When I was working in San Francisco during the dot-com bust, I worked at a company that was acquired. To prime the company for a buyout, leadership laid off a sizable percentage of employees to reduce overhead expenses. I was the only woman not let go in my department. The woman who worked strict hours and always left at the same time every day was let go. The soft-spoken woman who always accommodated to everyone’s needs was let go. The woman who always made homemade cakes for every team member’s birthday was let go. I had fewer technical skills relevant to the position than any of them. I couldn’t figure out why I had been spared. I wondered if my salary was the lowest, so I was less weight to keep on. As the only woman left, the role of Girl Friday started chasing me.
No one remembered the boss’s birthday but me. Knowing that reminding my colleagues would be construed as a self-nomination to get a cake, I was hesitant to bring it up. But the buyout was going to impact our boss more than any of us. We were young, single, childless – positioned for reinvention. Our boss had a stay-at-home wife and two small children. He was one of the company’s founders. He’d expected a big pay-off from an IPO, not getting laid-off after he helped the acquiring company restructure. And then, if we forgot his birthday…
“It’s Tim’s birthday,” I announced. “We need to get a cake.” Silence. Blank stares. “Mike, why don’t you go get one? I need to wrap up this project for Tim by the end of the day.”
Blank stare. “Take Henry with you.”
Blank stare. And finally, Mike asked, “What do we do?”
“You go to a store that sells cakes. You walk in. You point to the cake you want. Buy it and bring it back here.” We all laughed. Did these guys eat frozen pizza every night for dinner? Half an hour later, we all had cake.
A week or so later, Tim asks me to order lunch for the team and the representatives of the acquiring company. “You know, get some different types of sandwiches, some chips, and put some drinks in the conference room.”
“These are such good sandwiches,” one of the buyout representatives later commented. “Where did they come from?” I didn’t say a word. It was my turn for silence and a blank stare.
Women have made great gains in the workplace. Research shows that women have adapted to collaborative work environments better than many men, and young women are setting themselves up for leadership roles. Nearly sixty percent of college students are now women. But women haven’t yet closed the wage gap, and gender discrimination and prescribed gender roles still exist. It would be wrong to blame women for workplace gender discrimination, but when you’re the woman who always volunteers to buy the get well card during your lunch break and organize the baby shower, you’re making a statement about the value of your time. I would advise all women – share your homemade cookies with your neighbors, not your co-workers, and let someone else bring in the cake.