Michael Snyder penned an interesting commentary yesterday, America 1950 vs. America 2020. Seems appropriate to look back, while we debate and discuss racism, sexism and many social issues during this volatile political season.
Snyder states, “In 1950, most Americans were generally happy with their lives. In 2020, the suicide rate is at an all-time record high, and it has been rising every single year since 2007.” Because of C19 restrictions, lockdowns, loss of employment, financial frustration and a generalized feeling of fear, suicides appear to be rocketing to space.
In 2017 I was serving as an IT professional for a small, innovative company in New Mexico. SolAero Technologies was in chaos. The young high-tech company manufactures highly efficient solar cells, solar panels and composite structural products for satellite and aerospace applications. Company management was reorganizing (again). The director of our IT group lived and worked in California. In our bi-weekly staff meetings, we were like the Angels; he was Charlie … just a voice squawking on speaker phone.
For additional background, see Watt’s Up SolAero Technologies
My hiring manager, Stephen Bradley, left weeks after I started. We were absent a local manager. The company assigned my senior team leader, Rosario Gonzalez, to fill the interim role. High altitude pressure — no additional pay or authority. Millions of women suffered this way throughout history. SolAero was a male-dominated engineering firm. It was horrific to witness these privileged men treat Rosario with so little professional respect.
The male executive team consisted of (left to right): BRAD CLEVENGER, President & CEO; JEFF LASSITER, Executive Vice President & CFO; NAVID FATEMI, Senior Vice President; PRAVIN PATEL, Vice President & Chief Engineer; JERRY WINTON, Vice President of Operations; CHRIS WHELCHEL, Vice President of Finance.
One woman served in an executive role; CEO Clevenger fired her. A second female, Silvia Gentile, directed HR. Her group was entirely female. The ratio of men to women throughout the company appeared to be heavily-weighted toward males. In our IT group, there were about ten men and Rosario. Imagine being the only woman stationed in small, cramped quarters with smelly computer dudes. LOL
In general, coworkers and colleagues treated Rosario cordially and professionally. She was a brilliant programmer and had earned respect. Management was different. IT Director Eric Kuecherer verbally discouraged her from applying for our group manager position. He instead hired White male Tom Hensley. This guy had zero manufacturing experience, zero experience with our enterprise software and no applicable experience with solar panels. As manager, he told us he wouldn’t write code or join us in the heavy lifting. He also made it clear he wasn’t interested in dealing with personnel issues. Get along or get out, he said.
The pressure on Rosario prior to SolAero selecting Manager Hensley was intense. There was a long and steady line of managers and senior executives outside her door each day. All needed something yesterday. One manager would ask for A; a second would say, “No, not A; let’s do B.” Confusion and chaos reigned.
In February we suffered a major disruption in our IT network. Repairing the issue fell to Rosario and me. In response, I authored a brief white paper, “The Three Cs of Leadership: Command, Control and Communication,” which I emailed to top executives. I detailed the what, where, why and how our internal management structure had failed when the network collapsed. I pleaded for clarity in our chain of command.
Five minutes later, CEO Clevenger was knocking on my door; fifteen minutes after that, General Manager Jerry Winton dropped by. Knew them by reputation, but we had never met. My first reaction was, “Am I going to be fired?” Fortunately, both praised my initiative. CEO Clevenger reached out his hand and sincerely thanked me, “This is the type of bold leadership we need here at SolAero.”
Ironically, eight months later, CEO Clevenger fired me … for my bold leadership. Had spoken out on behalf of my senior team leader and supervisor, Rosario, as I feared she might commit suicide and kill herself due to personal and professional pressures.
Hostile Work Environment
Shortly after SolAero hired Manager Hensley, Rosario packed up all her belongings, computers and monitors, and carted them over to an empty cubicle in HR Director Gentile’s area. No males; only 4-5 women working there. Rosario had suffered enough, she said.
As my supervisor and trainer, Rosario issued a standing directive: whenever Louai Alnashef needed help, she wanted me to assist him. Mr. Alnashef treated me well, but he was a devote and disciplined Muslim. Prayed religiously while at work. Speaking with him, it was obvious he was a traditional and conservative Muslim. He was visibly awkward around Rosario and didn’t appear to appreciate instruction or direction from her. Rosario (below) explained to me she felt he treated her poorly because she was a woman.
Manager Hensley moved Rosario from her office to a cubicle next to Louai. She was visibly uncomfortable. The new location also placed her directly in the middle of the men. I was stationed just around the corner. The work Rosario and I did required intense concentration. In her new location, Louai and the other males peppered my Hispanic female colleague with constant demands.
After listening for months, I could feel her pain. It was like watching a Latina housemaid serve a group of guys during a football game. “Hey, Rosario, grab me a beer, will you?” “Umm … Señorita, while you’re there, can you bring some more chips?”
