Written by: Julie Allison, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Usually, on a Saturday, I would have been riding a Big Wheel across the rocky concrete sidewalk in popsicle-stained clothes or imprisoning fireflies in glass jars. I had no idea what I wanted to “be” when I grew up.
But, on this Saturday afternoon, my older brother and I sat on the living room floor listening to my father read while the green shag carpet scratched my legs. Bedtime stories were routine, but a new book in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon felt important. So did our book, Girls Can Be Anything by Norma Klein.
With floppy hair and an oversized lab coat costume, the main character, Adam Sobel asked his best friend, Marina, to bring him the stethoscope as he announced the rules for a game of hospital. “Girls are always nurses, and boys are always doctors,” Adam affirmed.
“Why is that?” Marina asked in her bouncy pigtails and red dress. She wanted to be the doctor, too.
“Good question,” I thought. I waited for my dad to read the answer.
But, Dad kept reading.
When Adam and Marina played airplane, Adam announced that he was the pilot. He told Marina to “walk around in back and give people drinks,” which she did. But, when she wanted to be the pilot, she left and went off to fly her own plane.
“Dad, why does Julie get to fly the plane?” my brother interrupted. I was now playing the part of Marina, the foil to all of my brother’s plans.
I looked up from the book as my brother sought an answer for this treasonous decision.
Truthfully, I wasn’t interested in playing airplane or being the pilot on that day. I would have chosen to hop on my banana-seat bike and ride circles around the block, but his reaction drew me in. We expected my brother to have a seat in the cockpit. It was MY presence as a pilot that needed a book to explain.
Outwardly, I straightened my back and smirked at my brother when dad replied that I could be anything I wanted to be. Inwardly, I felt the sting settle in. Why was my brother always focused on taking something away from me? In time, I would grow to wonder: Why didn’t Marina ask THAT question? Why is his freedom tied to limiting mine?
If I was Marina, my brother, who was only ten months older than me, was my real-life Adam Sobel. When we played outside on those summer days, I always had to be the bad guy. Once, he caught me, handcuffed my wrists around the neighbor’s patio porch column, and took off to resume his play. I waited in silence for an eternity with my forearms pressed into the painted wood behind me. When I had to pee, I called for mom to bring the key. “For heaven’s sake,” she said when she unlocked me, but I showed no fear or anger… just pride that I had played my part well.
Where was Marina then? How often would I morph myself to play their game?
On another hot day, the boys took off their shirts and ran around bare-chested in the sun. I took mine off, too, until a neighborhood mom saw me through her kitchen window. She stepped outside in her ruffled yellow apron with a toddler on one hip and a hand on the other. “Girls have to keep their shirts on. Only boys can take them off.”
I ran back inside and sat on the edge of my bed. “Girls have to keep their shirts on. Only boys can take them off.” I replayed the words in my mind as I tried to understand this rule.
Did Marina know that her book was all wrong? It’s not just Adam Sobel who wants to be in charge. It’s the neighbor, too. It would take years for me to articulate what I then knew to be true. Women can play the part of Adam.
I put my T-shirt back on and followed the rules of the game.
Soon, we moved to a new block in a small town several hours away. Our red brick ranch home was wedged between the end of the cul de sac and the neighborhood grade school. I only had to squeeze between the evergreen bushes at the edge of the driveway to reach solitude and freedom on the playground and the lush green carpet of the open fields.
But finding freedom when the boys were around was hard. They tossed worms down my shirt when the fields were muddy. They chased me on their bikes. Once, they surrounded me and demanded that I kiss a boy in my third-grade class, or they wouldn’t let me go. I stood there in the center of that circle, shaking my head until my mom peeked through the bushes to call me home for dinner. The boys rode off, but they would be back again on another day.
