Monday, September 7, 1992

Foggy Bottom says, "Sorry Girls"

I GOT A LETTER from the IRS the other day.
"Official business," the envelope said.
But the letter had nothing to do with taxes. It told me the IRS was merely forwarding the enclosed document because my address was not known by the referring government agency.
The document, a copy of a court judgment dated two days earlier, told me I had been part of a class action suit against the U.S. Foreign Service. That agency, it said, was found guilty of discriminating against women who had interviewed there a decade ago.
As a remedy, it said, all women who had passed the government exam between 1978 and 1984 were being contacted and asked if they were interested in being re-invited for a qualifying interview.
I was being asked to indicate whether I wished to reactivate my application.
I was impressed with the government's Big Brother-like efficiency in locating me. I first interviewed at State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., when I was living in New York City. Since then, I have lived at three different addresses in North Carolina, in Boston, and in two different cities in New York State. Since then, I have also remarried and changed my name.
But I also thought it strange that out of the blue I was being asked if I wanted to reapply for an entry-level job I might have been interested in 10 years ago.
"Are they for real? " I wondered.
It's not that I ever planned on a Foreign Service career. I took the government exam on a lark with some of my grad school friends who were poli-sci and history majors. I had a background in literature, and I didn't consider myself an expert on world affairs. I was pleasantly surprised when, six months later, I was invited for the all-day interview in Washington.
I got a navy blue dress, took time off work, left my child with a sitter, and bought a train ticket.
On that long-ago day, I was put through the paces: I wrote an essay about the drinking age; I presented a Third World development project in front of about a dozen Foreign Service officers; I discussed the planned Soviet economy and revolutions in Third World nations while the two officials interviewing me nodded in agreement; I sorted mail for 50 minutes. I never did get to the bottom of the mail stack in that exercise.
When the day was over, I was satisfied I had given it my best shot.
I was encouraged when I found out my cumulative score was just one point below the hiring cutoff for that year. My scores in the various categories seemed to reflect what I felt were my strengths. I scored highest in the writing exercise, lowest in prioritizing mail.
So the following year I took the test again. Was invited to Washington again. Got a sitter again. Put on my navy blue dress again. Got on the train again. Answered all those questions and did all those group exercises again. Wrote the essay again. Sorted the mail again.
When I got the results this time, my cumulative score was just one point below the hiring cutoff. Again.
This time I was not encouraged. "Enough! " I decided, discarding my brief ambition to work for the government. By that time, I had begun teaching writing at a university. I had a job I was excited about and was already facing new challenges. I never thought about the Foreign Services again. Until now.
Now I am told that no matter how hard I could have tried back then or how well I could have presented myself, it wouldn't have made any difference. The interview was biased. I was wasting my time. Those objective-looking numerical scores I got turn out to have been a product of a very discriminatory process.
I cannot say I ever suspected a bias. The Foreign Service officers who interviewed me, all much older than I, seemed knowledgeable and professional. I was treated with courtesy and respect. There were no inappropriate questions or comments. The distribution of candidates seemed to imply that men and women were being treated equally. I did note there was only one woman among the interviewers, but I figured that ratio was changing as more women like me pursued professional goals.
But now that interview conjures up a weird image in my mind. It could be a cartoon from The Far Side: All the other female candidates and I were running furiously, like rats through a maze. We were racing toward a goal, unaware that all the outlets had been blocked by our indifferent examiners. We were going round and round. The maze was a treadmill.
I am left wondering about this government that tells me now what its polite and courteous officials who still control access to power and jobs must have known and deliberately decided 10 years ago: That they were not hiring women. That we were merely being put through the paces. I am left wondering why, in this bureaucratic game of hot potato, I am the one left holding this letter that lays bare the disturbing consequences of their actions.
Of course, I am mildly curious what the outcome would have been had the avenues of achievement not been blocked 10 years ago. Who knows? Perhaps I would have made my way up the rungs of the State Department to be named consul and then ambassador. Riding on my popularity, perhaps I would have even been elected senator. Then I would  would have certainly gone on to distinguish myself last fall as the only member of the Senate judiciary committee sympathetic to the concerns of Anita Hill and 51 percent of the nation's citizens. Perhaps by now I would have been a clear favorite for president.
On the other hand, perhaps I could have been sorting mail in some Third World embassy this very moment. Perhaps I would now be taking the rap for all sorts of bungling, red tape and misinformation in the Persian Gulf war because I was slow sorting mail. Perhaps, more likely than serving on a congressional committee, I would have distinguished myself by being called before one and blamed for inviting Saddam Hussein to Kuwait City.
In the end, I suspect my mail prioitization skills will always be low. But I will never know for sure.
Those government officials have an answer to my uncertainty:
Try again, they tell me.

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