Diversity Career Stories Marketing

Sales and marketing professional starts own business to escape years of sexist treatment

This working mother has 13 years experience in sales and marketing for the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. Here, in her own words, she shares her story about how being a woman in a man’s field has been a constant challenge, and how she copes with sexism in her industry.

What I do
I don’t feel quite old enough to say that I have been doing my job for 13 years, but I have been. My title has varied from Marketing Communications Specialist to Business Development Manager. There was a point when I put a lot of significance in the title that I held, but the truth is it’s all the same. I am a sales and marketing professional who specializes in the dying industry that once was architecture, engineering and construction (A/E/C).

Professional services marketing is quite different than business to consumer marketing. Essentially I sell people, or expertise. The process by which they are sold is different than potato chips at a convenience store. Gimmicks and coupons can make you buy that bag of Lays™, even when your thighs don’t need them, but there is absolutely nothing that I can do to make you, or your company, build a building. Professional services marketing is relationship based. It requires friendship development over years, and it comes down to the best written proposal, and the expert’s finesse in an interview. So that’s what I do: I make friends with decision makers, I submit proposals on design and construction projects, and I train experts to speak well in an interview.

Mothers are the hardest critics
There is a group of mothers at my daughter’s elementary school that I have known for five years; they hate me. On rare occasion I have mingled with them at kid’s birthday parties and felt that uncomfortable guilt that lingers right after you interrupt them talking bad about you. Recently I was told their collective distaste originated with my flirtation with their husbands. For the record: their husbands are middle aged bald men, who drive mini vans, and gave up independent thought when they walked down the aisle. The thought of flirting with them makes me nauseous, but I get it. Embarrassingly, I realize that it is with the fathers that I am most comfortable. I fit in with the men. I have been in this career for 13 years, and it has been that long since I have worked with a woman.

I learned to play golf for my job. I curse. I laugh at bawdy humor. I smoke cigars. I can drink whiskey all night if I need to. Yet, I have never mowed the grass. I have never gone to Walmart in my sneakers or without make up. I can do nearly anything in high heels. I am the woman that threatens mothers at children’s birthday parties.

Inside I would love to tell those women how hard it is to be in a man’s world, but how does one start that speech when one is simply not regarded? They formed their impressions and opinions of me, would the fight to change them be worth it?

Thirteen years ago, I thought feminism was dead. The eternal optimist in me said, “my generation is different.” However, when you are the only woman in an industry that boys have been apprenticing for since they got their first Lego set™, you learn that there are still causes to triumph.

Sexism at the office
If those ladies knew how often my gender has become an issue at my job they would look at me with pity. The truth is, there are too many occasions to recollect here. When I was younger, I didn’t know better. No one told me that having your 70 year old boss have you twirl to see your skirt from all angles, or have him standing too closely behind you while you typed was not an accepted practice in all industries. I would like to say that I took up those causes, stormed into HR, and that the old man lost his job, but I cannot. I learned to politely reject advances so as not to be perceived as a rebel rouser, but to protect my physical safety.

Years later I was at a regional sales and marketing conference in Las Vegas. After a day of long board room meetings with two VPs and a regional manager we were to have a nice dinner. The men of course didn’t want to freshen up, but I asked if I could have a half an hour to change and get ready. The red headed Vice President, who hailed from Texas and towered over the others said, “What, you gotta go change into your slut clothes?” The others, both of whom were also so called Southern Gentlemen, laughed loudly at my expense. When I began to protest one of them actually slapped my back and said “come on, it was just a joke”. The red head whose trousers sat below his belly like the white fluff that oozes out of a marshmallow crème jar when you peel the lid back said, “what is it with women? The get a little bit of authority and they become such bitches.”

What they didn’t teach me in school
Remember how I told you that my title doesn’t mean much anymore? I think that is largely because no matter what my job was, manager or assistant, I was always the one told to fetch coffee. I drink tea myself, with one Splenda™ and milk. At most of the companies that I have worked at, I felt as if my words did not matter as much. I would be a very wealthy person if I was paid per interruption. There is an art to remembering exactly what it was that you were going to say after the men in the room have stopped arguing amongst themselves; I am great at it. For years, this disregard made me insecure about my credentials.

Educational background
My undergrad is in theater, and perhaps I am not as smart as the people I worked for. To compensate, I studied my rear off for the GRE. It was awful, but I survived and I finished my master degree in international communication. I was laid off the day after graduation. You have to wonder, did they all wait because they wanted a piece of my graduation party cake?

Still feeling insecure, I enrolled in a second masters program in PR and marketing, which I also completed, along with a certificate of advanced study. None of my education increased my earnings with any significance. Truthfully, my job is exactly the same; except now I am a quarter of a million dollars in debt.

Professional service marketers in the A/E/C industry make an average of $47,000 (based on my industry knowledge). This is nearly half of what professional proposal writers can earn outside of the industry.

Professional struggles of a mother
I have been laid off four times, twice when I was pregnant. My last layoff came after the employer found out that I had kids and was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough flexibility in my schedule to do the job. For the record, all of the male managers were also parents. Here is what they don’t understand and may never understand about me. I was a single parent who worked full time and completed two master degrees. I learned to speak Mandarin Chinese and I never give up.

My mother told me to choose my battles, and I used to stink at that, but not anymore. It has been 13 years. I tried marketing outside of the industry and it felt like I was an intern again. Outside of what I learned in grad school, I don’t understand coupons and specials. I know how to write proposals that win and keep architects and engineers employed in a dying industry.

Making my own path
I have my own company now. My job hasn’t changed, but the way that I function in the workplace is significantly different.

Today, I am hired to perform a specific action and to provide a certain deliverable. I don’t get people coffee unless they are my guest, and I don’t work with barbaric men who have no manners. There are challenges to be sure, but I have a strong client base. When I speak, people listen.

I won’t pretend that I am rolling in it. My income hasn’t really changed, but I am happy. My best customer is a woman owned civil engineering firm. This firm is all women and is the only group I know that is thriving. While their competition is downsizing they are seeing record profits. I love watching them win over and over again. They inspire me.

Having your own business is challenging; there are all-nighters and times when you make a lot less than you expected during a pay period. However, the rewards are great. I get to meet my children at the bus stop on most days. I have surrounded myself with a team of talent that I envy. My office has non-stop laughter. Ideas are welcome and arguments happen that lead to progress.

We do great work.

I never knew that it could be like this. For years, I doubted that I was capable. How lovely it is to be wrong.