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Friday, March 17, 2006

Part Four: Getting Down and Dirty

*note to my readers: this is the fourth installment in a sort of "catch up series" on my personal job-hunt. I recommend starting with the other posts before reading this one, simply in order to place it in context. Since this post is a recounting rather than a reflection or discussion, you may find the other posts more interesting. You'll certainly find them shorter! :) Here are the links for the preceding posts in the series.

The problem with getting philosophical about, or gaining perspective on an actual event is that first you have to review what happened. It occurs to me as I stand on the line in the auto plant, thinking back to my last (fulltime) job (in my field), in between checking spare tires on the cars that go slowly by, that things like divorces and lawsuits are long and incredibly tedious things interesting only to those who lived them. In the end you want to get beyond them (and so does everyone else who knows you). But it’s not simple, is it, because in moving away you also struggle toward the next vista, the one that affords you the bird's eye view, that place where you can lean back and take it all in and perhaps talk about lessons learned and larger ethical issues.

However, for those of you CSI afficionados who appreciate the close camera angles and the gory details, this is my story.
Except for the names that have been changed to protect the innocent, I want to tell it honestly as I can, so that you, if you are a prospective employer interested in reading this, can determine, “Okay, this would/would not have happened in my work place,” and perhaps also be able to put yourself in my shoes. On the other hand if you are reading this as a sort of “how-to” manual on what (not) to do in a similar situation, a thoughtful read or two will serve you best, because I wrote this story thoughtfully. You may also have to resign yourself that unlike another popular television series, this particular “mystery” may never be solved or make much sense.

So how to start with this … perhaps I can begin by framing the following events for you in the context of a couple of anecdotes. In the first, my multi-cultural education professor asked us to write a short paper about equity issues in our respective areas of expertise/teaching to share with the rest of the class. I remember thinking my paper would be pretty sparse because my major was educational technology, a technical support and infrastructure area. What possible equity issues could there be in that? To my surprise as I searched the literature I found many. The second anecdote dates back about 25 years before the first. I grew up in the sixties, a time of great racial turmoil and unrest and also great gains in the civil rights movements. But growing up in insulated rural Indiana, many of us were at a loss to even understand the problem. If you’d asked any of us back then, we'd have promptly told you we weren’t prejudiced (unlike those folks down south). After high school, I graduated from a religious college and in the early 70’s entered the work force. My first job was with a youth ministry in inner city Philadelphia where most of the people were black. In that brave new world I found out just how free from prejudice I really was (NOT). It was a growthful period as I came to see the world through different eyes.

So what are the similar themes in both these little stories? Well for one thing, it is that inequity and prejudice aren’t always glaringly obvious.

Fast forward thirty years. At the time I was working on my master’s degree and employed in a big centralized university computing center. I worked in the division that managed the all the instructional computing labs on campus. The instructional computing division (icd) had 3 sections, the instructional computing coordinators (iccs) who worked closely with the professors on requests for installs, the support group who actually went out and touched the machines, and the development group (dev) who wrote applications needed to make all this work. I was in the support group and hoped to eventually move to the development group because I very much wanted to do more programming. I had earned an associate's degree in computer programming technology on top of a much earlier bachelor's degree in education and I had worked in the IT field for eight years. So this was not a completely unreasonable hope or expectation.

But let’s return to the two anecdotes for a bit. In my multicultural education class for my masters I learned that there are two types of inequity – one is personal prejudice and one is institutionalized prejudice. The first is usually more easy to identify (and deal with) than the second. I think my anecdotes not only illustrate institutionalized inequity, but suggest where I'm headed. The following account is about what trouble I got into when I attempted to transfer my learning from my multi-cultural education class to the work place.

