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Boxy Suits, Battleaxes, and Fat Cats

Even before I was accepted to Tulane University School of Law’s MJ-LEL program, alumni and students urged me that it was essential to take the Negotiating Skills elective course, and I had to do it before Capstone.

I knew I needed to take this class. I knew it would be good for me. But I didn’t want to. This class was going to be the intellectual equivalent of eating my vegetables. When I thought of negotiations, a cartoonish image of sweaty, fat cat businessmen scheming in a boardroom loomed in my mind. I feared that the class might as well be called Toxic Masculinity: Surviving in the Business World.

I am so glad I was wrong. My fears were naïve and silly. The fact is that I’ve been an HR professional for nearly two decades, and I’ve been part of negotiations on a regular basis for a very long time! I had never classified my style or approach as effective in a negotiation, or even defined the work that I do as negotiation. I had never given myself credit.

But my concerns came from somewhere, and I believe it comes down to the changing notion of how men and women have taken up space within the workplace during my working lifetime.

When I started my career in 2002, a significant majority of women in positions of power in the workplace were battle weary and hardened. I can see them clearly in my mind: the Cindies, Lindas, Donnas, Barbaras, and Sandies, with their boxy suits, pantyhose, and sensible loafers, hair tightly curled and styled into a stiff helmet. I learned early on to be careful with this type of woman, who was not inclusive, but competitive and suspicious of other women in the workplace. One Cindy fancied herself the favorite of the executive team, and purposely withheld information from others in order to maintain her position as an expert. I’ve known several Lindas who appear to take other women under their wing, and then use their words against them or steal their ideas in meetings. And then there were the tattletales, who listen in the bathroom, watch and track everyone’s movements in the office, and report back to the CEO. One learns, with role models like that, not to be vulnerable and not to trust others in the workplace. One learns that collaboration is not possible.

As loathsome as many of these now-retired women were, I can only remember them with compassion. They had come up in the workplaces of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They had experienced a workplace without the protections of the ADA, when sexual harassment was rampant and accepted. There were no accommodations for breastfeeding, and no support or flexibility for childcare. In the earliest years of my career, fewer women had access to the boardroom and high level decision making. Those who had possessed strong minds and determination, and some had adopted the toxic traits of those stereotypical fat cats in order to survive and succeed. They were jaded, and, yes, they were mean, because all their lives they had been fighting the notion that men belong in the workplace by default; a woman must fight for her place, and in doing so, she must wear a guise of stereotypical masculinity—a competitive, adversarial nature, and a boxy suit to hide her shape.

If those were the women who achieved success in the workplace, then what was I? I am collaborative, a problem solver, a listener. I need time and space to process information. I will never be the loudest person the room, but I will provide a measured strategy and ask a lot of questions in order to glean every bit of information needed—and possibly expose weaknesses in a strategy or idea without embarrassing or singling anyone out. I also like makeup and fashionable and feminine clothing. To my great embarrassment, the first time I was offered a director title, my first instinct (thank goodness it remained unspoken) was to suggest instead the title of manager. I had so internalized the notion that who I am wasn’t a fit for a director role.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to find a few work environments in which I felt free to show up fully as myself, and where my style is respected. I’ve seen the Barbaras and Lindas and Sandys retire, along with the old fat cats. And in their place, the spaces in which decisions are made are more diverse; more open; collaborative; strategic; open to the vulnerability of accepting that one person never has all the answers, and we are all more successful if we rely on our internal and external partners for support, resources, and ideas. Those stifling, binary stereotypes of what it is to be a “man” or “woman” in the workplace are diminishing more and more each day.

And yet those old fears and stereotypes bubbled up at the thought of taking a course on negotiations. What a gift that, from the very beginning, and with the guidance of Professor Gard, each student learned that our personal style has merit and value in the negotiation context. We learned that adversarial, all-or-nothing thinking is not the most effective method in negotiation. The things I value in business and as a professional are things that made me successful in the class: preparedness; problem-solving; empathy; strategy; adaptability; collaboration; persistence, and inquisitiveness. And I learned new tools and strategies to support me in my work. I found my classmates to be kind and willing to share vulnerabilities when some of us felt nervous about the mock negotiation exercises. No one was there to judge others or compete; we were there to learn together and help each other succeed.

If only the Sandys, Cindys, Donnas and fat cats could have had such an experience.

Module 2 Social Media Post © 2023 by Valerie Y. Nance is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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