This photo appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in October, 1962. It features Jeff (baby), Carol Lee and Gene Smith at the dock when Gene’s Navy tour returned home from Vietnam. This was Gene’s first time meeting Jeff.
You’ve come a long way, baby. Some men need to catch up…
In the spring of 1960, my mother-in-law, Carol Lee Smith, was about to graduate from San Jose State University and had secured a teaching contract with Campbell School District as a Second Grade Teacher. She was recently married and embarking on the next phase of her life. A couple months later, she found out she was pregnant. She mentioned the pregnancy to her future boss and to her dismay, had her teaching contract canceled before the school year started. For an explanation, she was referred to the “no-pregnancy” clause in her employment contract. Unlike many districts across the country who implemented compulsory maternity leave, starting as early as the 4th month of pregnancy, Campbell – one of the best districts in California – simply wouldn’t employ pregnant teachers.
Carol Lee and Gene Smith, recently married and both trying to enter the education system as teachers, managed to get by on Gene’s salary. Their firstborn, Tom, joined the family in November. Carol Lee landed a teaching contract with Alum Rock Unified School District and started her teaching career in January of 1961. She taught Second Grade the second half of the school year and had her contract renewed for the following year. That summer Carol Lee found out that she was again pregnant. Not great timing, but they would be able to manage.
Then, in the fall of 1961, Gene, who was in the Navy Reserve, was recalled by President Kennedy and sent to Vietnam, indefinitely. Suddenly, Carol Lee was facing an employment contract that she knew would be canceled when she told the district she was pregnant, or when she could no longer hide it. Her rent was $300 per month and Gene’s Navy pay was $250 per month. She HAD to keep the teaching job.
Carol Lee trusted in her abilities, her faith and her confidence in the Principal at her school. She told the Principal of her pregnancy and he simply stated “We won’t tell and we’ll make sure no one who cares finds out”. True to his word, Carol Lee’s contract was retained and she taught until their second child, Jeff, was born in March. She took 4 weeks off – without pay – then returned and worked to the end of the contract. Fortunately, Gene returned safely after 1 year in Vietnam. The Smith family went on to great education and family success. I’m grateful to Gene and Carol Lee for bringing my Peggy into this world and raising such a smart, strong, independent woman.
Amazingly it wasn’t until 1974 that the United States Supreme Court ruled that compulsory maternity leave was unconstitutional. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that this kind of institutional discrimination was legal during my lifetime.
Fifteenish years after it finally became illegal to hide pregnant women from schoolchildren, I ventured into management in the burgeoning Utah software industry. The software industry was, and still is, dominated by males. Particularly the technical jobs where I spent all my time. Managers in the software industry are regularly asked to handle hiring, firing, layoffs, raises, promotions and job / project assignments. With these conversations taking place in a room full of men, it is very easy for the outcomes to be biased toward men’s employment needs.
Over the nearly 30 years of my management career I’ve seen almost every version of gender bias. The conversation usually includes one or more of these phrases, “He has a family to support”, “Her husband works, too” and of course the old standby, “She’ll likely start a family soon”.
I believe the core of this behavior is simply self-preservation. Men who think and act this way do so hoping that they will benefit from the same thinking by their bosses. It’s weak, short sighted and detrimental to a company. There can be only one bias when seeking success – performance.
Whenever someone made this type of statement, I did my best to not shake them and yell, “You’re too dumb to work for me!” I tried to keep calm and enlighten the individual in the proper way to determine someone’s value to the organization. I kept it pretty simple – where does her performance rank relative to the team? Then match her pay to that performance rank. Same as I did for everyone. I can’t say that I handled these occasions perfectly every time. I’ve still yet to master patience and when I was a 20 something year old manager, well, I’ll just say my mouth was quicker and my brain slower.
I believe there are two parts to the solution for gender bias. The first is encouraging young girls to embrace their leadership abilities, not shrink from them, and seek leadership positions at every opportunity. The second is teaching both genders to be performance biased. It does us no good to increase the number of women in leadership positions if they are biased against men, or worse, biased against women. True leadership is gender-blind and performance biased, our society must follow suit.
Now that my daughters are grown, I’m even more attuned to the need to abolish gender bias. I want my girls to go as far as their abilities and performance can take them. They are starting out in a much better place than their grandparents, but it’s not yet enough.
There is one lesson I hope my girls glean from their grandparents’ era: Courage, Belief in Yourself and Hard Work overcome most issues. Take Carol Lee Smith for example, who on March 30, 1962, with her husband half a world away, taught 39 First Graders for a full day and that evening gave birth to their son, Jeff. I’m not suggesting women risk their health for their jobs, what I am doing, is admiring the grit of a woman holding her world together, by herself, when she had to.
Written to: Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte