated.
I feel like I can take a deep breath.
I feel a part of an amazing tribe of women who are in this with me.
I consider myself a feminist. I know that. Here’s where I struggle. On one side, being a feminist means that I have to respect that all women can make their own choices. But then I also struggle with women who make certain choices and hold certain ideas that are harmful. If a woman’s opinion makes little girls think they need not be equal or can’t be equal and that they need to be submissive, that’s harmful. — Katerina, a collabHERator
Just as the end of the Holocaust, the abolition of slavery, or the women’s rights movement could never shift all minds and change all attitudes, rejecting old gender paradigms requires constant rejecting, re-educating, reframing. It is still believed, perpetuated, and embedded in minds and in cultural and organizational systems that the way to be a successful woman is to be agreeable and don’t make waves, smile, be present but not a presence, be seen but not heard, wait to be recognized, bury and suppress what you really think and feel, take care of and nurture others.
That was then. This is now. As we get closer to the last days of 2018, what is behind us is not as important as what lies in front of us. Imagine if each of us purposefully ended and began the year with our voice. That would be fine!
How Women Experience O-Syndrome
What women continue to face is another side of the phenomenon I call O-Syndrome: being talked Over, Overtalked, Overlooked, Overjudged, and passed Over. At the same time there is yet another side of O-Syndrome that women do to ourselves when we Overachieve, Overcommit, Overaccommodate, and Over isolate.
I’ll just say that I’m so relieved O-Syndrome has nothing to do with orgasm! LOL Because haven’t we women already suffered enough?! You probably won’t even include this in the book, but we have to laugh about some things in order to not cry about all things. —Pat, a collabHERator
How many of these aspects of O-Syndrome have you experienced in the past year?
- talked over— to be interrupted, especially in meetings, while you’re in the middle of talking, usually by a man, who often may go on to repeat exactly what you’ve just said and get the credit for it
- overtalked—to be dismissed verbally (i.e., “mansplaining”) in a way that is patronizing and demeaning because the offender assumes you lack knowledge
- overlooked— to be looked past or not be taken notice of as if you’re invisible or as if your input or voice is not valued
- overjudged—to be unfairly assessed via gender stereotypes or assumptions on grounds other than data and facts
- passed over —to be looked past or disregarded, often in favor of a man, for a job, assignment, or promotion without fair consideration for your experience, qualifications, or potential
I speak up to both men and women. I’m like my grandmother, who reached a point where she didn’t give a damn. She spoke her mind to whomever. She had no hesitation about saying exactly what she felt and exactly what she thought. — Kim, a collabHERator
With how many of these aspects of O-Syndrome have you struggled in the past year?
- overachieve—not only to strive for success above and beyond the standard or expected level, often at the detriment to yourself and your relationships, but also to feel compelled to do so due to feelings of unrelenting self-imposed pressure
- overcommit—to excessively obligate yourself beyond your ability or capacity to fulfill, often to please others or to prove and re-prove yourself to others
- overaccommodate—to obsessively provide services or favors and make adjustments, whether requested of you or not, for the convenience and comfort of others even at the inconvenience or expense of yourself, oftentimes accompanied by over apologizing
- over isolate—to deliberately or inadvertently separate and insulate yourself from the help and support of others due to the faulty thinking that a strong and successful woman with help and support may be perceived as incapable
Over it! Single mum of two teen-aged boys, with a full-time job in a struggling private company. The only daughter in a sea of male siblings. Uber-mum six days a week and trying to undo the effects of poor male role-modelling! Sounds like the perfect recipe for over-work, over-taxed, over-drive and overwhelm. And it is! —Jane, a collabHERator
A Word About Real, Raw, Unapologetic
This book is a collection of my own personal experiences as well as the experiences of women from different industries, from various career stages, and from diverse demographics, whom I call collabHERators, and without whom this book would not exist. Assuming different names of their creative choosing, collabHERators in these pages range in age from 20+ to 60+, from black to white, from admin to C-suite, from atheist to believer, from heterosexual to lesbian, from single to widowed. From the diversity and myriad of voices, what unites us is our shared challenges with O-Syndrome.
