K., a 67-year-old former marketing executive, worked at a women’s fashion company for 30 years before retiring two years ago. When I learned that K. wouldn’t watch Mad Men because it too perfectly captured the life of a woman working on Madison Avenue, I immediately wanted to hear more about her work history and background. Here is what she had to say about frequently being the only woman in the room.
Tell me about your first job.
It was 1967, and I was right out of college. I was a math major—which was extremely unusual for a woman—and I got a job as a computer programmer at a university. I was 21 years old, and I was the only woman in the office.
How long did you stay at that job?
For about two years. During that time, I decided to go back to school to get my Masters in Operations Research. I did that while working full-time.
What was operations research like as a field?
Oh, it was a lot of fun! I got to apply my math skills to people problems. Since I’m a people person, this was a happy combination of my interests. Operations Research as a professional field was also where anyone who wasn’t a white male ended up. I worked in Operations Research at several different large companies, and we were always a mix of “misfits”—which in the 1960s and ‘70s meant women, non-white men, and foreign nationals.
You didn’t stay in the field of Operations Research. How did your career evolve?
I’ve always really liked people—like I said before, I’m a people person. It was my sister who suggested that I should look for positions in marketing where I could apply some of those skills. After being in the working world for a few years, I also developed an interest in being in the business end of the organization rather than only doing research and analysis. Going into marketing seemed like a good way to position myself for that. I ended up getting a job at a large multi-national corporation. During my interview, I told them that while I was happy to start in operations research, I wanted to eventually move into marketing once I had proven myself. They agreed.
What was the interview process like?
I was fortunate; I interviewed with someone who hired people not just on experience, but on personality and ideas. He saw that I had useful skills, but also observed that I was a good fit for the company. Later on, that really influenced how I hired people.
Tell me more. How did you hire? On personality or experience?
I didn’t hire on personality right away. Like most people, I looked 100 percent at ability and experience when evaluating potential employees. But eventually I did end up following the lead of the person who interviewed me all those years ago at the multi-national. I came to realize that personality and compatibility with a group dynamic was as important as skills. You want driven people, but you don’t want too much competition within the group. So I started trying to find the balance between the two with my new hires. Of course I wanted them to have certain skills, but I also evaluated how they thought and how easy they were to get along with.
What kind of hours did you work?
There was a tendency to work long hours at the New York headquarters where I worked. The head of our department actually didn’t approve of this, though. He was a very unusual boss who didn’t want people to work late into the night. He’d say, “Why can’t they get their work done during the day?” Sometimes the volume and deadlines of work was stressful, but with that encouragement I managed to balance my personal and work life. And I always used my vacation days!
I do think it’s fine when young people in their 20s and 30s work long hours. There is so much to learn and absorb. If it’s not interfering with your child or whatever, it’s fine. But if you are driven to work long hours because you think you need it to get ahead, then it can become a problem.
How many other women worked at your company who were NOT secretaries?
In 1974, I was one of only two women who were not secretaries. The other one was a physician. Around that time, more women were starting to be hired. Just a few! A sprinkling! I lived in a Connecticut suburb and I was the only woman on the commuter train into the city. Even though women were starting to work, I think that for many of them the salary didn’t justify the expense of the commute. Probably some of them also wanted to be close to their children.
Did you and your husband have children?
We did not; we made a conscious decision not to have children.
I was raised in a very traditional home—I think that was a major factor in my decision. My parents have been married for 73 years, but I could tell growing up that my mother would have liked some financial independence, something not commonly available to women of her generation. I didn’t have any female role models who were balancing work and motherhood successfully. At the same time, my mother would point to a couple next door and remark that because they didn’t have children, they “babied” each other. What I saw was a happy couple who were lovingly demonstrative and affectionate with each other.