Institutionalized prejudice can exist in work cultures. For example, some work cultures are more competitive and some are more collaborative. The latter are thought to be more “woman-friendly (” In the computing center where I worked, assigning tasks was like throwing a piece of meat to a group of hungry wolves - chaotic, disorganized, and designed to let the most aggressive come out on top. I just wasn't going to fare well in that circumstance. The fact was that most of the women employees felt the same way. The sad and strange part was that while we were comfortable discussing it among ourselves we couldn't talk about it to our male colleagues. They would tell us that we were wrong.
The university computing center was predominantly white male. In our instructional computing division, most women worked as instructional computing coordinators, the least technical section, with barely a handful of women scattered throughout the rest of the division. In the development section, the younger men seemed to be favored and valued the most. They were given special trips and training opportunities and allowed to advance. They brought in their fraternity brothers and even drinking buddies in as co-workers. Even if they hired someone they didn’t know, that person looked a lot like them – a white single male in his 20’s. This is not to say that they ended up with incapable employees, because they didn’t. Their weakest link might well have been some other employer’s strong suite. Which just goes to show that just because a company uses inequitable hiring practices, these don't necessarily net incapable employees for that organization.

But let’s move on with this story. I have already mentioned my strong desire to move to the development section so I could do more programming. As I think I've discussed elsewhere in this series, I had the good fortune to be hired at the university at the eve of the desktop revolution into a center that was getting their first desktop computer. At that time desktop computer experience was not common, so I was hired for my aptitude and promise. It was a good match. In a research lab with highly intelligent, friendly, and collaborative individuals, I took to our new system like a fish to water. It wasn't long before I went back to school and wrote my first program for work. Eventually I earned a second degree and moved into professional IT positions in the departments. I also got married during that period. My hard working and capable husband did not have a degree, so we felt that my income would be the one that would lift us above the basic essentials and fund our dreams - especially my dreams. Things like a new house. And children for the grandparents. So I was overjoyed when 14 years into my career at the university, a colleague named Harvey, whom I had known as an exceptionally capable individual for several years, approached me to come work for the computing center.
As already mentioned I had started at the university as an office manager for a regional NMR facility which was acquiring the first desktop computer system in the Chemistry department. I had been selected for my aptitude and promise in learning to use that system. It was a good match. I liked it so much I went back to school for an associate's degree in computer programming. After 7 years, I moved to the business side of the university as a systems coordinator and helped develop and pioneer several desktop to mainframe systems including a barcoding system for the university stores. I also helped with the network for the new Central Delivery building. It was while I was working at the university health center where I had come on board as a systems analyst and helped with the conversion and the procurement and customization of a unix-based billing and patient tracking system, as well as putting in a network, that Harvey approached me about coming to work for them. Coming from the academic and service departments, I was both excited and nervous to be working in such a big operation with such a concentrated group of knowledgeable people on enterprise wide projects. It was like a dream come true, and while I started out in the support section, in the interview Harvey and his boss Frank mentioned the possibility of moving over to section that did programming. I felt like my career plans were finally coming together.

I didn't expect to move over to programming right away. I figured I owed the support side at least a year or few. In retrospect working on the the support side turned out to be a valuable (albeit sometimes painful learning experience) for me. I was used to application development and a top-down analysis and design approach. The bottom-up engineering approach was new to me and so was crawling around the underbelly of the Windows and Windows 95 operating system. But I was happy to be there at all. The instructional computing labs had essentially started out with the ingenuity and savvy of Harvey and Harry and a few other individuals who had evolved the division from one lab into an efficient and well-working system that stretched across the entire campus and encompassed some 90 labs and 2000 windows, macs, and sun work stations. So I worked and played and got to know the division in general and in the meantime kept an eye on development section – observing who worked over there and their qualifications (degrees, work experience, etc). And I watched the people who were hired in or who were moved over to development from another instructional computing division section.