Manager Hensley was worthless in production. He was still training. None of us could go to him. Rosario was the leader due to her extensive knowledge. Everyone in the company defaulted to her desk. Brutal situation!
At the same time, Rosario was suffering a messy divorce. Wasn’t a secret. She shared details of her life with many of us. More importantly, she spent much of the month of September crying at her desk. Her six-year-old son was unhappy. We worked in the Sandia Science and Technology Park on the east side of Albuquerque. She lived on the westside. We had many early and late days, which is common in the IT profession. Trying to navigate the complexities of single motherhood added to her daily challenges.
In Snyder’s article, he points out how we’ve changed in that regard. In 1950, 78 percent of all households in America contained a married couple. In 2020, that figure has fallen below 50 percent.
In 1950, about 5 percent of all babies in the United States were born to unmarried parents. In 2020, about 40 percent of all babies in the United States will be born to unmarried parents.
Rosario was carrying SolAero Technologies on her back, while attempting to manage a dysfunctional home life. Manager Hensley was insensitive to personnel issues; top executives were unable to resolve continued chaos in leadership. Rosario was collapsing. She pleaded with me for help.
I approached Manager Hensley a number of times seeking to remedy the tension. The final time he threatened to fire me if I didn’t shut up. He had made his decision. Take it or leave it!
Rosario sent me Happy Birthday wishes on my anniversary 2017. She claimed I had a “good heart.” Days later, she turned her anger and frustration with the company toward me.
Met privately with Rosario. Told her I couldn’t do more alone. Needed her to stand up and speak for herself. Promised to be at her side. We planned to meet with Manager Hensley later in the week. Minutes before the meeting, Rosario told me she cancelled it. Said it wasn’t a big deal after all. She would complain in private, but get scared about speaking out. SolAero had a nasty habit of firing people. Manager Hensley had been threatening as well.
Near the end of September, Help Desk supervisor, Cisco Trujillo, came to me and asked why Rosario was upset. He knew we had a close relationship. After declining to meet with Manager Hensley, she pleaded with me to request a seating change with her. She would use my request as an opportunity to move back into the HR area around women.
I didn’t like her plan. Didn’t want to get in trouble. Rosario wouldn’t speak up for herself. She wanted me to lie to our manager; deceive him — to give her an opportunity to get out of our male-dominated area. Manager Hensley was opposed to her leaving the group and Rosario was putting me in a difficult position. Frankly, I feared I might lose my job.
Rosario was deflated in spirit. Wasn’t performing well. Had made a number of major errors — and I hadn’t seen her make any mistakes previously. Manager Hensley scolded me, threatened me with potential termination, for assisting her. “She made the mistake; she needs to fix it,” he warned perniciously.
Rosario had been our light. Sometimes she would sing or hum while working at her desk. She was dark and heavy now. Her eyes didn’t light up anymore. She was withdrawn, empty and forlorn. She even distanced herself from me on projects. We had been in step for months. Now, Rosario was pulling away from all of us and making errors.
What would you do? She didn’t want to meet with our manager. Refused my attempts to grab lunch or a coffee together to discuss. She avoided teaming with me on projects, although we had worked comfortably together since the company hired me.
With all this negativity in our small group, Supervisor Cisco reported to me Rosario was angry with me. He knew she was upset; didn’t know why? I asked her. “It’s nothing.” I had been married about 20 years at that time. When my wife says it’s nothing, I know it’s something.
Sent Rosario a couple texts that weekend seeking to meet. She didn’t respond. On October 1st, I received notice from Supervisor Cisco the fabrication (fab) operation was down (below). I needed to return to work to manage and resolve the issue. Rosario still wouldn’t respond.
Rosario had never ignored an emergency text related to work. She was collapsing. Family pressures, frustrations with her young son, professional demands and a hostile work environment. As a public health professional, I knew these were all RED FLAGS. It’s abnormal to cry for hours at work. It’s irregular to be upset about one’s seating location at work. It’s alarming to see a coworker and colleague withdraw as did Rosario.
On Tuesday, October 3rd, as mentioned in my text message (above), I met with HR Director Gentile. Hoped Rosario would join us; she refused. Alone, I detailed my concerns about Rosario’s frustration at home, obvious discomfort around the males in our group, and concerns I had for her safety and well-being.
I believe the HR director spoke with Rosario. Don’t know for certain. What I do know is HR Director Gentile and SolAero Technologies fired me two weeks later. So much for being a “bold leader.”
Michael Snyder reminded us that in 1950, people would greet one another as they walked down the street. Today, he says, Americans are too enamored with their cellphones to be bothered with actual human contact.
SolAero Technologies applauds their success “powering the New Space Race” with innovative hardware, their culture leaves human beings behind.
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