SHE’S ALL THAT
In 1998, during my junior year in college, I had my first mental breakdown. I was hospitalized and under care for months, resulting in lost time to study and take the Dental Aptitude Test, traditionally submitted in the third year. Although I was still able to graduate on time, I couldn’t make up the hours necessary to review the science and practice for the Perceptual Ability (PAT) part of the exam. I didn’t waver in my desire to go to dental school, but in order to prepare well and present myself as an attractive candidate, I needed a gap year to study and regroup. I also needed funds to support myself, so I chose to look for a full-time job and promised myself to study at night.
A few months before graduation, after a series of interviews, I was offered a job as a lab technician at Abbott Labs in the northern suburbs of Chicago. This sought-after and competitive position placed me in the laboratory growing tissue culture. I worked in a Level 3 Hazard suite, wearing a spacesuit and more protective gear than COVID required, while growing Hepatitis A and HIV viruses. After work, I studied for the DAT, which I took the following year in April. The months of diligent study paid off as I was accepted into my first-choice dental school.
Although Abbott Laboratories was my first real job, I don’t remember it fondly. It provided me with a glimpse of the corporate world, which, despite not being a good fit for me, introduced me to a hierarchical leadership structure. The person in charge of my department, with several managers and supervisors below, was a woman whose last name I don’t recall. However, she is a woman whom I remember regardless. I recall how much I avoided her, how much I disliked her, and how awkward, stiff, and uncomfortable our conversations were. She was tall, slim, and fit. She was organized, methodical, and clear in her directions—calm and collected, almost cold. She was as sterile as our negative-pressure tissue culture rooms. Mary was my boss and she was a b**ch.
BOSS = B**CH
And that was where in my world the terms “boss” and “b**ch” became ubiquitous. I think back, trying to conceptualize what it was about Mary that made her seem like the adjective I so needed to whisper under my breath. She seemed closed off, decisive, unapproachable, distant, and professional. But professional not in a way of being engaged with her work performance, professional in a way of being disinterested in her subordinates as human beings, as people. She must have been groomed to be so. She must have been groomed to act and look like men in positions similar to hers, or higher, if she wanted to move her career forward. She likely needed to blend in. And perhaps if she followed suit, she would continue to climb the corporate ladder.
Generally speaking, and especially looking two and a half decades back, men in positions of leadership were expected to be compassionless. There was an emphasis on the ‘hard’ skills, what some might call the traditional concepts of leadership. There was a push on numbers and goals, a sense of control, a directive, delegation. Competitiveness, assertiveness, and risk-taking with no expense of aggression were front and center. When men exhibited these characteristics, they were revered by both their subordinates and their supervisors and climbed up the rankings, becoming vice presidents and chief officers. When women exhibited those same traits, they were criticized, talked about behind their backs; they were called names. They still are.
CALL ME A B**CH AND I’LL RUN THE WORLD
I’d read that Madeleine Albright was often accused of coming across as cold and calculated. In interviews, she’d explained that as she entered her profession, any inkling of emotion, from her, from a woman, was frowned upon. And thus, in an attempt to follow the herd, to fit in, and to do the job she was hired to do, she altered her ability to show emotion. She was more blank than she was warm. That’s what it took for her to become a leader. It seemed that being all of those things, spending time and effort to change into that person, might have felt inauthentic to her. Yet, to move women ahead into positions of governance, worldwide influence, it’s exactly what she had to do. I’m sure, if you ask her, she may have regrets about having made that choice; but I am also sure that if you asked her, the change she had to bring on within her, to influence how the world moves forward, wasn’t as significant a price to pay. It was an inception of what women today are capable of doing, the chance given to be now welcomed into participating.
My time to be called the b-word, in a professional setting, came about 6 years after I’d met Mary. The day I was closing on Happy Tooth, our dental practice, an empowered and very successful retiring dentist cornered me in part of the office. He’d been selling his eight offices one by one, in an effort to retire, though as I seem to recall he wasn’t quite ready to let it go. Standing a foot taller than me, walking down the narrow hallway, to what would soon be his old office, an office which housed a full bar and a queen bed, he knocked into me, pushing me into the wall. I don’t know what I said or what I did prior to that interaction, but with an odor of some heavy liquor on his breath, he started down at me and said: ‘you’re just a b**ch.’ Shocked, I hurried to open the back office door and joined the broker and my partner at the signing table. Thinking back, he must have felt some sort of pleasure in calling me that name. He must have felt it was a punishment I’d deserved for stripping him of his flagship. He’d remained our landlord for a year or so and made it known to his attorney, broker, and my partner that when it came to conversations about the building, its issues or improvements he wasn’t going to ‘deal with that b**ch.’ And thus, the only communication that took place regarding our lease was with my male partner.