From my collabHERators, I insisted on genuine, unpolished, what’s-really-going-on accounts and what-you-really-think-and-feel sentiments. If authenticity of voice is what you crave, look no further. Other than editing for ease of readability, I have endeavored to carefully preserve the stories, voices, and words.
The stories invite and engage freedom in the sense that releasing our voices is cathartic and freeing. Each woman was encouraged to just say it like it is and how she feels it—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without apology. So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I ask you, reader, to please refrain from judgment.
Warning. Sentiments are often crass and not veiled in political correctness, tactfulness, civility, or etiquette. If you’re easily offended or blush at the mere suggestion of an off-color thought or remark, then this is not the book for you. If you’re quick to equate male-bashing to discrimination, move on. (The former is admittedly harsh, while the latter is illegal.) If any of this applies to you, stop reading now and pursue an alternative selection that doesn’t announce itself with real, raw, and unapologetic content. Please find a selection more suitable to your tastes and sensibilities.
How This Book Is Organized
This book is divided into three parts. Part I focuses on the external O-Syndrome forces that women face. Within it are five chapters, each addressing a particular O-Syndrome aspect (see Checklist, above): talked over, overtalked, overlooked, overjudged, and passed over.
Part II focuses on the internal O-Syndrome forces to which women subject ourselves. Within it are four chapters, each also addressing a particular O-Syndrome aspect: overachieve, overcommit, overaccommodate, and over isolate.
Part III focuses on what women need from allies and contains two chapters. One chapter focuses on the status and importance of woman-to-woman support, and one focuses on the need for more man-to-woman support.
But identifying aspects of O-Syndrome is only part of it. Each chapter also contains concrete strategies and tactics designed to take you out of O-Syndrome mode and move you forward into Overcomer mode.
Chapter elements include the following:
- Opening quotes
- Real, raw, unapologetic stories, anecdotes, and interview excerpts
- “Get Real” moments that capture distinct collabHERator voices and previously pent-up emotions
- “Get Over It!” strategies that address the chapter’s O-Syndrome focus, most of which can be implemented right away
- Reflection questions that set the stage for the “Do Over” and “Make Over” challenges, but can also be used to guide journaling or to guide facilitating group discussions
- “Do Over” challenges that rely on hindsight wisdom applied to past events through actions designed to build a new foundation for future actions
- “Make Over” challenges that plant the seeds of transformation with short-term or long-term self-empowering actions with big impact
What I Hope This Book Will Mean to Us
This book is both part of a movement and an environment within which women have shared stories related to personal experiences connected to our identity as women. I hope that you’ll closely connect with at least one woman from this book and bond over your shared experience or sentiment. As women, even if the specifics of our stories are different, in many ways we’re all on the same journey.
The rollercoaster emotions that leap from these pages include weariness, bemusement, frustration, feistiness, anger and more. What ultimately rises to the top, however, is the fierceness and determination born of our fighting spirit. I pay tribute to women all over the world who make the decision to get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other to do what is good and right and noble despite all the crap.
This book is our safe space to share, to vent, to laugh, to cry – and to provide strategies that help, support, and empower us in the face of gender inequity. And I hope it will unleash in us what others, and even we, have managed to relegate to below the surface. We’re not the over-reactive, emotionally inferior gender that we’ve been portrayed as. We want to have our say about the injustice of how we continue to be regarded and treated. Within these pages be comforted and supported by many women who share in this journey. Find an increased sense of peace, more wisdom in our choices, more courage to speak up and act up. It’s time to shatter paradigms and bust up more stereotypes.
As you read, please know that your voice matters.
It has always mattered.
It will always matter.
It’s not just about women realizing we have voices. It’s about others shutting up long enough to recognize that women have voices! — Jackie, a collabHERator
Are you ready to get real? Let’s get started.
Oh, wait. One more very important thing.
I don’t have everything all figured out.
And collabHERators don’t have everything all figured out, either.
The message we don’t hear enough of is that NO ONE has everything all figured out.
But, maybe, if we connect our wisdom with somebody else’s wisdom and then connect that wisdom to more wisdom, and so on and so on…we’ll finally figure things out…together.