It took a 28 year old to open my eyes to what I already knew was there. Under the surface of a hardworking, well dressed bunch of young professionals, the old guard still reigns.
Me in my ‘60s still going to company office parties.
The type where people dress in bright Christmas colored suits, and wear elf hats of red fur trimmed with white, topped by a fuzzy snowball. The ones where the drinks are pouring, and the expectation is that most attendees are going to get drunk. Slurred speech drunk, with no expectation to be in the office the next day. The kind where the entertainment includes a round table of joke telling. The dirtier the better. All in good fun mind you. Dirty jokes about sex and wives, and women of course.
I dressed up, organized the home front, and rallied to make it. It felt good to be out and around people with holiday cheer, and surviving another challenging year.
About an hour into the party, an enthusiastic attendee broke from the crowd at the bar, and charged my way. She hopped like a bunny towards me. I was standing with the managing partner of the crew. Admiring his velvet jacket, engaged in small talk.
"Rhonda! Rhonda!…I was just standing at the edge of the bar with the guys and they were saying that you must have been a real hottie in your prime.”
Stunned, I maintained a calm that can only come from many years of practice.
"Oh…I’m in my prime right now…thank you.” I let out a chuckle, grasping for the right words to say.
Shocked, I actually said thank you. Only an idiot however would think this was truly a compliment.
"Yes the guys, me and the guys — we were all at the end of the bar talking about it.”
I stared at the bobbing sorority leftover — dressed like an elf. Let’s see how far she will take this. But I didn’t have to prod her. Her enthusiasm for the stinging cruelty flowed over.
"Do you have a picture of yourself when you were at your prime?”
Well, she could have said:
"Do you have a picture of yourself when you were younger?"
"Do you have a picture of yourself when you looked like the hottie the guys are joking about?"
I imagined the same question presented to any of the 60 to 70 year old men in the room. “You must have been a real hunk when you were younger. Show me a picture when you were in your prime”
Said another way:
"If only you weren’t (fill in the blank), then we’d respect you..."
She went on.
"Have you ever seen a picture of Martha Stewart when she was younger…she was a real hottie.”
The Managing Partner excused himself. I don’t know what he thought of the situation. Hardworking, kind and made of the right stuff…what would he say if asked the same question? No one, however, will ever ask.
He said nothing.
"Oh — no. I didn’t know that about her.” Diving into this surreal world of conscious discrimination. Conscious sexism, ageism, erasure — all being laid out before me in a bright, bow-wrapped holiday package. Openly deflating right before my eyes any accomplishments. I’ve been inducted into San Francisco’s Forever Hall, recognized as one of the city’s most successful business women goddammit. Misogyny here today — in an era where it is not supposed to be like that old Mad Men generation. The young woman longing to be a part of the boys club. So eager to impress that she takes on the mission of demeaning. I’ve seen this movie before.
"Look at her,” referring to Martha Stewart on her iphone. A younger Martha Stewart in a bathing suit. Martha Stewart with thick black eyeliner and poofed hair. Martha Stewart in tight, straight legged slacks, jutting out her hip to show off her curves, hand poised like a supermodel. Pictures of what this girl calls “a woman’s prime.” What would the guy equivalent be? Oh wait — the George Clooneys, Brad Pitts and Jon Hamms look more distinguished as they age.
"Will you send me a picture of you when you were in your prime?”
Deflated by the disappointment of how far some women in the workforce have not come, I succumbed. “Yes. I’ll see what I can find.”
I so hoped there would be more change at this point of my wonderful career. Yet in this season of wonder, the rookies must still ask, “Is this what we need to be like to fit in?”
Several days later, at home by a warm fireplace, I melted into holiday melancholy. Reflecting on how it took a 28 year old in an elf outfit to blatantly expose what I hoped wasn’t true.
You’re not like us. You still don’t belong here.
If I’d relied on my looks to build a career, the dagger would hurt. But I didn’t. What is painful is that the old beat still goes on.
Staring at the flames, a spark popped, and I realized how happy I really am.
Right here. Right now.
My hope is that with the strata of generations in today’s workforce, companies will step up the urgency for intergenerational collaboration and live training through ESG groups on this subject.
Rhonda Diaz Caldewey is a writer, dancer, practicing yogi, adventurer, and endlessly curious Modern Elder. She is a leader in the male-dominated retail and restaurant commercial real estate industry, active in bringing music education to youth, and a board member of Madre.org. She is an alum of both betas: MEA Online and MEA Baja workshops.