Fifteen years ago in the course of my work as director of marketing for an international hotel group, I called my counterpart Marjorie in our London office just before I had an appointment with Mark, the president of our company.
At the start of the meeting, I told him that I had a conversation with Marjorie in London and he mumbled something.
“What was that?” I asked.
“I was wondering if you just had a meeting of the Women’s Auxiliary,” he said with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice
“What?” I asked in a slightly louder voice since I couldn’t believe that he would have said what he did.
“Forget it,” he said and began talking about the business of the day.
I can’t forget. This encounter was sexist and demeaning, categorizing two of his directors by gender and not by contributors to the organization. It bothered me because I felt he was making fun of what we might have been discussing when the truth was that we were resolving a business challenge.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the term “Women’s Auxiliary” refers to women who were seen as secondary, supplemental, the back up and support for what men or an institution were doing—without mostly the opportunity to advance in what they were doing. For example, there is the Queens Hospital Women’s Auxiliary whose mission is “to raise funds and support health-related programs that benefit the hospital and our community.” You will find many Women’s Auxiliaries in the armed services, especially during the war years of the 20th century. Women did not go into combat; instead they supported the troops by seeing to it that supplies and equipment were in order.
The workplace for women has changed dramatically for women. There will be a record 18 female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list in January when Virginia Rommety assumes the top position at IBM. Almost 50% of women are on the management level in organizations. A majority of those attending and graduating from college are young women.
How did ambitious women advance in their careers? The Women’s Auxiliary. The same term that bothered me so much has turned out to be a term I see as what had made women achieve the levels of influence that they have in recent years. Specifically, women have bonded together to take action as a force to break through the glass ceiling and exert their power to perform on a level playing field with men.
Women advanced on Wall Street, for instance, by taking legal action against companies for discrimination, sexual harassment, etc. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s company was sued. The legal costs of ignoring women in the workplace evolved into companies investing in women by setting up mentoring, educational programs, and conferences. For instance, “Women on Wall Street” is an informative and inspirational conference hosted by Deutsche Bank since 1995. I know from attending a few of these that the event is worth going to and that careers have been enhanced.
Another boost on Wall Street is that the members of the Financial Women’s Association volunteer as mentors to female finance majors at the Zicklin School of Business within Baruch College. Together they partner up to meet and mentor a young woman in high school. Isn’t that wonderful?
The term Women’s Auxiliary now has a different meaning to me. It means that women who join together are educating other females—and men—and are changing the profile of business.
The term Women’s Auxiliary also has a personal meaning. When I was at the hotel company, I made three wonderful friends. We manage to see each other maybe two or three times a year but to stay connected online. When we plan a time to meet for lunch or dinner, I bet we are all smiling since we will be gathering for a meeting of the Women’s Auxiliary.