(WOMENSENEWS)– The first time I heard the term "glass ceiling," I thought it was a good thing. I was a child, growing up in Germany, and a glass ceiling meant a grow house in a garden center. The glass allowed the warm sun to help plants grow without being exposed to harsh winds and cold. A glass house was a protective cloak to nurture me, not something that would hinder me.
Boy, is she naïve, you might think. You are right, of course. To say that I grew up naïve is putting it mildly.
Growing up, I never thought I was worse off than others, especially men. Men just did more manly things, like being a stockbroker. Women were the secretaries or assistants of those men. That is perfectly normal, I thought.
Yet, for me I guess times were changing.
In 1961, when I asked my boss what it took to become a stockbroker, he did not discourage me. In fact, he encouraged the other secretary in my office to try out for it too. We had a professor in the office who taught us all about the stock market, and I took courses at Frankfurt University. You had to pass two tests to become a registered representative. Bingo! I passed and became Germany’s youngest and only female stockbroker for the New York Stock Exchange. It even made the financial sections of the papers. That a mentor who was a partner of my company asked me to help him land a several million-dollar deal with a German bank was just a bonus. He taught me how to negotiate, and because I was so naïve, I had no fear to go to that German banker and talk him into the deal we wanted.
Did I break a glass ceiling? I don’t know; maybe it just happened because I was there. The one thing I remember vividly is that I was willing to learn because I did not want to humiliate myself.
When my husband went to Vietnam to eventually become bureau chief of ABC News, I went with him. It did not appeal to me to stay in these strange communities of left behind wives and girlfriends who clustered around various swimming pools in Singapore or Bangkok. Happy hour started at noon and ended the day with pathetic cocktail hours that lasted into the night. At least in Saigon I was close to the "action" and was allowed to go to the daily five o’clock follies and listen to military briefers who probably didn’t believe their own spiel. It was here that the German correspondent for Germany’s largest news agency asked my husband (of course, he wouldn’t ask me–why would he?) if I could fill in while he went on vacation. It wasn’t hard to slightly change the daily sermon into two little reports, after all. My husband said yes and told the man he should ask me! Of course, I said yes immediately, and when it was suggested that I fill in for three months while the correspondent was home on leave, there was no hesitation.
I immediately started to do my own thing. My thing was writing in narrative form and sort of living a story, then writing about it. I strongly believe the only reason it worked was because I was a woman. A man couldn’t get away with it, but my stories sold like hotcakes. A male colleague told me once that he tried to write in the "I" form and almost got fired. He said it was too show-offish! But I didn’t have anything to lose; let them fire me.
So did I break a glass ceiling? Maybe. I was the only female war correspondent in Vietnam for Germany and Deutsche Presse-Agentur (German Press Agency) sent me a contract within two weeks. The contract was open ended, too.
Taking Chances, Learning
Frankly, I was at the right place at the right time. You have to be willing to take chances and learn. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, but do the menial jobs like two little war reports from the afternoon briefings.
When I was offered the job as senior producer for a large television network, I did not pretend to know it all. I listened to everybody who had something to say about the position, including sound technicians. We had one who told me in no uncertain terms that he wouldn’t do anything without an assignment sheet in his hands. I did everything that was asked of me, including making coffee.
You need to sweat the details. Don’t get distracted by your higher calling. Play the game, learn, be willing to do things that you believe are beneath a woman in today’s world. Be tenacious. Look at Diane Sawyer; I remember her when she was a reporter for the CBS morning news. Her thing was to ask a briefer to repeat everything for CBS news–clever, that made it sort of exclusive. Why didn’t I think of that?
My philosophy is, if you can’t go shopping for your boss and come back with purchases he really can appreciate, or fix him a good cup of coffee, how can he trust you with bigger things? Swallow your pride and break that ceiling even if it is made of wind resistant glass.