When I started, or close to it, there were two guys in their early to mid 20’s who had been frat brothers. Seth was currently working on his masters in Computer Science. Ron had already earned his and worked for a big name company in a major city before joining Seth in development. Obviously Ron and Seth’s degrees were out of my league. (Recall I had only a B.S. in education and a humble A.A.S. in Computer Programming Technology). So if Ron and Seth were the only type of people the development division hired, I would have not even tried. At that time the development section lead was Harry, an affable, heavy-set, long-time employee who was the windows programming guru. I assumed Harry was another Computer Science/Math type person like Ron and Seth. Way out of my league. Then there was Dave, an engineer in his early 20’s, who had moved to the development division from the support division, because of conflicts with Harvey, the functional lead of the support division. Presumably I was hired to fill Dave’s void in the support division. There was also a bright young college student Keith who was majoring in Computer Science. Keith’s parents were university academes. Then there was Rose, a gal in her mid 30’s who also had graduated from the university's Computer Technology Program albeit with a bachelor's degree. (I had decided not to get another bachelor's. I thought I would instead jump to a Master's program - either an MBA or perhaps something that linked my two fields of study together. However I did take some of the upper level Database and Systems Analysis classes. And as Rose said, most of the hardcore programming courses were required in the first two years.)
Rose's presence in development at that time gave me more cause for hope than just about anybody. At least they had hired someone from my major. Rose had followed her husband Fred over from another university computing center which was on the business side of the house. She had 8 years experience as a mainframe programmer and systems analyst. (And I knew Fred - he and I had collaborated on various departmental networking projects before either of us had moved to this computing center.) Although Rose had shined at the other computing center, she had recently become a new mother. I think she felt that following Fred over to this center was the right move and would be more flexible and manageable with her new parental duties. Finally there was Ted, a guy in his mid to late 20s who moved to the development sections from the instructional computing coordinators not too long after I started. Ted had a bachelor’s degree in history and headed up the development sections database initiatives.
So both Ted and Rose and of course the promise made during my interview gave me continued hope. Additionally, the development section in time hired Sarah, a military Cobol programmer, in her 20’s, to do Perl programming. I didn't know Sarah’s educational background. The thing was, Sarah didn't know Perl programming. Seth and Ron were going to teach it to her. Ben, a young man with a master’s in a graphics technology program moved from the instructional computing coordinators into support, I think after my colleague Rachel took a position with a major firm in Chicago. Ben had served in the navy on a nuclear submarine. After a while Ben wanted to try working on the development side, even though he had written only one program in his life, in high school, by his own admission. So development moved him over. Ben must not have cared for development work because he didn’t stay there long. He went back to the instructional computing coordinators. Rumor had it that he too had had trouble working with Harvey. Also, Ben’s wife Terri worked as an instructional computing coordinator, so between the two of them, they brought in a handsome income. Subsequently, Hank, a young man with no degree but with military computing experience hired into the support section and then leaped into the development section. He also had problems with Harvey. But it also didn’t hurt that Hank was sharp as a tack and that he and Ron had become drinking buddies. Hank started a bachelor’s degree in Physics shortly after he moved to the development section.

I realize that I have mentioned a number of personal facts and connections about these folks beyond their formal work qualifications. I am not trying to be catty. I think it’s important to establish, in light of how my story unfolds, how the university and the computing center had a policy or pattern of being very flexible and accommodating of its employees, because it highlights how the events that unfolded seem so strange and out of character.

In addition to the people above, the development division in time hired a number of Computer Programming Technology graduates, all men. So as you see my hopes of fitting into the development section were not unreasonable in the wide variety of people, and backgrounds, and experience, and education, and even motivations in that section. People had even moved over with no degree, but with aptitude and military experience. There was one exception, however. My young colleague, Rachel, also wanted to go the development direction. She even took a c++ programming course to show her interest, but she couldn’t seem to get anything going – and with a masters degree and work experience at major corporations, she was as sharp and deserving as any. In the end Rachel also couldn’t get along with Harvey and left to take a position with a major corporation in Chicago, as I mentioned earlier.

So here's what happened with me. Several years had passed and I hadn't made my move other than to show interest and try to build good working relationships with people very different from myself in age and gender in development and to let them see for themselves what my aptitudes and interests were. We found common interests around which to build rapport, programming, science fiction, photography, and poetry/creative writing. (Oddly nobody was a big sports fan, although trains were a huge hobby.) This process was almost second nature to me – I had grown up in culturally mixed family and had lived all over the U.S., and in Mexico and in Chile before I had reached the age of 12. And even though my m.o. was to be very appreciative and loyal to my bosses who had given me such wonderful opportunities, I was also growing very tired of being under Harvey's thumb. Although he was an intelligent and highly competent individual, he had sort of developed the reputation for squelching other people's contributions, at least on the development side of the house. One day Rose asked me if I liked programming, so I told her my hopes. She encouraged me to talk to Seth and Ron about it. In her mind it was as simple as asking. Rose knew both my work and my Computer Programming Technology background and I really appreciated her encouragement.

