Less than a year out of Smith College, with a BA in Psychology, I interviewed for an entry-level position with IBM’s National Marketing Division in Syracuse, New York. My resume included years of babysitting; stints of working at Caldor (a pseudo-Target) in the Major Appliances department; and a clerical summer job in the HR department of the publishing company, Prentice Hall. All of that “work experience” meant that I was qualified to do NOTHING. I knew, however, that a position with IBM included renowned training that would teach me everything I needed to know to build a successful career.
The interview process at IBM was daunting, to say the least. There was a huge, bustling “bull pen” area in the center of the office – permanent cubicles with low walls and lots of people talking on phones or working on computer terminals – which was surrounded by a perimeter of window offices for management. I was shuffled to three offices to meet with different people and then was escorted to the huge one in the corner. There, I was to meet with the Branch Manager.
Robert E. Horstmyer sat at a large executive desk with his back to the floor to ceiling windows. He didn’t stand to shake my hand or welcome me like the others did. Rather, he gestured – with a wave of his hand – for me to sit in the empty chair across from him. He, in turn, leaned back in his big leather chair, chewing on the tip of the cigar in his mouth. As he stretched out his legs and put his wing-tipped shoes on the desk, I could tell he was a tall man and seemingly fit for a man of forty-eight. With his ice blue eyes and full head of prematurely white hair, he simply stared at me for what felt like an eternity.
I tried not to fidget. I tried not to sweat. I tried to hold his gaze and not squint as I mutely cursed the sunlight that streamed through the windows and illuminated my face while his remained shaded. I prayed that his deafening silence would end.
When he finally spoke, Bob asked, “You’re twenty-three and you’re married. If I hire and train you, how do I know you won’t get pregnant and quit?”
* * * * *
This past week, I interviewed eleven applicants for an open position in my department. Eight of them are twenty-two or twenty-three year olds. Their resumes are full of travel, educational, and work experiences that made me jealous. Their composure, poise, and confidence – especially given their ages – are enviable. Two of them have been married for about a year. Most importantly, they all want to build careers in the Jewish community that are meaningful and rewarding.
This process of interviewing candidates, who are in the same age range as my own children, has been challenging. I consciously fight the urge to offer “motherly” advice, become emotionally involved in their personal stories, “stalk” them on facebook, or solicit “referrals” from my children or their friends when there are some obvious connections. At the same time, however, I welcome the opportunity to mentor, support, and guide one of these young women as she launches her career.
I cannot help but reflect back on my own interview experience at IBM when I was their age. I still have no idea what drove Bob to treat me as he did. Maybe he wanted to flex his power and control muscles. Maybe he wanted to intimidate me to see if I would cry. Maybe he wanted some type of proof that his investment in me as an employee would be worth his trouble. Somehow, I held my own. I miraculously landed the job and it TOTALLY shaped the person I’ve become and how I see my world.
I don’t remember how I answered his question way back in 1983, but I wish I could answer Bob now. I’d say:
- Being married at a young age didn’t reduce my options or opportunities; it increased them. My husband was always supportive of my career choices and helped make them work.
- I worked at IBM for five years before I had my first child; then two-and-a-half more before I had my second. With the exception of six part-time months, I worked full-time during my nine years there, earning promotions and awards.
- I used the skills and abilities that I acquired at IBM to start my own business, which I successfully ran for ten years.
- While I am in favor of women marrying, having children, and raising families, I have always believed that women must have something of their own to do that’s separate from these time-consuming endeavors. (Especially in this day and age, if a marriage ends or when the children leave, a woman must have her own “thing” to fall back on. More on this topic in another blog…)
So thank you for investing in me, Bob, because it paid off! I’ve been privileged to have a personally rewarding career, am still married, and am not moping around now that my kids are gone.
Maybe I’ll finally quit when I become a grandmother. Until then, I have a new employee to teach, groom, and encourage….