By Sara Huncke
It’s no coincidence that Hulu decided to release The Dropout at the very top of Women’s History Month. For those that live under a rock, The Dropout is a limited series reenacting the events that occurred around the founding and demise of a company called Theranos that falsely promised people the opportunity to take blood tests with just one drop of blood. The company was founded by a woman, Elizabeth Holmes, who is an awkward yet feminine megalomaniac that started her mission during her undergrad at Stanford. Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried, meets with different esteemed professors on campus to get their opinion on the validity of her invention. In one particularly poignant scene in the first episode, a young Holmes chases after Dr. Gardner, played by Laurie Metcalf, across the quad, begging Gardner to team up with her. Holmes attempts to appeal to Gardner by pointing out their shared womanhood, to which Gardner interrupts:
“As a woman, let me explain something to you…. You have to do the work. Your work, other people’s work, you have to do so much work that they have to admit that you did it and nobody helped you. You have to take away all their excuses. And then if you get anything wrong, they’ll destroy you. And they’ll be so happy to do it.”
Gardner’s soliloquy made me both wince and grieve. As a twenty-seven year old woman born to a mother who was one of thirty women in her med school class, I’ve heard this rhetoric many, many times. It’s a late 90s/early 2000s feminist reaction to statements made by people like Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, who believed breast cancer was caused by, “the number of cigarette-smoking Power Women who were on the pill…and taking on the stress previously left to men in the working world.” It is the pre-Time’s Up, pre-DEI principle that in order to succeed as a woman in a man’s world, you can be nothing but perfectly industrious or you’ll be squished like a bug. To possess any other human qualities in the office for our mothers was to be the inferior gender.
As one of a handful of women that pursued the investment banking track from Stern, I wondered to what level this mentality applied to a very old school and very male industry. I remember on a few occasions I was warned to brush up on sports so that I could relate to the men that would be considering my candidacy.
During another instance where the GFA women were asked to attend an all-women panel with a bank, a female banker fielding a question about handling emotions at work revealed, “we all just use the bathroom to cry.” It was clear from the process–- to be yourself might not get you squished, but could still pose a risk to your career.
By January, I was exhausted. I had spent five months putting on a charade of not only being able to use Excel, but also of being able to emotionlessly withstand one-hundred hour work weeks. I made it to a final round interview with a boutique firm and was just hoping for the whole thing to be over. Until I was placed in an interview room with a female Managing Director. We instantly connected. I appreciated our breath-of-fresh chat about life before she dove into some behavioral questions. I doled out my prepared, sterile answers as we went through her list until she asked, “What’s been your greatest achievement?” The answer I wrote down for this one always came out clunky. Something about her gentle presence and the relaxed nature of our conversation made me blurt out a very personal story about my younger brother. He battled with an immense drug addiction before spring of 2018, when he was taken to a hospital and given the ultimatum of enrolling in treatment. I talked about convincing him out of his resistance to recovery and motivating him to push through this dark time in his life, with glistening eyes that held back fully formed tears. The room was silent. We moved onto the next question as I thought to myself, “What the hell have I done?”
Later that night, I got a call from the female MD telling me I got an offer with her bank. She said, “I want you to know that your story about your brother is what put you on our yes list. It’s not often I meet someone who is so vulnerable.”
I think about this moment a lot. Would I have been so lucky to make it through if I didn’t have the opportunity to interview with this woman? Would I have been cut if I told this story to a male MD at the bank? It’s bittersweet to consider that in this case a woman could be rewarded for proving more than her work ethic and self-control. Yes, I think the corporate world is somewhat beyond Gardner’s advice, but it’s few and far between that being your true, whole self as a working woman is acceptable.
I hope for our daughters a future where women can cry on the floor openly, and no one has anything to say about it.