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The power of the suit
One [gentleman] looked at me and lifted his empty mug. ... He tilted it slightly from side to side to show it was empty; his glance swept across the coffee pot - and back to me.
--Reneé Rongen

by Reneé Rongen

Ten years after working in corporate America all over the world, I settled into a new marriage and a new job in the heartland of America: North Dakota. An aerospace company created a position for me in upper management, where no woman had ever gone before. I was definitely paving new paths in a male-dominated arena. OK, paving would be an understatement.

The first day, I ransacked my closet, wondering what to wear. The corporate blue power suit? Or the black one? A pair of slacks with a nice blouse and understated-but-distinguished scarf?

I chose a suit.

Hoping I looked enough the part to gain some credibility, I walked into the Monday morning meeting with my male colleagues. Truth be told, I wasn't even sure what the hell they were talking about and, apparently, my suit and my bluffing skills weren't convincing anyone.

After 15 minutes into the meeting with these 13 gentlemen, one looked at me and lifted his empty mug. I waited to confirm what I couldn't believe. He tilted it slightly from side to side to show it was empty; his glance swept across the coffee pot - and back to me. I hadn't misinterpreted his meaning.

Not that I have anything against serving coffee, but to expect it in that moment seemed odd. I decided my reaction to his nonverbal request would set an unshakeable precedent. Could I maintain a corporate demeanor and earn the respect of these men at the same time?

It was evident that the others around the conference table were uncomfortably aware of the silent scene unfolding. Deciding to set a firm boundary, I leaned toward the gentleman and quietly said, "Ah, don't you just hate it when your legs break like that?"

Muffled laughter came from most of the other men, who seemed to admire my moxie. When I left the boardroom that morning, I wanted to shout, "Forget the glass ceiling. I just blew the windows out of the Empire State Building!"

Looking back now, I realize how much I loved my job and all the men I was privileged to work with. They taught me about airplanes and I taught them about working side by side.

Reneé Rongen lives with her family in Fertile, Minn. She is an entrepreneur and international speaker.

Editor's Note: This story was first published in "Fundamentally Female," a collection of stories by women edited by Rongen. www.reneerongen.com

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