Michael T. Luongo

(WOMENSENEWS)–Sometimes it’s hard to admit to yourself that you might be a sexist, especially if you grew up, as I did, in a house full of women.

Yes, I had a father and a brother, but with three sisters, a mother and an aunt who helped raise me in the 1970s–constantly reminding me of the importance of treating women equally–women’s lib was part of my upbringing.

It wasn’t until one of my first jobs out of college–in 1992, as a male manager of an all-female staff in the “homelines” section of a stodgy department store overseeing a staff of 10 to 12 women–that I gave the attitudes of the guy in the mirror a second look.

We sold kitchen appliances, cookery, linens, towels, things to run a household. The other employees were mostly women around my mother’s age but a few women were like me, in their early 20s. Most did not have college degrees and some had worked in the company for about 20 years.

It wasn’t my dream job. In college I imagined myself working for a public relations or advertising firm, something creative with my communications degree. In the recessionary early 1990s, such jobs were hard to come by and paid little or nothing if you could find them. I worked at the store part-time in college and the company needed more managers, so I fell into the position and was hired by a woman. Generally, few men took these jobs and men often were assigned to the areas with heavy things to lift. With a college degree in hand, I was considered more capable of managing the women who knew more than I did, while I stumbled along pretending to be in charge.

Displaying Feminist Credentials

I also showed off my feminist credentials.

Every March 8, International Women’s Day, for instance, I baked cakes and cookies and I often took over most of their duties on the floor–such as organizing and dusting shelves, helping customers, and putting out new merchandise–as my staff relaxed, or even ordered me around. Most of the other male managers, generally older than I was, thought our behavior was weird. Few had heard of the day established by the United Nations in 1975 to celebrate gender equality and end discrimination.

And when the New York metro regional headquarters came up with a policy forbidding all female employees who worked directly with the public from wearing pants, I was shocked. While many of the female managers my age thought it would upgrade our store’s image, I sided with older female workers who considered it socially backward. Male or female, I was the only manager to object. I talked about Amelia Bloomer’s 19th century pants protest, but nobody had ever even heard of the suffragist I mentioned.

Needless to say, threats of lawsuits and boycotts by women’s rights groups started to emerge immediately after the policy was issued. The new ruling quickly ended. The staff was so exuberant, you’d have thought the E.R.A. was actually passed.

But my pro-woman approach ended with a younger woman on the staff whom I’ll call Karen. She had five children, one for every year of her marriage.

I always wondered how she coped with it, all the more since she was a year younger than I was, and I could not imagine children to be a joy, only a burden. That was how they seemed to be for her. She was often harried, sick, apparently overworked.

Calling Home From Work

Those were the days before cell phones, so she was often using the department’s phone to check on her kids while her mother or sister baby-sat.

Her constant distractions from work upset me, but what bothered me more was when she called at the last minute to cancel, claiming one of her children was sick or that no one could baby-sit them. My tone with her then was one of reserved fury. I reminded her each time that the next time it happened, she would lose her job. How hard was it after all to balance work and children? With none of my own, I of course had no idea. Besides, I would ask, “Why not make your husband stay at home?” She would never respond to that comment.

Attendance was a major component of employee reviews.

I knew how I planned to judge Karen, but I double checked with the personnel manager, also a woman, whether it would be discrimination to downgrade a woman for attendance based on child care. After all, men don’t give birth. Her answer was that husbands might not give birth, but they can still baby-sit.

My meeting with Karen about the review was tense. It was all on paper now and I threatened firing her if it happened again. I felt no guilt about how the review had gone.

Everything however, changed that night.

My high-powered financial industry executive sister called me in a desperate panic. Her boss demanded she have a last-minute dinner meeting with a client, telling her that her job rode on it. No one else could take care of her two children and her husband refused to change his own plans. Living close by and with no plans of my own for the evening, I said I would fill in.

The Epiphany

Talk about life lessons. It was an epiphany, or as the good Catholic boy that I am, I think it was like a sign from God to change my ways.

Instantly, while on the phone with my sister, I swore that I would alter Karen’s review, removing the portion about attendance.

“She’ll remember you as the best boss ever if you do that for her,” my sister said. Even for my sister, a woman with a master’s degree working full-time, family politics meant that child care was still her responsibility.

The next day, I told Karen I would work with her on a solution to her child care pressures.

I couldn’t change her husband, but I could make her life easier as my employee so she would never feel her job was at risk by choosing between motherhood and work.

I insisted that the older women on my staff come up with some kind of solution among themselves with the schedule to make things easier for Karen.

They already had and presented it to me on the spot. They had simply been waiting for me to come to my senses. Since many of the other women had been looking for more hours anyway, they would cover by staying late if needed, or coming in on last-minute emergencies, knowing her schedule ahead of time.

Karen was grateful, and she seemed happier, with one less burden for her to worry about.

As for me, I learned to feel a little less sure of my own personal enlightenment.

Michael Luongo is a freelance writer and photographer in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Conde Nast Traveler, MAMM, National Geographic Traveler, Out Traveler and many other publications. More of his work is available on his Web site: http://www.michaelluongo.com.

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For more information:

“Work-Life Imbalance Acute for Hourly Wage Parents”:

National Organization for Men Against Sexism:

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