How your handbag can kill your career

By  | March 24, 2015 |  Comments | Filed under: Feminism

I read an interesting article the other day about how women have to earn the right to wear expensive jewelry in the office. I’d love to be all, OMG SEXISM! (because who questions a man’s ability to afford an accessory) but it’s actually on point. The thinking goes something like, if a woman flaunts items that are above her pay grade, it’s assumed she has family money or a boyfriend and thus, she doesn’t need to work and people who don’t need to work, won’t. I’m sure the theory has flaws, but it was really eye-opening as I thought back to the handbag I carried to my first job.

Eight months after I moved to Chicago, I got my first post-college gig with air-conditioning. It was a small opportunity. I was excited to be downtown and do my best like anyone dressed in fake pearls and poly blend pants from T.J. Maxx. I was ready to roll up my sleeves, crack open an Excel sheet and relish in that sweet, sweet health insurance and steady paycheck.

I didn’t quite understand the atmosphere in the office though. Who were these women? How could they afford Prada bags on a salary that was only a rung or two above my own, which was only a half step up from my temp job? They all had them. Prada bags! Everywhere!

I told this confusing tidbit to my erratic mother who, despite abandoning me when I was 17 and otherwise not subsidizing my life, gifted me with a ridiculous little nylon designer bag of my own. Our rekindling was brief. As soon as she was back in my life, she was out again and only the purse and a few odds and ends remained.

The handbag came with me to work and there was a gasp. Someone confronted me directly and inspected it. “Oh my God, IT’S REAL.” Question marks. Everywhere. I was even more confused. What was the big deal? They all had them.

The company Christmas party rolled around and we all opened our secret santa gifts. Coffee mugs and scented candles were torn open one-by-one, then all eyes at the conference table landed on me. I felt them draw a collective breath. By process of elimination my co-workers had figured out the person who drew my name was the company owner (or maybe he always “happened” to draw the newest staff member). His annual traditional gift to the lucky name on the slip of paper was  . . . a Prada bag. I didn’t know that, thus I didn’t understand the schadenfreude when I opened my gift and it was a Britney Spears CD. No Prada bag for me. I assume the reason was that I already had one. In the days that followed, as I was slowly filled in, the mystery unraveled where the ladies in the office had gotten their bags. Throughout the course of the previous decade, one-by-one, they been the lucky name drawn as the boss’s secret santa.

By coming in with my own Prada bag, I had sent the message that I didn’t need to work for money – untrue as it was. I had upset the order of things. I had taken my place somewhere that I hadn’t earned the right to be. It was like I had bought my own trophy and scrawled my own name onto the winner’s circle.

For years after that job, I resented a time at the end of my employment there when I had been literally patted on the head by a superior and told that I “didn’t need to advance” my career, that my future was getting married. That’s what I would do. That was my destiny.

It took me until last week to understand that I had done it to myself by carrying that bag. People in the office assumed my bag had come from a boyfriend; that everything I had came from a boyfriend. I was mommy-tracked a lifetime before I was even a mom because I had shown up to work adorned in things well above my pay grade.

Obviously a career can’t veer off-course because of a single handbag. I’m sure I did all sorts of things wrong at that job before we parted on good terms. I left to take a job in sales, where flaunting baubles and bags is a sign of success – where faking until you’re making it is part of the game. Sales jobs are the reason cubic zirconia exists.

In the real nuts and bolts jobs, though, you can’t look too kept if you’re a woman. No man has that problem. A young professional enters his first job with Italian shoes and everybody says, “oh, he comes from a nice family”. They don’t kept-man track him. No man has to dress down to get respect in an office.

The world is that is it though. When my own girls grow up and get jobs, I can tell you what they will not be getting from me as a congratulatory gift: a Prada bag.

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A box of oranges and some sage advice is much more useful.


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