Cowgirl Up to Your Best Self
“Get your butt off that ground! What are you made of anyway?” I wouldn’t let someone talk to me like that, yet I’m usually the one shouting this to myself during tough times. I call it tough self-love.
I’ve had a pretty incredible life. In all senses of the word, I’ve been extremely lucky. However, my luck ultimately ran out when I was retaliated against for 18 months, and finally fired after reporting sexual harassment from one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world after working there for 20 years.
I landed my first job, which I thought would also be my last job, right out of college with Bell Labs. Twenty years as an engineer there brought tremendous professional growth and a Texas-size personal ah-ha. I was an extroverted engineer and female, neither of which was common in Bell Labs.
Have you heard the joke about extroverted engineers? They look at your shoes instead of their own. I only checked out people’s shoes to see if they were stylish enough to warrant a shopping trip to acquire a pair. As an extreme extrovert, I looked people straight in the eye. Over my 30 years in technology, I felt like a lone zebra in a herd of horses. There was a constant undercurrent of criticism: Don’t stand out too much. Tone it down. Be a little less. I was seen as a maverick, saying what needed to be said, though perhaps not in the most politically correct fashion. Political correctness is a skill I would acquire over time. In hindsight, I realize I was quite the fish out of water.
At the 1996 AT&T Women’s Conference in Denver, my first huge hint came while listening to Anne Richards, former Texas governor. She said, “If you don’t like the way things are going, change it!” It wasn’t just her words that left an impression; this woman was memorable. I identified with her.
She was like me: spunky, Southern, and not afraid to speak her mind. Here was a successful woman who was entirely, utterly herself. She thrived in the political arena where she was outnumbered by Texas cowboys with 10-gallon hats. She was her own cowgirl. She was feminine and powerful; she dressed like a woman, not a woman pretending to be a man. Not only was she comfortable in her skin, she walked around oozing with confidence that people were lucky to have her in their lives. She was living her life exactly like she wanted. She was my role model and the instigator of my first big uncomfortable moment. She made me feel the internal struggle to own my authentic self in whatever world I found myself.
I was inspired to be the maverick horse in the corral. I led a 180-person team that built Avaya’s first IP PBX, catapulting us into market-share leadership. I created a culture of openness in the project, both asking routinely for feedback on how I could improve as the leader of the organization, while providing feedback to the company on how we could be better.
Standing up for what I believed in ultimately resulted in my being walked out of the building by my vice president and his human resources sidekick. This event was not in any part of my dream of “making it big.”
I quickly learned that all of the typical clichés, including “Work hard and you’ll go far,” weren’t true. I was meandering on unknown roads, not sure where my dreams were taking me. I knew I needed to cowgirl up. My road to success was bumpier than I expected, and at times I felt like I was riding a bucking bronco. I had tangled with the big corporate political horses and been thrown. At two in the afternoon, I was sitting in my pajamas, eating butter pecan ice cream out of the carton with a spoon, sulking because life wasn’t fair. Doing an exceptional job was irrelevant if the person in a position of power wanted you gone.
While flipping through the channels, I happened upon a rodeo movie called 8 Seconds (1994) starring Luke Perry, the hunk from the popular 80s show, Beverly Hills, 90210. During the championship ride, Lane is not only bucked off, but he lies motionless on a makeshift table after being stomped in his most private parts. I expected his best friend to show the concern warranted by the dire situation, but instead he utters these words: “Well you have two choices. You can sit here and quit, or you can cowboy up. Get out there and show them what you’re made of.”
This was the first time I heard the phrase “cowboy up.” It reminded me of my dad’s saying: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you respond to it.” I used to think he was talking about those important letdowns in life, like when a guy didn’t like you or you didn’t get a job you desperately wanted. His words held new meaning for me because of the hell I was suffering in my job. I couldn’t believe that, after 18 years and three promotions, things could turn sour so quickly. But, as my dad said, “It’s not the fact you’re fired, but how you deal with it.”
As I reflect on my 30-year career as a woman in business, I realize other working women struggle with the same challenges and issues in the male-dominated business world. I need to share what I’ve learned. It has become increasingly clear that sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace continues to be a significant barrier to women’s success. Being a professional woman brings tremendous fulfillment, but it includes those moments when you’re lying motionless on the dirt stadium floor after being kicked in your most private parts. At those moments, chanting your own “cowgirl up” mantra is not only advisable but also mandatory to move to the better place you are destined to experience.
This is my hope for you as much as it is has been my own personal journey.