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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 17, 2010

For frustrated workers, it's time to speak up, branch out

By Andrea Kay

Unemployment, underemployment and general frustration about one's job don't usually bring out the best in people unless, of course, you subscribe to the "don't wait for your ship to come in, swim out to it" philosophy.

This mighty line of reasoning can turn less-than-ideal work situations into rewarding careers.

I discovered dozens of examples, from workers who had spoken up about injustices to those who didn't wait around for others to make things happen.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes was a lawyer at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the mid-1960s. "I found myself increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of the commission to enforce the prohibitions against sex discrimination in employment contained in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the act the commission was charged with administering," the commission's first woman lawyer says. "But I didn't think there was anything I could do about it."

One day writer Betty Friedan walked in. Known for her 1963 book, "The Feminine Mystique," she was there to interview Fuentes' boss for a new book.

"When she saw me, a woman, she asked me to reveal problems and conflicts at the commission," Fuentes says. But Fuentes didn't feel she could speak out publicly.

When Friedan came back a second time, "I was feeling particularly frustrated at the commission's failure to implement the law for women, and I invited her into my office. I told her, with tears in my eyes, that the country needed an organization to fight for women."

Within a year, Fuentes, Friedan and 49 other men and women formed the National Organization for Women.

Lynn Maria Thompson also was not going to wait for good things to happen. She started out selling yellow pages ads over the phone, a job at which she says, "I was awful." She asked for a demotion to a clerical job "just to get out of sales and keep from being fired." She wrote how-to manuals for every job she did. She created newsletters, ways to track sales, a training program and more.

When her company "didn't give me leadership opportunities, I got involved in volunteering and quickly became VP of publicity" for nonprofit groups.

When finally promoted to management, she says, those experiences she initiated helped her learn "how pretty much everything was done in the company" from the ground up, and she then moved up quickly.

Reach Andrea Kay at andrea@andreakay.com.