So I asked. Ron’s response was more welcoming, and Seth’s more reserved, but they told me to talk to our mutual boss Frank who supervised the entire instructional computing division. Frank proposed that I take on a programming project to prove myself. I was delighted albeit a bit confused. No one else who'd moved over to development had had to do this – and although at first support had been unfamiliar to me and it took me a bit to get used to the whole multiple servers-mirroring/load-sharing thing, I certainly hadn’t been a screw-up. But I didn't care - most of us were just glad to get something of substance to sink our teeth into.

In all fairness, I didn't get it done right away. There was no deadline. Seems like we had a meeting or two, and then had to wait on something or someone. Probably Harvey. In the meantime, I had started working on a Master's degree in Educational Technology, and had rediscovered the computer and the web as a communication tool and window on the world, so I didn't push. See our business was very cyclical - we were busy at the beginning of the semester, and we brought up new labs and rolled out major changes in the summer months - gave us plenty of time to "test drive." The rest of the time could be rather slow. The operation was well staffed - and we were free to explore and improve the labs on our own during the slow times. I loved that free part. As I said, I had discovered, through a fascinating sci fi show, cmc (computer-mediated-communication). It was was an amazing jump for me - I'd started using computers many years ago at work, eventually got one for homework and to help me through college. Then I used it to to track investments, finances, and our home business. Now it was bringing me friends and people across the globe and converging with another area that I really loved (my first degree was speech and drama education). I was amazed. Not only that, we got "to reach out and touch really important people" and even affect some outcomes. I learned about grass roots movements, setting up websites, and installing perl scripts - things today that one might need to think about and that employers might regard as a productivity waste. But back then it was new tools, new toys, and new possibilities. Besides, my work environment was pretty understanding. One of the dev guys paid something like $500 to attend the Star Wars premiere in Chicago - and the whole computing center took the afternoon off to see the new Star Trek movie.
Not that we did this often. I had written a little Perl program "for fun" and always looked for ways to bring my newly gained web skills back to my work and to my course work. I talked with Ron and Keith who'd been gracious and helpful in sharing advise and technical expertise on numerous occasions. I got back with Frank and asked if we could jump start the programming project. This time I jumped in with both feet. I wrote the program – and Frank and the rest really liked it. Frank even complimented me in a meeting. A programmer was assigned from the development side to work with me on writing the part that would supply the instructional lab and hostname data so we could see how it ran with "real data." I told Harvey it was ready and sent him the link. No one ever got back to either of us. The programmer on the dev side asked if I'd heard anything. I put out feelers. But things seem to just have fallen into a "black hole."
This had happened to me at least once before. A couple of years before, Frank had me lead a team in defining and developing an Access tool for tracking installs for the instructional labs - for licensing purposes and other things. I had done a lot of development with database products in other departments and loved it. It was fun - we enjoyed the meetings and felt like we came up with a good design. I was to model it and then let Harvey make any changes or contributions he wanted to make to it. So I handed it off to him when I had finished my part and I never heard from it again. Eventually Harvey hired another gal who had worked upstairs in the business office while she was finishing her CPT degree and handed the project to her. He told me he was giving it to her because he needed something for her to do and asked me to help get her started. My teammates expressed to me their feeling that he had just arbitrarily taken the project away from me. It did feel like that but I didn't show it or say anything. I thought maybe Harvey had decided to pass it off to her because she had a four year CPT degree like Rose.
My young colleague Rachel used to challenge Harvey and Frank. In fact she took issues to Frank. Frank even encouraged Rachel and I, perhaps more than once, to stand up for ourselves in the organization. While that seemed like an acknowledgment of some of the challenges we faced as women, in the end it amounted to "you are on your own." In all fairness, this was which was probably true for anyone, man or woman, when it came to Harvey. Rachel eventually left for a high paying position in Chicago and I remember Frank came out rather livid from their exit interview. For my part, I had a long positive experience with the university. I had faith in it and tried to see the good. I was also pretty committed to staying in the area where my husband worked and my family lived. I was also pretty dismal at pushing and insisting and nagging at people to get back to me. When you pass your team mate the ball, collaboratively speaking, you expect that person to collaborate with you and take it in for the shot - not go off and hide it some dark corner.
AnywayI believed in team work and collaboration so I worked with Annie as I was asked and was hopeful for the new opportunity to work with her. Evidently my team mates had said something to Annie, because when I met with her, she apologized to me, but I said it was okay. I was surprised to find that she didn't know how to read either entity relationship diagrams or data flow diagrams - which I had used to help us capture and communicate the logic of the design. I had learned those techniques in some of the upper level CPT courses. (Programmers love to draw pictures.) But, anyway, I helped Annie understand how we got to where we were with it, and then let her take it the direction she needed and wanted to go with it and then get back to me. I made it clear she could come to me anytime if she wanted help or had questions, but she pretty much took the ball and ran with it, as one would expect. And unfortunately got left baby sitting it forever. Several years later we met at a conference and she expressed that she was still just managing that Access database application and was ready to take on something else.
But I digress from what happened after I let Harvey know the trouble system was ready for his contributions and it went into limbo. In the meantime the instructional computing division had re-organized. Seth and Ron headed up development which had grown five-fold, and the last woman, Rose, had long disappeared from its ranks. The group was comprised primarily of young white single men in their 20’s. Additionally, Harvey became my formal as well as functional boss and Frank was promoted up a level. Then a job posting came along for development. It sounded like it could be a fit for me – its degree and work experience requirements and tasks sounded very much in my reach.

