There I sat, my hands folded in my lap, feet side by side on the floor, looking straight ahead at an empty wall. The anger I felt inside could not be detected on my face, or so I hoped. Silently, I prayed the phone would ring or that my boss, Jim Pearson, would hurry up and finish the report he was writing so I could type it into the computer.
I was bored out of my mind and had been sitting like a statue for over an hour, waiting—and seething. But that’s what my boss had instructed me to do whenever there was no work left to be done. When I tried to show some initiative, Jim said, “You are to sit quietly at your desk like a lady and wait, or go find another job.” He threatened to fire me so often that I expected it to happen on any given day.
Jim was a tyrant. He criticized and humiliated me in front of my peers every chance he got. It was 1984—there was little I could do to change the situation. Until I found a new job, I was stuck.
While sitting there, I had plenty of time to ruminate about how I wound up in such a predicament. Never in my life did I want to be a secretary or work for such a despicable man. But as far back as I could remember, I was prepped, prodded and poked into the position, forced to take every secretarial course offered in school. My mother, a legal secretary, often talked about how exciting it was to work for an attorney. She loved her work. But when I told her I had no interest in doing that kind of work, she said, “There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary. It’s respectable work.”
“I know that, Mom,” I said. “It’s just not what I want to do. I want to be a musician.” But my plea fell on deaf ears. Eventually, I relented. And just before my nineteenth birthday, I got a secretarial job at a large corporation in New York.
Earning my own money and becoming self-supporting was empowering, but I was miserable. The work was monotonous. Sitting at the same desk, seeing the same people, and doing the same work day after day was unbearable. To suppress my boredom, I changed jobs frequently, which allowed me to learn many new skills and hone the old ones.
At one company, I worked in the finance department on my first IBM Personal Computer. Months into the job, there was a massive layoff, and I took on the responsibilities of the Financial Analyst. The manager—the only other person left in the department with me—trained me on all the software. I became fascinated with the PC and wanted to learn everything about it. When the computer broke down and remained unrepaired for weeks, I opened it, hoping to find out what made it tick. Somehow, I managed to fix it and put it back together in one piece. It was a risky move, but it paid off. When my boss refused to give me the title or salary for the analyst position, I decided to move on, taking some excellent computer skills along with me.
That’s how I wound up working for Jim Pearson in the finance department at a chemical corporation in Connecticut. I had the computer skills he needed. And from day one, I hated my job. I hated Jim Pearson more. He was condescending and arrogant and took great pleasure in offending me. I felt dehumanized by him. And his boorish behavior, which was infamous throughout the company, was tolerated because Jim was Vice President of Finance. I was more expendable than he was.
Working for Jim made me physically ill. Within six months, I had used up my sick time for the year. My doctor advised me to quit. But with increasingly more bills to pay, job hopping wasn’t as easy as it once was. And working late most nights made it difficult to schedule interviews. The opportunity to learn all the software programs used at the company helped me get through some difficult days. But the more adept I became at the computer, the more threatened Jim became.
He stopped allowing me to take the company’s training classes, and before I could leave my desk, I had to get his permission. He insisted on knowing my whereabouts at all times. While I didn’t like having to sit at my desk “like a lady” and stare at the wall when there was a lack of work, I did it without complaining. But when he demanded I call him “Sir,” I wanted to throw something at him. I had dealt with harassment on the job before, but this was on a whole new level. My work environment had become too toxic. I had to move on.
But before I was able to secure a new job, Jim crossed the line. My car had died in the parking lot and was towed to a local repair shop that closed at the same time my workday ended. It wouldn’t reopen until 8:00 the next morning. Knowing this, Jim refused to let me leave a few minutes early to get the car. And securing a ride or taking a train home wasn’t possible. I was going to be stranded overnight.
Trying to reason with Jim was futile. He said, “You’re not allowed to leave this office unless it’s on your lunch hour or the end of the day. Get your car on your own time, not mine.” It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Immediately, I went to Human Resources, filed a complaint, and walked out the door.
The next morning, Jim called me into his office. “Your employment here is terminated effective immediately,” he said.
Like a wave rolling out to sea, the stress that had been bottled up inside me for so long washed away. “Oh, thank God!” I exclaimed. I was never so thrilled to be fired in my life, and it thrilled me all the more that he knew I was thrilled. It was the most empowering moment of my career.
That day, a new dream emerged. I vowed to never work as a secretary again, and I decided I would work for myself instead. I started a computer software company and developed a sizable clientele. After discovering that I loved to build and fix computers and networks, I opened a computer repair business, later integrating the two. My business flourished for the next twenty-four years.
Becoming an empowered woman didn’t happen overnight. It took many years to lay the groundwork, and there were many missteps along the way. The journey was long and hard, but I emerged from it a new, independent woman who lived life on her own terms. I wouldn’t change any of those bumps in the road even if I could!
~ L.M. Lush