When the boys picked teams for baseball, my brother assigned me to right field. “Yes!” I said as I skipped out to my position, surprised at his willingness to let me play the game. At the end of the inning, I ran to the dugout to line up for my turn to bat, only to learn a new twist to the rules: playing isn’t the same as batting. “You’re an all-time fielder,” my brother exclaimed and sent me back to right field.
I tucked back through the bushes and plopped down at the kitchen table. “Why won’t he just let me play?” I complained to my mom.
“Boys don’t like girls to be good at things meant for boys, and baseball is for boys,” Mom replied.
“Why is that?” I could hear Marina ask.
“That’s just the way it is.” Adam would have responded.
My childhood self started to think that Adam was right.
Who Wrote the Rules?
Today, I want to go back to that Saturday afternoon on the shag carpet and ask questions. When Marina wants to be a doctor, why do BOTH she and Adam become doctors? When Marina wants to be president, why do they BOTH become presidents and hold a presidential dinner together? Does that mean girls can only play those parts when a boy doesn’t have to give up his? Why?
When Marina flies her own plane, why isn’t Adam the flight attendant? He plays the role of co-pilot, but not the attendant. Instead, she makes the plane “self-service” with a “little machine in back” that dispenses drinks. Why? Does Adam not know how to serve drinks?
What about other jobs, like teachers, florists, therapists… and bug catchers? Why weren’t Adam and Marina fighting over those jobs? Who decided that doctors, pilots, and presidents were the only jobs worth pursuing? Why do all of the coveted jobs require one person to reign over others like a king?
Who made these rules?
Perhaps the books should have been titled “Girls Can be Anything…as Long as They Follow the Rules.”
Changing the Game
In college, most of my professors were still men, but many of my classes were filled with women. We worked hard, followed the rules, and were on our way to becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, and even pilots.
Marina was still in my pocket, buried deep beneath the well-worn fabric of experience. For years, I would keep her hidden, running the tips of my fingers over her spunk, but never bringing her out to play. She collected the questions that still went unanswered.
A few years after graduation, I took a job as an accounting supervisor working for a male boss in a male-dominated profession. Our relationship was strained from the beginning. He delegated work. I asked too many questions. He got angry and would stand behind my desk chair with his feet spread and his arms crossed, breathing down my neck.
“Just do it, young lady.”
“Because I said so.”
For my performance review, he led me to the board room, closed the door, and offered me a seat in one of the soft leather chairs at the sleek wooden table. He sat at the head of the table and opened his thin folder. Like a litigator in court, he had come prepared.
“You are intimidating to the men in the department.” Then, he paused and held my gaze as he waited for my reaction. I caught a glimmer of delight behind his eyes as if he had caught me sneaking into the kitchen after bedtime.
My heart sped as he laid out his case with meeting dates, minutes, and feedback he had received from male co-workers on the floor.
On a Tuesday in July, I suggested at the department meeting that we change a monthly process. On a Thursday in August, I questioned why I was given a task that had already been completed by another employee.
“I’m sorry,” I interrupted. “I’m confused. Don’t you want your employees to bring up new ideas? Don’t you want me to try and save the department time by eliminating duplicate work?”
“I want you to bring your ideas to me or another man in the department so that we can bring them up in the team meetings.” He spoke without a hint of reservation. Adam Sobel would have been proud.
“Ahhhhhhhhhh!” I screamed in my head while my cheeks turned red. My heart hammered against the front of my chest. My underarms grew sticky. There was no point in pretending to be calm; I could hold back no longer.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do.”
My Marina-inspired rage boiled up and spilled out.
“That’s NOT just the way it is!”
“I don’t want to be your stewardess.”
“I’m not your nurse.”
“I am already everything. I’m done playing your game.”
The meeting with Human Resources was uneventful. With her big blue eyes and red hair, the director sat behind her desk in her private office. I spoke openly. She listened with interest and empathy. Nothing could be done unless I filed an official complaint, but it would be his word against mine, and who wants to go up against Adam when the rules are in his favor.