So I applied. I never heard anything until Frank announced in group meeting that a young man named Larry had been accepted for the position. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was done talking to these people. Harvey had become my formal boss and nobody wanted Harvey to even know about their ideas and projects and I thought the situation was hopeless. In addition to transferring to development, I had been interviewing for a year with other departments in the university for programming positions with no success – mostly because people wonder why you are trying to leave – the computing center staff were some of the highest paid folks around. My fellow employers often observed that the only way out of the computing center was to find employment outside the University. I had tried it before, but thought I needed more programming experience to do that. Also, I was sort of committed to the general vicinity. My husband and I both had family in the area as well as his job at the road construction company. And as I mentioned, I had also started working on my masters degree.

So I turned to the university grievance procedure – the only time in my 20 year tenure and something I’d never dreamed I would ever do. I had always gotten along with people and always been well-liked by my colleagues. I followed Personnel’s instructions and notified Frank who still oversaw the instructional computing division that I was going to file a grievance. That got their attention. Frank called me up to his office, and it started out quite hopeful. He apologized that they hadn’t been paying attention. He said it was their policy to encourage/allow employees to try new things – and he mentioned several alternatives. There were some more jobs coming down the pike that would fit me, or there was even the possibility of not changing my lines of reporting (staying in support), but physically moving over to the development side so I could hear and observe and participate and learn from those folks. Any of it would have worked for me. Frank said he thought we had a solution and we smiled and parted ways.

The next day, however, that had changed. I think Frank had to talk to his boss Doug, second in command of the whole Computing Center operation. Frank called me back up to his office and said there were several jobs coming down the pike and asked me if I would like to interview for these. It would be the same type of interview they gave someone from outside – I’d meet with Seth and Ron and then with the entire Development group. Gulp. Just little ol’ me and ALL those guys in a small conference room for a couple of hours, grilling me. Sort of like running a gauntlet? He emphasized to me that there would be three possible outcomes – they might hire me on the spot. They might hire me, but make me wait for an upcoming position. Or they might decide they didn’t want me at all. Ever.

Of all the people that I’d seen pass through the support division to the development division, I was the only one they required to interview formally. But I didn’t care. Oh, it was intimidating. But I knew all these guys and was on comfortable and friendly terms with them the times we had worked together on projects. And I was eager to finally discuss my training and past experience – shop talk, I guess – because in the five years I’d worked there, I'd never been allowed to do that. Not even during my hiring interview. Not that I hadn’t tried. But it was like they cut me off and didn't let me bring it up. I pulled out all the stops in preparing for the interview, even put my coursework on hold – it was towards the end of semester when projects were due and finals were fast approaching. The interview day arrived. Seth and Ron asked me a couple of questions and I may have stumbled, not because I didn’t know, but because I was nervous, but then they brought in the rest of the guys and we all relaxed and chatted and the time passed quite well. In fact everybody seemed cheerful and excited as we disbanded and there was laughing and talking in the hall the way people do after they feel really good about something or like something could work out. Seth told me I should hear something by that afternoon.