I knew I wanted to be financially independent, but I didn’t know if I wanted children. I wasn’t a person who was drawn to babies; I enjoyed older children more. I came to understand, later, that when it was your own child, it felt completely different. My husband and I had each been married briefly after college and divorced, so we each knew that an unhappy relationship with a spouse was miserable and lonely. Each of us wanted our relationship to be the primary one. We gave up having kids of our own, knowing there would be a sense of loss about that, but we also gained a lot in our own relationship, and we have come to feel extremely close and parental about several “young people” in our lives, including our nephew, the daughter of my best friend, and one other young couple. Those relationships are extremely important to us; we really cherish them.
You mentioned that you wanted to be financially independent. What did financial independence mean to you?
It meant being able to support myself as a single woman. My vision was gender independent. I guess it meant to earn the same as a man.
What sort of lifestyle did you maintain as a single working woman? Did you live on your own or with roommates?
I lived on my own in a one bedroom apartment in NYC. It was my home, and as such I furnished it nicely. I managed and spent my money very much the way I do today, spending money on eating out, entertainment, and traveling.
Did you ever negotiate your salaries?
Twice I negotiated stock options benefits. One time because I was so very certain that I was entitled to the options, I persisted—going back three times with three different “arguments” until I was successful. Another time I decided to lay out my case in a carefully written memo, which was also effective.
Did you have an unspoken idea of what it would mean to “make it”? What did that mean to you?
Because of the way I was raised, income was the measure of success. To give you an idea of salaries at the time, in 1967 the starting salary for a Computer Systems Analyst graduating from an Ivy League school was $6,500/year [about $45,000 when adjusted for inflation]. In those days, the goal for “making it” was to earn “your age.” So when I attained a salary of $30,000 at age 30, I felt I had succeeded [adjusted for inflation for 1976, the salary would be more than six figures today].
Was there pressure to get married in order to guarantee yourself a comfortable lifestyle?
Without a professional salary, it was nearly impossible to have money left for anything once you took out rent, groceries, and transportation. Until women entered the business world and were paid accordingly, it was only through marriage that women had access to the comforts and physical pleasures of life. So yes, there was a lot of pressure for women to marry in order to be comfortable economically. Economic independence absolutely revolutionized relationships between men and women.
It sounds like you had a happy career.
Oh, I did. I had a fabulous career; I was very lucky. After working at the multi-national for eight years, I got a job at a small family-owned women’s fashion business. I ended up staying 30 years, until I retired. I loved it. Especially mentoring young people—that was one of the most delicious elements of my job.
How did you decide when to retire?
I had it in my head—for the reason I’m sure many people do—that 65 was retirement age. Earlier felt too soon. Later felt too risky, especially since my husband is four years older than me. I wanted to make sure that my husband and I had enough good years to enjoy retirement together. People sometimes say, “Oh, but you might live till you’re 100.” Sure, I may, as my parents are 98 and 96. But you can’t realistically do all the things we like to do—travel, hiking, and vigorous activity—when you get to be a certain age.
Was it difficult to transition from such a successful, satisfying career to retirement?
That’s the funny, thing—although I loved my job, once I retired, I literally did not think about it again. The activities of our life, that we already did in the evenings and on weekends and days off, expand and days feel very full. The pace is just not as intense, which is what I had hoped for. We spend a lot of time traveling and seeing friends. After many, many years I am finally trying new recipes again, not just remaking old ones that I know like the back of my hand. It’s so much fun.
How much was being a woman in a man’s world a defining part of your career?
For a long time, because I was often the only woman in the room, it was not something I could ignore. At the same time, as a result of being a math major, this is something I’d gotten used to early on. I am also someone who has always felt comfortable asserting myself and expressing my opinion. Some of that is innate to my personality, but I also credit the schools and camps I attended, which were all-girls, with helping me cultivate that part of myself. There were many things that were challenging during my career, and at times being a woman was one of them.
I’m 5’4″ and at one point I was working with four men who were 6’2″, so it was hard to have a group conversation while we were all standing—for this reason, I always preferred seated meetings. I was complaining about this to my husband and he said, “You have so many other things going for you—the excellent schools you went to and your business skills… and anyway, what do you think a short man has to deal with?” That conversation helped me realize that being a woman is only one part of who I am at work.
Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at smallanswers.us.