It is 1971, on a sultry June evening in the Long Island suburbs of New York, and I am poised to parade down the aisle in my elementary school graduation ceremony. I glanced enviously at my classmates, slick haired boys crammed into their suits, girls decked in frilly pastel dress like shiny hot dogs encased in starchy buns, tapping out a nervous staccato rhythm with their dress shoes. They look back at me, giving me the once over with a mixture of pity and wonder reflected in their incredulous eyes. I flash them a fake brave smile, wondering if they can hear the pounding of my heart over the crackly noises spilling out over the faulty PA system.
On cue, the solemn notes of Elgar’s pomp and circumstance fill the air, snapping me out of my reverie and imposing the gravity of the occasion on the waiting crowd. As we shuffle forward toward the podium, I start to panic that I have made a huge mistake – and my eyes dart to the auditorium’s emergency exits as I consider making a run for it. But locked into position like a shackled prisoner between my fellow inmates, I have no choice but to keep moving forward until I am in full frontal view of the firing squad.
There is a murmured hush from the stunned audience of school superintendents, principals, teachers and parents as I gingerly make my way on to the stage. Pinioned at the podium I am frozen like a deer in the headlights – my bold flaunting of convention causing the smile on the stern principal’s face to dissipate like a crease under a hot iron. Deafening silence reverberated in the hallowed hall as I stretched out my hand to receive my diploma, the first girl in 46 years to break strict school dress code and wear PANTS – jeans at that! Time stood still as I held my breath expecting the sound and fury of the school system to rain down on me, replacing the smattering of applause dutifully rewarded to each graduate.
As I held my breath, trembling like a leaf in the winds of war, I recalled a sweaty Karen Schwitzer, triumphant at the finish line as the first woman running a man’s race, in the 1969 Boston Marathon. Too young to burn my bra (I didn’t wear one yet) but swept up in the tide of social change I was eager to challenge the status quo of blatant inequality between the sexes. Like Neil Armstrong’s moon landing two years prior, I had stuck my trousered flag between the ancient pocked floorboards, boring one small hole into the thickly laid patina of male dominance.
Waiting for the referee to make the call I spotted my teacher, clutching at her pearls and almost stretching them beyond their breaking point. I think I remember hoping they would burst free like a volley of shots into the assembled crowd, something I myself wanted to do.
Abruptly, as if in the aftermath of a summer cloudburst, the thunderous charged atmosphere de-electrified. The school superintendent’s stormy face crinkled into an acquiescent smile, and as he thrust out a black suited arm clutching my diploma, my heart swelled with victory.
And for all of us young women in the room at that time, his authoritative arm coming down was the Nascar green flag announcing the commencement of the long race ahead.
It would be one more year before Title IX The passage of Title IX in 1972 forbade sex discrimination in any federally financed educational program including sports. And 8 more years before Equal Opportunity Commission recognized sexual harassment in the working place. And countless more years of tears, acts of bravery and defiance passed from one woman to another in the relay race towards an ever-moving finish line where the taut tape measure of equality was yet to be broken. Ready, set, go, racers get on your mark.
One Small Step
Walking back to my seat that day, my head held high, the seeds of righteous indignation were sowed never to wither. I had just graduated not only from the 6th grade, but from a passive to activist, from observer to doer, having taken one small fledgling step for freedom and equality in the daunting face of opposition. While my cronies were crowded together preening over their diplomas, I had already left behind the old school of thought, envisioning a world where women would be on equal footing in every terrain. Where grade school diplomas once framed drab, brick walls steeped in gender inequality, they would now be adorning institutions blushing with the fresh rosy hue of women’s influence.
There was no sustained applause breaking the stillness of that humid summer evening nor were there any reverberations in the local media in the wake of my rebellious fashion statement. We were children of the sixties, weaned on civil rights marches, spoon fed Vietnam protests and equal rights with our morning bowls of cheerios. And, although barely teetering on the brink of young adulthood, we were already shaped by events, taught to think and question, human rights always in the crosshairs of our existence.
That is when, unbeknownst to me, my compliance story begins – from just accepting things as they are, to trying to changing them – even in the face of adversity, threats and hardship. My stepping out and stepping up experience would serve me well in the years and career situations to come.
Postscript: From that day on, the school dress code was unofficially changed, and girls were allowed into the school wearing trousers. Looking backwards, and forwards and all around at all my brave partners in the race, I am confident that one day, gender pay differences, unprosecuted sexual harassment and not being believed, will seem just as ridiculous an issue as wearing pants to a graduation ceremony.
No step is too small when you are running forward, panting with the effort of change.
You go girl.
Sandra Erez is the Director of Global Enterprise Sales at VinciWorks, a leading provider of compliance software solutions. With a background in academia and marine archaeology, Sandy has been at the cutting edge of tech solutions and helping companies solve their compliance problems. From human resource solutions to AI compliance, Sandy is passionate about spearheading and implementing specialized solutions for multinational organizations, providing tailored solutions that navigate the complexities of operating in global and dynamic regulatory environments.
Are you a women in compliance? Sandra is writing a book highlighting women’s voices in the industry. Get in touch with her today: firstname.lastname@example.org
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