Dear Susan: Advice to Women Who Want to Advance in Private Lending (or any other male dominated industry)

Insights» Leadership

June 1, 2021by Susan Naftulin

Read the full Originate Report June edition here.

“Dear Susan” is not a real advice column.  Although the questions below are not necessarily real letters/emails I have received, they are all questions or situations that have happened to me or friends that are accomplished females in predominantly male industries*.  Although I am a lawyer, nothing in this article should be considered legal advice; it is practical advice.  Remember, you cannot change the world overnight, nor can you fight every battle.

Dear Susan – I am a forty-year-old woman who has been a mortgage processor and underwriter for twenty years.  My employer hired a senior underwriter who is my boss and keeps calling me “blondie” and other equally inappropriate names.  I don’t want to make waves, but what should I do?  – Forty and Frustrated

Dear Forty and Frustrated – Blondie, sweetie, honey, baby, and other diminutive nicknames like this have no place in the office.  The first thing you should do is casually speak to your new boss and ask him not to call you these sorts of names and advise him that you prefer to be called by your real name.  Immediately after this conversation, go back to your work area and create of memo of the conversation – make sure to provide the date and place that the conversation took place, what you said and how he responded.  After that, keep a record of any time he calls you a name other than your own, making sure to put down date and time and exactly what he called you.  Also remind him each time he calls you one of these names that it is not your name.  If it continues to happen, go to his boss and discuss the issue.  If they do not handle it, you need to go to Human Resources or to the owner of the company if a small business.  Keep written records of every conversation.   If it is still not resolved, quit the job and find a lawyer!

Dear Susan – I recently interviewed for my dream job but the interviewer asked me if I was married, what my husband did and if I planned to have children.  Is that allowed?  What should I have done?  Married and Mad

Dear Married and Mad – These are inappropriate questions that you did not have to answer.  If you did answer them and were not hired and you believe that decision was based on your answers to these questions, you should contact an employment law attorney.  The best thing to do is to make a joke of questions like this and respond by saying something like “You might want to check with your HR department before I answer that”.

Dear Susan – A lot of times I am the only female in a room for meeting.  During the time before a meeting starts or immediately after the meeting ends, the men in the room start a conversation between themselves and completely leave me out.  Even when I say something, it is completely ignored.  How do I handle this?  – Left Out and Lonely

Dear Left Out and Lonely – This is a tough one.  Is there a member of this group that is your peer (never the boss) that you think you could approach and explain how this affects you and ask that he make an effort to include you?  If so, approach him and ask for his help.  If not, continue to try to make inroads by being prepared to start a conversation.  This may or may not work.  I think what we have all learned in our careers is that sometimes it is just lonely.  As you rise, however, remember how your felt and make sure to work hard to include others, women and men, when you have the opportunity.

Dear Susan – I am the only woman in my department and my male boss treats my male co-workers differently than he treats me.  For example, he will have career discussions with my co-workers over a drink after work but will only speak with me about my career in the more formalized office setting.  Another example is that the guys all kid around with each other, but don’t kid around with me. I suspect it may be because they are afraid of not being politically correct.  Lastly, my male counterparts take all of the vacation, personal, and sick time that they are entitled to, but my boss frowns on me and comments to me when I take the time to which I am entitled to take care of my sick kids.  I take no more than the time I am entitled to and always meet my deadlines.  What do I do?  Sincerely – Female and Frowned On

Dear Female and Frowned On – I believe that the issues surrounding your boss not asking you to go for a drink after work and the men in your department not kidding around with you stem from a concern to avoid any semblance of gender harassment or discrimination.  It is a shame that this is what we have come to.  Take the initiative, tell your boss that you would like the opportunity to discuss your career with him in a less formal setting and ask him to have lunch with you.  For some reason, it is my experience that men find lunch a comfortable situation whereas a drink after work is less comfortable.

With regards to your co-workers, continue to be friendly and kid around with them.  In time, they will relax and do the same with you.  Work very hard to develop individual relationships with each of them, that will eventually change the group dynamic.  But as per a prior answer in this article, until things start to change, you may just need to accept being lonely.

Lastly, how does your boss know that you are taking a day off because of a sick child?  Stop telling him!!  If you take a sick day or an allowed day off, you do not owe anyone an explanation.  Just take the day off.  I guaranty that many sick days taken by your male peers are really things like mental health days, golf days or beach days. They just don’t talk about it, nor should you!!

Dear Susan – I am going on maternity leave, missing three months of work during this period. I feel I will lose ground and my co-workers will get ahead of me. How do I take this time off but not lose my footing?  Sincerely – Expecting and Anxious

Dear Expecting and Anxious – The simple answer is that you cannot take a several month maternity leave and expect to come back on the same footing as your co-workers who did not take leave.  It is no different than if one of them needed leave for a different personal reason.  Getting promoted and getting more experience and exposure in a company is largely based on performance and experience.  You cannot expect to be in the same place as others with less experience.  Accept the fact that your career path will be different, it may take you longer to get there because of the time you have taken off, but you will get there eventually.  If, however, you feel that upon your return from maternity leave that you are not given the opportunity for the training and experience that others were given during your leave, you need to approach your boss and request it.  If, after raising the issue a few times you do not get the appropriate training, you should document your experience and perhaps seek legal counsel.

If you have read all of these “letters”, you should see some common themes.  You cannot fight and win every fight. You need to document your experience, you need to try to work it out on your own, you need to understand the needs of the business, and MOST of ALL, no one owes you special treatment because you are female. They only owe you the same treatment as others!!

*Many thanks to my dear friends Jill Weitz (General Counsel of a large health care provider), Sheryl Monheit (owner of a microbrewery) and Shawn Turak (assistant county prosecutor) for their ideas and advice.