Editor’s Note: This month, TueNight is all about “Women. Getting. Paid.” That may as well have been a Gen-X mantra, we who stormed the boardrooms and smashed the glass ceilings and launched our own businesses in record numbers. But the storm isn’t over yet; as we find ourselves in midlife there are new obstacles to overcome. AARP and #DisruptAging just released a study showing how hard things are for some of us: 21% of female workers between 40 and 55 are underemployed, due to COVID, caregiving responsibilities or the impacts of gendered ageism. So we went out to find the stories behind the stats, and we’ll be sharing them all month here on TueNight, in our TueNighters community and across all of our social space, thanks to AARP and #DisruptAging. Join us and tell your story, too, using the hashtags #GenXEquity and #DisruptAging!
We’ve all encountered them. Mansplaining jerks on social media. Coworkers who overtalk you with dumb ideas that get praised by the boss. Yes, I’m talking about the Mediocre White Man, scourge to qualified women in classrooms and boardrooms alike. Always misquoting facts, but secure enough that their manhood, and their whiteness, will overshadow any mistakes. And, for the most part, they’re right. The Mediocre White Man gets praised for everything he does, and he runs the world. Have we forgotten the last president, who won on the basis of fake facts, brash masculinity and unearned wealth?
Well, this year, at age 49 and with so few fucks that I couldn’t locate one with a microscope, I decided to adopt the confidence of the Mediocre White Man and see what it would bring to my job search.
As luck would have it, a long-lost high school friend had reached out to me earlier this year. Her company, a digital marketing firm, was looking for a writer, and she wanted to know if I’d be interested. It was the perfect opportunity for Operation MWM. I told her that I was interested, and I was enthused about learning more. I employed the first rule of the Mediocre White Man: work your network. If it’s not what you know, it can be who you know, and I knew someone with an in. I sent off my resume and awaited further instruction.
This is a good time to mention that I was mostly qualified for the job. They wanted help writing sales and marketing collateral, and a website, and I had an executive career in marketing for 12 years. I also had six years’ experience as a freelance writer. I’d written tons of essays, but also sales materials in the food, personal care, beauty and healthcare categories, but I had little to no experience in digital marketing. Fudging this expertise was where my MWM confidence would be best employed. I should also mention that I have a BA from Yale and an MBA from Duke, and I was counting on those credentials to overshadow my lack of the most relevant experience.
My first interview was with MWM kryptonite: a very smart, very accomplished white man who knew what he was talking about. Did I mention my impressive education? I needed it to dazzle my interviewer, because all the research I’d done for the meeting was to glance at the corporate website. Which he asked me about halfway through our interview. Did I also mention that everything I knew about corporate websites was probably obsolete 20 years ago? This was the perfect time to employ classic Mediocre White Man bravado.
“I hate it,” I responded. “All of the descriptions are too technical, and you lost me halfway through,” I continued, boldly. Apparently I had lucked into their central problem with the website.
“Yes,” my interviewer exclaimed. “That’s exactly what we think, and exactly the problem for marketing professionals like you.” Either I knew something about websites after all, or my lack of digital marketing experience was proving in my favor. I was advanced to the next round.
The second interview was with the company’s head of business development. He was a sales and marketing practitioner with an entire career in digital marketing. I decided to approach him like a used car salesman, the ultimate MWM: I’d be folksy and approachable, like George W. Bush. I’d try to make a personal connection so he’d like me, and I wouldn’t have to talk about my skills that much. When we began our Zoom call, I noticed that he sat in front of a wall of CDs, rather than the wall of books that so many people prefer as an interview backdrop. I started my MWM offensive.
“It looks like you’ve got a lot of CDs there. Did you miss any concerts during the pandemic that you really wanted to see?”
My question kicked off a conversation about The Rolling Stones, U2, and the state of rock music in the 2010s. I impressed him more with the fact that I listened to Led Zeppelin than I would have been able to with anything I knew about digital marketing. I remembered at this point that interviews were about skills, but also about whether people believe they can work long hours and stressful days alongside a candidate.
“Obviously, you have the background for this position,” my interviewer opined after asking me some basic questions about my career as a writer and why I wanted to work with the firm. “Your next stop is to meet with the Chief Marketing Officer. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
I couldn’t believe that I’d led with personality and gotten past the interview successfully. As a Black woman, I’m used to leading with all my credentials, hoping that I will be deemed worthy to do business. I’d sat across from countless white men and played my interviews straight down the line, answering in an upfront manner that showcased all of my most positive qualities. But conducting interviews with social subterfuge was getting me good results, so I vowed to keep moving forward with Operation MWM.
I wasn’t sure how mediocre I could be with a C-level executive who was described as having invented digital marketing. And I wasn’t sure how mediocre he’d find me, after my recommendations from his coworkers, and my resume. Nevertheless, I stuck to my policy of not studying for the interview. If I was going to get the job offer, it would have to happen using what I already knew. My reasoning was that the Mediocre White Man is overconfident in his abilities, and would think he had it in the bag without external help.
Interview day arrived, and I relaxed into the seat in front of my computer. “Be confident,” I told myself. “This is already your job.” By the time the Zoom screen opened, I’d decided to use jargon to cover up any of my shortcomings. My previous interviewers told me that the CMO preferred the term “performance marketing” to describe the company, so I made sure to use it liberally in our conversation.
My tactic worked. As I peppered my responses with phrases like “pay per click,” “growth strategy optimization” and “moving down the funnel,” I could tell he was impressed. His gruff, almost haughty demeanor softened into a respectful aura you’d use with a peer, rather than a subordinate. I dropped some names of ad agencies that I knew to further solidify our esprit de corps. The interview ended with smiles, and indications of a future meeting.
Well, Dear Reader, I got the job offer!! The head of Human Resources called me to tell me how much my interviewers had enjoyed meeting with me. And then, he made me an offer of an hourly rate, citing a number that was twice as much as I’d ever made as an hourly writer. But I was still in MWM mode, with bucket loads of confidence and nothing to lose, so I countered for $20 more per hour. I rationalized to the HR guy that my skills as a marketing executive would be baked into any writing that I did, and that I should be compensated for bringing that to the table. In turn, he countered my offer by going up another $10 per hour.
In the end, I didn’t take the job: the structure of the company, and how enmeshed they wanted me to be as a freelancer, didn’t jibe with the concept of freelancing as a contractor vs. freelancing with the burdens of a full-time employee with none of the benefits. But I learned something important in the interview process. I learned that it’s okay for me to ask for what I want, and that it’s okay for me not to be absolutely perfect in every interview. I may not be a Mediocre White Man, but I’ll definitely be using their confidence to get what I want in the workplace.