Then and Now: The Business of Women, circa 1982

Amy Gage the business reporter, 30 years ago

When I landed my first professional job after college, back in 1982, my priority was not to study up on the company that was hiring me or the beat I would be covering, but to hightail it to Marshall’s and update my working wardrobe to fit my image of how a female business reporter should look. Heels, slim skirts or dress pants, blazers, pantyhose, a crisp white blouse, and the requisite blue suit —complete with a feminized version of a bow tie.

My mother, having been eternally frustrated as a homemaker and political wife and later a divorced woman in low-wage work, proudly bought me a leather briefcase.

It’s neither vanity nor coincidence that clothes are my defining memory when I look back on the early days of my career. Young businesswomen weren’t striving to stand out, at least not initially. The women whose careers I was covering were trying to fit in, and the corporate uniform became one way to do that.

Other methods included:

  • Displaying no photos of a spouse or children at the office and never acknowledging an orientation that varied from the heterosexual, cisgender norm.
  • Keeping the high pitches of emotion out of one’s voice.
  • Learning to speak in headlines or bullet points so the men in charge wouldn’t get bored with women’s backstories.
  • Not objecting — or even thinking to file a complaint — when the publisher of the business newspaper announced as the staff was gathering for a meeting that “we were just talking about Gloria’s breasts.” Gloria was a saleswoman, and she (and I, and the handful of other women in the room) just stood there. Mute.

Though I wish I could say that, as a white woman, I noticed it at the time, professional women of color were a rare exception here in Minnesota when I was starting out.

What’s Different Today?

This past October, nearly 25 years since I had last written a “Women in Business” column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I attended a conference for what we once called “working women” (the connotation being that mothers’ and homemakers’ unpaid work didn’t count). I wanted to witness what had changed, in the hopes of proving wrong my sinking feeling that our quarterly-earnings–driven society has made less progress — on pay equity, reasonably priced childcare, women’s advancement to the C suite and other top-tier roles — than is assumed.

The first thing I noticed, no surprise, was the casual clothing — women wearing blue jeans and comfortable shoes as they networked, sipped their morning coffee, and introduced themselves to the consultants and small businesses tabling at the event. Contrary to the dictates of my youth, clothes did not define their role or status. To me, their casual dress displayed a confident assumption that skills and experience, energy and gumption would get these women where they want to go.

That trend was in keeping with the conference itself, an annual gathering of “bold, unapologetic women” put on by RSP (Ready. Set. Pivot.), a Twin Cities–based organization that coaches and convenes what founder Wendy Wiesman calls a 40-plus, Generation X group of women who “are never quite satisfied.” Having accomplished their initial goals inside the system, they are seeking the encouragement and direction to walk away from the corporate world — just as Wiesman left a juicy marketing job at Blue Cross Blue Shield — to launch their own businesses, chart their own path.

“Sometimes jobs suck. That’s why I’m an entrepreneur now,” says Jenn Espinosa-Goswami, MAL, ACC, a certified public speaking coach and founder of Weightless, a company she launched after losing 100 pounds and recognizing that the mindset and self-image of being morbidly obese (her term) didn’t necessarily get shed along with the body fat.

First Things First

Workaholism was barely a word when I was a young careerist. Raised by Depression-era parents, we Baby Boomers learned that our work was our worth. And we believed that working hard would give us a toehold in the male-dominated work world.

Though they eschew the word “balance” (the key component of my business column’s evolution back in 1997 to “On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home”), women today do tend to value and practice self-care. “Women are doing things for themselves,” Espinosa-Goswami says. “They’re finding quiet time to journal, meditate, go to the gym. They’re taking retreats.”

Nowadays, a daylong conference to help women get ahead — however they may define that — focuses on mental and physical health, too. “That whole perfectionism thing is out the door,” said RSP conference keynote speaker Natasha Bowman, JD, SPHR, a labor and employment law attorney and self-described “workplace mental health warrior.”

“Women experience mental health challenges at twice the rate of men, at least,” Bowman declared. “Women don’t put themselves on their to-do lists.” But they do support one another, a radical departure from what Espinosa-Goswami, 45, says her mother experienced in “toxic and catty” work environments, back when women competed for only a handful of managerial slots.

Charter Solutions CEO Dee Thibodeau, a source of mine back in the 1990s column-writing days, recently was named to the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame by the state chapter of NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners). Support for one another is a cornerstone of how they define success.

“Women are now able to move up in a field they want to if they connect with other great women who make sure everyone is successful,” Thibodeau told me in a text exchange.

Less infighting and more sisterhood, less focus on outward appearances and more emphasis on inner peace: I’d say the workplace, whether in a corporation or at a kitchen table, is in good and capable hands.

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn and executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County. Her blog, “The Middle Stages,” examines and celebrates aging women. Reach her at agage1014@gmail.com.