IS THAT THE BEST YOU CAN DO?
I can’t tell you that I’d been called a b**ch after that, at least not to my face. But certainly, the sentiment was present many times among my past employees, as I was learning to fill out my leadership britches. Within our practice, I’d always been the stern one, the disciplinarian, the one that held others accountable. I’d been those things because someone had to be, and no one else was willing to take on that hardship. No one likes the difficult discussion, no one signs up to have their heart rate jump 50 beats in one minute, minute after minute, behind closed doors. And as a result, I was viewed as inflexible. I was viewed as toxic, pushy, bossy… b**chy.
No, not b**chy, that would have been too mild, I was a b**ch, the b**ch. I was called those names and viewed as that simply because I was a woman. Because a practice owner in a similar position, with the same conversations, never would have gained any of those epithets. And though maybe not spoken directly to my face, that sentiment came to define me. And in an unprecedented way, in an unpredictable way, maybe even encouraged and built me, to grow to be better at difficult conversation, at controversy, at confrontation. It also necessitated that I put up a wall between myself and those around me; a shield of sorts for the inevitable name-calling that comes with reprimand or letting someone go. And years later, today, when ’the b**ch’ description gets thrown around, in my mind I am thinking: “that’s the best you can do?’
What was very often forgotten was that my leadership style wasn’t just defined by numbers and goals, lectures, or criticisms. Unlike Madeline Albright, I had the luxury of practicing a more feminine style of leadership as well. I could afford to focus on coaching, intuition, compassion, inclusion, and creativity. I was very close with, still am, all of our employees. I have a unique relationship with each one of them, always had. My office has and still is often viewed as a sanctuary, with free-flowing tears and hugs. I listen, I offer advice, I support, and I care. I offer both empathy and compassion because as persons who help me build the business, as human beings, they deserve it. But relationships aren’t always meant to last a lifetime. Though people come first, team members before patients, employees cannot be left to remain in a position to hurt the business and cause turmoil in the culture.
When performance dips, when multiple chances are offered along with additional training and discussion, some employees are asked to leave our work family. And, in those times and whenever after, the only memory they have of me, the only thing they are left murmuring about me is b**ch.
All else is forgotten.
TAKE YOUR BEST SHOT
I am not Madeline Albright, Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin, Kamala Harris, or Liz Cheney. I am not Cersei Lannister from Game Of Thrones or Claire Underwood from House of Cards, and I don’t aspire to be. I have, however, been in leadership roles within my community. And I fear that part of the reason I was able to climb into those positions, the reason I was willing to ask for a seat at the table, had been a result of resilience and perseverance that the name-calling in years prior had brought me. And so it’s made me wonder: is it really that bitch and boss, for a woman, have become interchangeable? Has the name-calling become the price of admission? Has the name-calling become an obligatory expense paid to the gods in determining whose voice gets to be heard and whose remains on mute? Has a traditionally masculine style of leadership both a prerequisite for a woman to hold a position of power and a way to discredit her directive, her pacesetting ways? And, how many other women understand and have lived the outlined discourse above?
Being called a name, any name, that name… doesn’t feel good. It has many times sent me to the bathroom crying. It has; it doesn’t anymore. The interactions of my past, so baselessly reared with name-calling, toughened my skin. I’m in disbelief for the realization, but they have been empowering. Yes, I am independent, outspoken, and strong. I am also compassionate, creative, and giving. So, go ahead, call me the name. Because if you only notice the one thing about me and not the other, it’s your loss. A big loss. The reality has been and continues to be that ‘yes,’ I will pay the price of admission, especially when it gets me a seat at the table.
As things stand today and moving forward, women will not just need to have more seats at the table, they will also be off the menu for good.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Maggie Augustyn is a practicing general dentist, the owner of Happy Tooth, a faculty member at Productive Dentist Academy, an author, and an inspirational speaker. She obtained her Doctorate of Dental Surgery from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Augustyn is passionate about reading, researching, writing, and speaking on topics that encompass the human experience, including our struggles, pain, and moments of vitality. Her personal mission is to inspire individuals to embark on a journey toward a more authentic self-actualization. She has a notable presence in the media and is a frequent contributor to Dental Entrepreneur Woman.
Dr. Augustyn takes great pride in her role as a contributing author to Dentistry Today, where she publishes a column titled “Mindful Moments.” She has also been featured on various podcasts and is a sought-after national speaker, emphasizing the significance of authenticity and self-discovery.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Fizkes/Shutterstock.com.