I resigned from the organization weeks later and had my exit interview with a female controller over lunch. Word got back to me days later that she was surprised and disappointed that I didn’t reveal any information about my boss or our department.
Surely, she understood. I knew how to follow the rules, too. Sometimes it’s best to walk off the field if your own team doesn’t want you in the game.
Finding the Freedom to Play my Own Game
I wish I could say that was my last encounter with Adam Sobel or that I’ve always had the courage to confront him. More times than not, I’ve twisted myself into playing my role or simply walking away… leaving the next woman to deal with Adam.
However, as an individual, Adam was never the only problem. Like my brother, the neighbor woman, my mother, my boss, and even myself, Adam was always just one part of a system. He played his part of command and control, and I played mine. I morphed myself, hid, and followed the rules of someone else’s game.
“Why is that?” Marina taught me to ask.
Now, almost fifty years later, I have my OWN answer…
It’s hard to go against a system. It’s hard to be seen. It’s hard to take your shirt off when you know the neighbor will judge. It’s hard to stand at home plate and demand that someone give you a turn to bat. It’s hard not to internalize the expectations given by those in our lives who love us. It’s hard to break the rules. It’s hard to be engaged in a constant battle when there is always another Adam waiting in the wings.
There are no easy solutions, but there are things we can do together to find freedom and disrupt the system:
Develop our own self-esteem – The system thrives on selfless women; the more we prioritize our own interests with confidence, the freer we become. Fly a plane if that’s your dream, or ride your bike and capture the fireflies.
Stop morphing ourselves – Adam isn’t going to change if we continue to play our defined roles and twist ourselves into other people. If we are ourselves, the world around us will be forced to adapt instead.
Stop playing the role of Adam – We lose nothing by lifting someone else, so hire women, promote women, shop at their stores, and be less judgmental of women who live differently. If your neighbor takes off her shirt, look the other way.
Own our strength and allow it to be seen – Marina does no good hidden in a pocket. Let her stomp around in public and ask, “Why is that?” whenever you get the chance.
Take your turn to “bat” – Expect and demand to be given the same opportunities as Adam and ensure that other women on your teams have access to do the same.
Allow women to be women – Freedom for women doesn’t come from getting to be a man; it comes from allowing us to be women. Let’s stop expecting women to function as men, especially in the workplace.
Elevate roles labeled “feminine” – Women make great doctors and lawyers, but we need to start elevating and compensating ALL roles. Nurses are as important as doctors, especially when it comes to patient care.
Break a few rules – If we want to live by our own rules, we have to start by breaking the old ones. If it feels uncomfortable to step out of line, imagine how uncomfortable your change will feel to Adam… and smile.
Create new rules or go without – Rules are invisible boundaries. Every time we set a limitation, let’s make sure we understand who the boundary is serving.
Stand in the center of the circle – Sometimes, action isn’t possible or safe, and all we can do is stand at the center of the circle and shake our heads “no.”
Adam can still be found everywhere, waiving his book of rules and granting permission only when he sees fit. We can hand him the stethoscope or pull out the big wheel and wave to him as we fly past. It’s not easy. Peddling can get hard. But our legs will get stronger, and the path we carve will soon feel less like Adam’s and more like our own. We’ll breathe in the expanse of those lush open fields as we play our own game. Freedom doesn’t come from Adam. It comes from within.
Julie Allison, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Julie is a passionate and experienced financial professional dedicated to helping women launch and manage financially sound companies. She believes that women's creative and collaborative approach makes them uniquely suited to mentor, guide, and lead. When women-owned businesses grow, so do their voices, influence, and communities. Julie has over twenty-five years of financial management experience inside major corporations working with marketing, manufacturing, and supply chain teams. She has learned first-hand the pitfalls of corporate greed and brings a holistic view of business success to her clients. Julie is the founder of Watch Her Grow, a company providing expert financial services to women-owned businesses.