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How To Be Bold

How To Be Bold
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Photo courtesy of Freeform

BY LORRAINE DUFFY MERKL

“I coulda, woulda, shoulda been bolder.” That’s what I’ve been thinking about my career ever since I started watching a new show on Freeform called The Bold Type.

My reflectiveness is not because I can no longer identify with the three fierce and gumption-filled, twenty-something main characters—Jane, Kat and Sutton—who are all low women on the totem pole at Scarlet magazine. It’s because I never had a boss like Melora Hardin’s “Jacqueline Carlyle,” the glossy’s editor-in-chief.

In the series, created by Joanna Coles, former editor-in-chief of Cosmo and current Chief Content Officer for Hearst Magazines, Jacqueline “leads with passion not fear. As the strong and confident female head of a globally successful magazine, her greatness can be intimidating, but she always builds up her employees rather than bringing them down. She’s an inspirational leader who does it all in five inch heels.” Where was she when I was coming up?

To be fair, in the early 80s, there were not a lot of Jacquelines. To put things in context, remember Working Girl? “Katherine Parker” (Signorney Weaver) receives a jaw-dropping welcome from the secretarial pool because she’s the lone woman executive at the Wall Street investment bank. Or how about movies like The Secret of My Success or Big? There was always a scene with a conference table surrounded by white men in suits, except for the one black male and one white female executive (in a blouse that had an attached bow tie.) Welcome to my then-world.

During my fifteen-year staff career, most of my bosses were men, who were usually about twenty years older than I was. The few opportunities I had to report to a woman, well, none could be referred to as nurturing or interested in mentoring. Most could be described as cold and sharp-tongued; they equated yelling their harsh words with projecting managerial brio. The assumption by subordinates such as myself was that they were selfish and insecure. I mean, what other explanation could there have been?

Years later, one of those women, as well as some others of that era, confessed to me that they were always on their last nerve and afraid for their jobs; their male contemporaries were constantly trying to discredit them or shout them down in meetings. Some expressed resentment about birthday parties and school plays they’d missed. “I was afraid if I wasn’t [at work] every minute, I’d lose my turn,” one said. Another said she feared if she took off, the next day she’d return to the office and all her accounts would be reassigned because she “wasn’t serious about her career.” They knew that, at the time, companies would only place so many women in management positions, hence female underlings were all viewed as “Eve Harrington.”

Even though I now understand their dilemma, I’m still melancholy about what I never had, and also because I know—given my age—I never will have it. In the latter part of the 90s when I started freelancing, the directors who doled out the work were my peers. By the early aughts, they were my juniors. Now, many of them could be by children.

My only hope of having a boss like Jacqueline is watching Hardin play her on TV with my 19-year-old daughter Meg, whose idea it was to tune in to the show in the first place.

Some of Jacqueline’s advice that I wished I’d received—and perhaps can still benefit from—I now point out to Meg.

  • “I never met anybody who made a career by hiding out in the fashion closet.” Aka: put yourself out there.
  • “If you engage with [people who bait you], you are giving them exactly what they want.” Walk away.
  • “Unleash holy hell on anybody who tries to hold you back.” (No explanation necessary.)

In a few years, Meg will be entering the workforce, and unlike when I did, she will experience women in high-powered positions not as tokens, but as business as usual. Since so many female executives are doing articles and interviews about their companies’ philosophy of “women helping women,” there is a better chance that Meg might actually have a real-life Jacqueline as a boss to build her up at work, and show her how it’s done in five-inch heels.

 

 

 

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Lorraine Duffy Merkl
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels BACK TO WORK SHE GOES and FAT CHICK, for which a movie version is in the works.