That afternoon Seth called me back and told me Frank was out until the following Tuesday and that I should hear something by then. The mood changed dramatically over the course of the next few days. Ron displayed anger in a group meeting, unusual for him, and everybody disappeared into the woodwork. On Tuesday, Frank called me to his office and said briefly, “They don’t want you – ever.” My jaw must have dropped through the floor. I couldn’t believe my ears. I told him that the interview then must have been a smokescreen, a way to give him an excuse not to ever have to hear from me again. I asked him if the university's Computer Programming Technology Program was just selling its students a bill of goods? He replied that he didn't know. I told him the grievance was still on and stormed out of the office broken-hearted, fired off a couple emails to Personnel and to the department that nothing had been resolved, and went to my professor to try to pull my coursework out of the toilet before the semester ended. The next day the whole development division moved out of their offices into another area that had just been renovated where I never saw any of them except at group meetings, and certainly couldn’t follow their technical discussions, as I had enjoyed doing in the past. I sat alone in our office that evening and just wept - and for a few more evenings after that.

From there it was a down hill slide. Frank seemed infuriated that I had brought up the gender inequity issue. I had actually tried to tread lightly - encourage some discussion, but you would have thought by his and others’ reaction that I was bringing up some disgusting and obscene topic that decent people wouldn’t even mention. He hissed something like, “How dare you even suggest that I’m prejudiced. I have daughters. My wife was the head of NOW on the campus I met her, and she put me through an interview before she would even agree to date me.”

He went on to ask if I thought that Seth and Ron wanted to hire me, but some big-bad-higher-up wouldn't let them? No, he said, I didn’t get the opportunity to try programming because I didn’t have the skills and talent. Never mind the fact that I was a high school valedictorian, a national merit finalist, had earned a two year programming degree with highest distinction from the university’s programming technology department, had worked my way up the university career ladder from operations assistant to systems analyst with several successful IT/programming projects, and the computing center had asked me to come work for them, and I had written the program they asked me to write, and they had been excited about it and impressed – and I didn’t have the skills and talent to at least get a chance to try it out, but a guy who only ever wrote one program in high school did? Wait a minute. Let me catch my breath after that long sentence and refresh my memory about who they hired and all the other ways they had accommodated people … oh, yeah.
On top of that, the departmental HR person, a woman with some sort of business background argued with me about whether or not I was a programmer even though I had a programming degree, and had worked as one in the field, and had written thousands of lines of code. Her reasoning? She had written thousands of lines of code in her business department positions and she would not consider herself a programmer. This individual was responsible for screening the resumes that went to the development section yet did not seem capable of discerning that I had earned a degree from the university saying that I was a programmer and that I had subsequently worked in the field applying the knowledge of that discipline to thousands of lines of code that I wrote. Oddly, in my presence she also thumbed her nose at Rose's qualifications and contributions to the development section even while sending resumes with the same degree (those of young men) to that section.
Meow? Well, perhaps a little.
I will give her credit for giving me some good advise and suggestions, however. She asked if I had ever taken any of my Master's courses over distance and recommended that I not just study about it in my classes but actually experience it. I thought that was a good idea, and I followed through.

Frank’s boss Doug subsequently called me in to his office and got me to agree to drop the grievance in exchange for helping me find another position at the university. He was both emphathetic and emphatic that I could count on him to help me. Of course he never did. Even though this series of events had involved the whole development section, it had been kept pretty confidential from the larger organization. Out of courtesy I did let my boss Harvey know that I was looking for other positions. But then he started doing mean and embarrassing things –even though my predicament and all that transpired was on the hush hush, he would disinclude me in ways that my coworkers in support noticed and found strange. They even expressed their concern to me and asked him why.

