President and CEO Christine Jacobs’ Discrimination Lessons

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The following is a book excerpt from From the Sandbox to the Corner Office by Eve Tahmincioglu. Her specialties include workplace issues, the small business and entrepreneurial world, and leadership, including interviews with some of the biggest names in Corporate America.

Christine Jacobs, President and CEO of Theragenics Corporation

It was one event when Christine Jacobs was a supervisor at a hospital in 1979 that in many ways set the stage for how she’d deal with gender bias throughout her career. She was in her late twenties, in her first managerial role, and her father’s boss was admitted to the hospital where she worked. As part of her supervisory functions at the hospital, she would oversee blood work and other tests being done, but she took extra care to keep an eye on her father’s boss given who he was.

A few days after the boss was released from the hospital, Jacobs received a velvet box in the mail at her home from the former patient, and in it was a bottle of Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps perfume. Jacobs called the boss, who was married, to find out why he had sent her such a lavish gift. During the discussion, he made it clear that his intentions were not at all admirable. He was interested in having a relationship with Jacobs and told her he would take care of her by paying her bills and also ensure that her dad would have a nice, comfortable life.

“The idea that this man would act this way was a shock. This business of a man holding my dad hostage was new for me and awful. It taught me that things could be pretty dirty out there and it was a wake-up call for me,” she says. She told the man she had no interest in his advances but kept the perfume, she admits. As for her father’s career, she never found out if the boss took the rejection out on her dad because he was always so private about his work. And, until this day, she never told her father what transpired. Her dad, who raised nine children, putting them all through college, left that job within the year, but Jacobs never knew the circumstances.

Looking back, she says, that one incident had the potential to skew her dealings with men from then on, but she made a conscious decision not to let that happen. “I came to a crossroads. Was I going to let this affect every interaction with men, or was I going to grow an extra layer of skin and keep going?” she explains.

Around this time, she recalls, “I had girlfriends who, like me, were proceeding up in the business world and they experienced equally nasty situations at work, and some of them folded up their doll dishes and went home. Others decided to play. I’m in the second group; at least I hope I’m in the group that gets more skin cells and moves on. You can’t let situations like that spin out of control and control your life,” she advises. The bottom line to Jacobs was to keep in mind that the majority of men weren’t jerks, and, instead of harboring anger to focus on feeling sorry for men who crossed the line.

That fortitude, she believes, gave her the ability to handle future slights to her womanhood, like the time early in her career as CEO during a lunch at a Tony Atlanta restaurant with a major investor. The investor, she explains, “wanted company information I was not legally allowed to give him. At one point, he leaned over to me, with my chief financial officer sitting there at the table, and put his hand on my leg. I was wearing a skirt, and when I say he put it on my leg, I don’t mean on my wool skirt. I mean my leg. He said, ‘I know how you got to the top—you slept your way to the top.’ I was calm. I’m not sure who I was at that moment. I told the man to get his hand off my leg or I would dump my plate of food in his lap. With that, I said, ‘This lunch is over.’ And the CFO and I walked out.”

Jacobs says she felt she couldn’t make a scene, even though she believes she had the right to “filet the man. I represent something bigger—I am a public figure for a public company. I kept a cool head because when you call attention to yourself, even though it’s justified, that’s not best for your company or your career.”

During yet another lunch, this time with the president of a local bank that Jacobs’ firm was working with and staff members from both organizations, the president looked at her and said, “Whatever qualified you to be CEO of a public company?” “I looked at him and said, ‘Why, my breasts, of course,’” she recalls, still laughing about what transpired. The president ended up getting fired, but not because Jacobs complained; his own staff at the lunch meeting complained to higher-ups at the bank.

“The way I look at it,” she says, “is you have to forgive men like that. They grew up only around their mothers, wives, and women who bring them coffee in the office. They don’t know about us in business. They don’t get us, never experienced us.”

But she adds that with time more doors are slowly opening for women in business. In the 1970s, when she worked at a hospital early in her career doing medical technology in the pathology department, there were women who held managerial positions but only at a department level. She decided to leave that career partly because of the lack of opportunities for women, accepting a $10,000 cut in pay to take on an entry-level sales job. Ten years later, she says, she was called to interview for the president’s job at that hospital. While she had no interest in going back into the field at that point, it proved two things to Jacobs—that opportunities were indeed opening up for women, and that she made the right move by leaving a situation where she saw no chance for advancement.

Jacobs’ Discrimination Lessons

1) If you’re sure there is no room for advancement because of your gender, get out.

2) Leaders, and aspiring leaders, don’t have the luxury to become emotional and make a scene if they’re faced with ignorance.

3) The business world can be a dirty place. The key is realizing some men still aren’t used to women in power, so forgive their transgressions. But don’t be a pushover, either.

Christine Jacobs Leader Low Down

Favorite business book: Good to Great, by Jim Collins

Thing you’re most afraid of: Being lazy

Dream job: Teaching

Childhood hero: Katharine Hepburn 

Copyright © 2006 by Eve Tahmincioglu. Reprinted with permission from From the Sandbox to the Corner Office: Lessons Learned on the Journey to the Top  by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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