Monday, December 05, 2005

Flashback: Feminism in the Workplace

I was working in the MIS Department (Management Information Services) of a large manufacturing concern in 1978 when I first encountered Feminism in its basic form.

We (the programmers and analysts) had been working in a primitive 'satellite' environment, because our offices were across the Willamette river and across town (Portland) from the head office, where the computers were located.

Our programming code was written on coding forms, and the Data Entry department would punch it in using IBM 028A Keypunch Machines. This would encode the form in punch-cards (I can't even find pictures of punch cards on the Internet anymore!), which were bundled together and sent to the head office to be read into the computer.

We called the the CTAM, or "Chevy Truck Access Method", because the messenger service was one guy in a chevy pickup who spent his whole day driving back and forth across town, taking our punch-decks to the computer and returning with the (hardcopy) printouts on the classic green-and-white-striped computer paper. Turnaround time was about 2 hours, which means you had 2 hours to read your output, figure out the problem, write the correction, get the Data Entry folks to punch up the cards, and get the revisions on the out-desk in time for the CTAM driver's next pick up. We had either 3 or 4 turnarounds a day, and it wasn't fun.

Then they put in a computer in OUR office, linked by the magic of electronic telephone lines to the head office. And we were a "Beta Test Site" for a revolutionary new communications device: The Dumb Terminal.

This consisted of a keyboard, a monitor (red letters on black screens, remember that?) connected to the computer. We could see the stored code-file, and make changes in it with a primitive line-editor. Type the line number in, and the REPLACEMENT line, and hit 'enter' to send it. No full-screen editing, no changing just the parts that needed to be changed. You had to type the whole line all over again, and get it RIGHT.

We only had four of these workstations for the whole office, so if you had to make a change you probably had to stand in line until a workstation was free.

Here's where the Feminism part comes in.

One afternoon, I was punching away at the workstation and this programmer came up to me and said "I need to use this workstation. This is important, and I have to get it out right away!"

I looked around, saw that all three of the other workstations were also in use, and said "Well, this is important, too. I need to get it right out. Check with the other programmers on the other terminals, okay?"

The programmer said "I already did, they have priority, I need to use THIS workstation right now."

It's hard to keep track of what you're doing when someone is yammering at you over your shoulder, but I made a conscious effort to be polite.

"Look, I am going to finish this job, but as soon as I'm done I'll phone you at your desk and hold the terminal for you, okay?"

I think this must have shorted a circuit, because you see this other programmer was a woman . . . a very attractive woman . . . and I don't think any guy in the shop had ever said 'no' to her before.

She kept trying to convince me that what she had to do was more important than what I had to do, so finally I said:

"I'm sorry, but my boss told me to get this out right away. There's nothing personal in this, I'm just trying to do my job. I promise I'll let you know when I'm done, it shouldn't take more than a half-hour and you won't have to stand in line behind me to save your place."

No good. She went away for a minute, then came back and interrupted me again. She said: "My boss, Rena, wants me to do this right away. She says that you should let me use this workstation, and you can have it back when I'm done."

"Look" I said. Rena is your boss. She's not my boss. I'm doing my job, and if you would just go away and let me do it, I'll be off here a lot sooner than if you keep hanging around here bothering me."

She ran off (literaly) in tears (literaly!) I had never seen that in a workplace, and I found it . . . annoying.

A few minutes later she came back with her boss, Rena, in tow. Rena said that this job was very important and had to get out right away. I stopped what I was doing, turned to her and said:

"Rena, you don't sign my checks and I don't report to you. What you should do is go to MY boss and explain to him how important your project is, and why I should stop doing what I've been told to do. If he says I should let your project take priority over the one he assigned to me, I'll happily step aside and wait until you folks are done. But I am NOT going to stop doing MY job just because you think it's important. If my boss doesn't agree with you, then you and he should go to YOUR boss and let him decide who has priority over the available resources, and I'll do whatever he says. Okay?"

Okay, so I remember the event and the discussions verbatim. You may find it surprising, and so do I. I remember it clearly because, at this point, Rena . . . the middle-manager . . . was crying too. There were crying technical people all over the place, and my manager never did come to me to say that I should stop what I was doing. Neither did his boss. My best guess is that they decided that the 'other project' didn't take priority over what I was doing, and I had been the target of someone who was trying to take advantage of my kindly nature.

I got the job done on time, even considering all of the unwarranted interruptions. But I've often wondered what made these two people think that they could intimidate me into subordinating my job to theirs.

Perhaps they didn't really think they could sweet-talk me because of their gender, or persuade me with their emotional display, but I had never had anything like this happen to me when the 'other person' was a guy. It was more like "Hey, I need to get this out right away! Can I bump you for a half-hour or so?" "No, sorry, I've got to do this now. Come back in a half hour." Okay, I'll tell my boss that there were no terminals available. Will you call me when you're done? Thanks."

The important thing about this is that you (or at least I) never see this kind of scene enacted in the office today. Nobody thinks they can take advantage of personal characteristics. Everything is prioritized according to the business requirements, not the person. All of this eye-batting and crying stuff isn't necessary, because we're all trying to do our job.

Where I work now, I'm new in the office (having been re-assigned to a new department due to a general re-organization) and my mentor is a woman. My closest co-worker is a woman. I spend a lot of time going to them and asking question about things I haven't learned yet, and they go out of their way to help me. Gender doesn't enter into it, there's no pressure except the job, and I feel a lot more comfortable working with people who don't use tears as a weapon.

I feel comfortable working with professionals. When men and women can work together as equals, you can spend the day just doing your job and a lot more gets accomplished. This is why we get the Big Bucks.

But when gender is an issue, you're working in a sick environment that doesn't promote productivity.

No, I don't have a major moral to this story.

It's just a story.

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