True to Myself Ethney Gentry was thrilled to have infiltrated the ultimate good old boy network, landing a job with a mid-size Tulsa-based oil company. Armed with solid credentials and what she considered the strengths of female leadership—listening, collaboration, consensus building, and organization—she looked forward to her first meeting with the company’s retiring first female manager, Alexis Bale. Alexis offered a firm, almost painful handshake and a cup of coffee. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Alexis,” Ethney said. “It’s Alex.” “Oh, I didn’t know.” Ethney took a sip of piping hot coffee with a sudden vague feeling of discomfort. The first moments of this much-anticipated meeting seemed awkward and somewhat strained. “I’ll be honest with you,” Alex said as she walked around and sat in the oversized chair behind her desk. “You’re here for the same reason I was here. When our founder, Champ Luman, died twelve years ago, his three middle-aged daughters, referred to throughout the company as the girls, became major shareholders. They pushed hard for the inclusion of a woman in management. That was me. Now it’s you.” Ethney tried to show no reaction as she set her cup on the desk. “Are you implying that I was selected over more qualified male candidates?” “No. I was not on the selection team. I’ve seen your resume and you are an excellent addition to the organization. But qualifications aside, you and I fulfill, shall we say—the ‘diversity’ requirements for an otherwise all-male club.” Ethney could not believe the undisguised cynicism of the woman across the desk. She was torn between a desire to get up and march out of the office and a desire to stay and hear the entire lecture. She decided to take the high road. “My understanding was that you have been very successful here,” she said. “I suppose so.” Alex gazed up at the numerous photographs showing oil rigs scattered across the Oklahoma plains. “I learned to play the game,” she said somewhat wistfully and then suddenly turned and looked at Ethney. “I’m not trying to intimidate you. But I think that coming in, you should understand some things.” “Such as?” “Such as … don’t be too eager with your ideas or opinions. When I started, I intended to jump right in and contribute. The men resented it. I was considered a ‘pushy broad’ as one gentleman told me to my face. The reaction to me was harsh. They may have been stuck with me, but these guys could marginalize me, make sure I didn’t count, and make sure I knew it.” “What did you do?” “I stewed awhile and finally tried the opposite tactic. I jumped up to get coffee for everyone. I sought the wise counsel of their opinions before daring to make a suggestion in meetings. I played the female image that was in their minds. I felt like an idiot. I kowtowed till I thought I would throw up.” “How did they react?” “I was no longer marginalized. But I wasn’t respected either. I had quietly stepped back and accepted my place.” “Why didn’t you just quit?” “Because I knew that’s exactly what they wanted me to do. And I’m just stubborn enough not to give them what they wanted.” Ethney took a deep breath and shook her head. “This sounds like the 1950s. I can’t believe men in management act like this.” “Uh-huh. It may be a little better now, but they are still throwbacks to Mad Men.” “So how did you develop this reputation for success if you went from being ignored to being a doormat?” “Have you met Bill Ledson?” Ethney nodded, took a sip of coffee, and leaned forward, waiting to hear the secret of success. “At an industry meeting in Houston, his wife, Margaret, got tipsy, cornered me, and drawled, ‘Listen, Honey. I’ve been around oil men all my life. My daddy and his daddy were oil men. You’re going to have to wise up and take the plunge—become one of the boys. It’s the only way you’ll ever be accepted.’ She reminded me that I’m on their turf. Margaret told me, ‘Honey, as a wife and hostess for this crowd, I’ve talked more football than you can imagine. I hate football. I hang on for the commercials. But they don’t know that. Bill doesn’t know that. Me and God—we’re the only ones who know that. Trust me,’ she said. ‘These guys do get down to some serious business, but not until they grouse about how Oklahoma State was robbed of its chance to play LSU for the national championship.’ ” “Isn’t that trivializing the men in this company?” Ethney asked. Alex shrugged. “It worked. I became Alex and I became one of the guys. And, over time, I came to be treated with grudging respect, and promotions followed. I held the room spellbound for fifteen minutes at the last board meeting with my theory that Texas A&M joined the Southeastern Conference in order to up their chances for better bowls because the BCS favors the SEC. Later, when I submitted my ideas for improving coordination of teams in the oil fields, they thought it was brilliant! I’m one of them!” Ethney nodded, somewhat impressed. “Take my advice. Change your name. Ethney is too girlie. What’s your middle name?” “Madison.” “Be Madison.” Alex walked Ethney to the door and shook her hand. The meeting was over. As the door closed behind her, Ethney’s feelings about what she had just heard ranged from bewilderment to anger to depression. She sold out. All of these women sold out. They can’t even be who they are. I am an experienced, educated, qualified, capable woman. I don’t want to be Madison, Ethney thought confidently and pushed the elevator button. The elevator opened and she stepped inside. What have I gotten myself into?
1. If you were Ethney, how would you try to conduct yourself at the oil company? Why do you think your approach would be successful?
2. Do you think male-dominated cultures like this one still exist? Do you think women have to plot a strategy to be accepted? Would you adopt a strategy in which you acted different from your normal personality? Why?
3. What does it mean to be “True to yourself”? Is being true to yourself more important than achieving personal career success in a male-dominated company? Is it okay to enable the continuation of an “unhealthy” work environment for women? Why?