Interestingly at various points throughout the whole process - talking to Frank and others, in concert with my mentioning that Rose had mentored and encouraged me to program, they commented that Rose had not really been happy with her last programming experience with the development group - with the time it took. That's what they said, and it may be, and that's not anything negative about her. in my mind. Just that Rose and I were in very different places. She had become a new mother in her mid-thirties after doing 8 years of systems development for another large facility. I was 50 and still pushing hard toward birthing my dreams. I wanted very much to get into programming for the computing center. But the people I worked for didn't seem to be able to discern the difference. I finally left that position the following spring severely depressed. I was making more money than I had ever dreamed of making in my life and I had nothing to do. My husband was probably wondering if I was crazy. But toward the end my mind started to flash on these compelling graphic images with alarming frequency and frightening clarity - could I use that object to cut myself, could I just roll that car into the garage, close the door, and leave the motor running? They came out of nowhere and they called to me and invited me like a siren song - til I just wanted to try doing them. It was as if I had turned all my expertise in on myself and was applying it to find the exit to a situation that had no way out. I'd never experienced anything like it before. It was bizarre. But in the end I showed respect for myself and my work environment and didn't act on any of these impulses - other than to quietly walk out the door at the end of the day ... for good. I knew I had to. The university let me go on 6 months medical leave. I still continued to job hunt under the delusion that Doug would help me. I reached out to former mentors (the few that were still there from my 20 year tenure - many had moved on or left the university). The university, in several instances that I knew of personally, had helped its employees, out of difficult situations similar to mine and was right to do so for the most part. But those employees had all been men. I couldn’t find a job - even though I offered to take a a pay cut or accept a non-permanent position. There was nothing negative in my personnel records, but you would have thought I was the most "undesirable" employee the university ever had. When my leave expired, the university terminated me.

At Christmas, I got a lead through the Civil Liberties Union on a couple of lawyers whose area of expertise and practice were job issues and discrimination. We had tried contacting one previously in Lafayette. Something else I never ever dreamed I would be doing. But she never got back to me and we just assumed that no one could fight the university. However, these lawyers were in Indy. One of them, a woman, told me that employment discrimination cases were hard to win and that you had to prove more than just “hurt feelings.” I didn't know how to even find the words to express to her how deep the damage went. The other, a man, told us we had a case but were up against a critical deadline with Affirmative Action – what deadline? No one had mentioned a deadline. We went with that lawyer. He wanted $5000 up front and told us he would depose and depose to get to the bottom of things. But what he did was to take a stock approach. He looked at all of the positions I had applied for at the University within the past three years – whether they were with the computing center or not in the hopes of finding an instance where someone was hired that under-qualified. So in other words if I applied for a tech position in Pharmacy and didn’t get it – and the person who was hired was less qualified than me, the lawyers were going to win my case because Pharmacy had discriminated against me. So they had to talk to everybody throughout the entire university about this case. Well, guess what – they didn’t find what they were looking for. And that group interview that Doug had me do with the entire development group and then told me I would never get any future jobs? That interview couldn’t be counted because those jobs hadn’t actually been posted. So instead of deposing anyone at all, my lawyers threw up their hands at “Summary Judgment,” took their fee, and ran for the hills. They should have said, “Okay, we’ve jumped through all their hoops and played all their little games. Now let’s go get ‘em.” If they had been able to persuade the judge to give the case a chance to be heard in front of a jury, I think that I would still have a career in my field at this moment. But the young woman who represented me said while I had experienced an unfair shake under Indiana's at-will-employment, I had not experienced discrimination. Or at least they couldn't prove it.

I learned one interesting thing during the request for documents though. I came across an email correspondence from Frank to Doug around the time I was hired – the same time Dave was trying to get out from under Harvey’s thumb, and move over to the development section. In this email, Frank was justifying his hiring decision to Doug, and he wrote, “She's no Seth (neither were a lot of other people they extended an open hand of opportunity to) but she'll do fine in support.” Is that why they didn't want to know about my past background, not even enough to make a judgment of what it was worth? Did they just need a body to put in Dave’s place when he moved over to development? And did Doug hold Frank forever to that email, regardless of later facts about my abilities coming to light? Why then did Frank tell me that I could move to Development and do programming during my hiring interview?

During happier days, Frank once gave me a crash course in Access. But the fact that I
I knew SQL and had been diving into packages like Fox Pro and dBase and developing with 4 GL languages for years and had written thousands of lines of code seemed to go right past him. In the course of the tour, he mentioned some things he'd like to learn how to do in Access and once I found my way around that package (we're talking an hour), I showed him how to do those things. He seemed pleased to know, but he would not acknowledge that I was transferring knowledge and experience to a new platform. He kept repeating as if correcting or coaching me, that I was just now learning these things (from him). I thought it was weird or just a guy thing and shrugged my shoulders and went on. At least it gave me a chance to do some work with Access. Actually when we all worked together it was fun - things moved fast during meetings, and we all kept up with one another. I would come back with diagrams and charts, and the group would synthesize and get great ideas. People would get animated and enthusiastic. Frank had me lead a team in developing an installment tracking tool for the instructional labs in Access. So that note to Doug about me being better in support, well actually the reverse was true. I was more comfortable with the decomposition, top-down design, and analysis approach that is a more programming discipline than with the bottom up, experimental engineering approach of the support section (although I did come to appreciate that approach as well). And I noticed that the Computer Science guys in the development section felt similarly.

The upshot and end of this story was that I never settled with the university. They sent me an insult offer – no money, no job, just an extended six months to apply to jobs as an inside applicant. I wrote the VP whose name was on the settlement and who I had known in better times, and told the university to go to hell. My reason for not agreeing to settle is because I would be forever muzzled from revealing the terms of the settlement and because I didn’t want to give the university 6 more months to jerk me around. I couldn’t comprehend why they even wanted to. They had led me down so many paths and made so many promises that they hadn’t honored. They subsequently agreed to walk away from the case if I would.

During all this I finished my master’s degree at the university and completed a successful one-year graduate assistantship with another department, developing their website and working on an educational video, both of which I just loved doing and which turned out really well. Of course I never mentioned anything the other thing I was going through to them. But they knew. At the end they surprised me with a good-bye party and screening of the video to the whole department. Everyone loved it. But it was kind of comical - our office was right over the President's Office and I think my boss and colleagues really wanted to do something nice for me but were half afraid of getting "caught." We ate our cake and chips and home-made salsa, saw the video, and chatted within the space of 20 minutes and then my my boss, the VP of Research Compliance and also on my graduate committee, shoo'd us all out of the conference room, looking both ways as we hastily crossed the hall. She also handed me an unsolicited personal letter of commendation and recommendation. :)
Since then I have been looking for work in my field, doing some free lance work, collaborating on a scholarly paper in my field with a professor at the university, and working in low income, no benefit jobs to help pay the bills because we do what we must do.
In summary, this account is simply about something that happened to me in one of my jobs at the university and doesn't completely define the years spent and the skills learned in that position (although sometimes it feels like it does). After writing all this down and sleeping on it for a couple of days, other memories of working at the computing center come to the forefront. I was also in a position to observe and appreciate and participate in some of that organization's extraordinary accomplishments and to learn from and work with some very sharp individuals. That should be worth a whole lot. Also any other position I held at the university would fill as many pages as this account, only with more positive stories about opportunity and growth and collaborations and successes. All of this deserves equal time, but then I guess all of this is featured in my resumes and Portfolio which covers 30 some years of work experience and education.

Now let us move on to the next vista.

P.S. "Back from the Future" for a little update :)
We've worked at promoting our refinishing and antique business and have moved to a more suitable location for it, still in the same area but with higher visibility. So we now live on 2.77 acres in a 100 year old farm-house - the home of our dreams. My husband lost his 20-year-job a year after I did (also through unfair circumstances, and I have to say, it's his employer's loss not to have him), so it's amazing that we were able to pull this off. The winter after we moved, he went through open-heart surgery and my factory employer graciously gave me a month's leave to help care for him. That summer, thanks to a previous boss and friend from the university (who also got an unfair shake from them), I started to work again full time in my field at a local not-for-profit agency.
Six years after the fact, the instructional computing division finally put a new program up on their web site - and, guess what ... it's mine ... it's ours. Maybe not my code, exactly, but it incorporates what we discussed and designed and negotiated and what I wrote - our design and our solution. I know the process and the challenges and what we hoped to achieve - so in the end I did get to participate in helping the university to get there.

1 comment:

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