When the Fat Cat is female

My encounter with the boss from hell

Robyn Moormeister

Robyn Moormeister

Photo by Tom Angel

I have always loved working for other women. I think there is an unspoken code of ethics between women in the workplace, a code that accounts for the grueling work so many women have done in the name of gender equity.

I’m less likely to get overlooked for a promotion under a female boss, for example. Call it a sweeping generalization, which it is, but I expect women bosses to take me seriously. They generally don’t make sexist comments veiled as jokes. They’re supposed to make judgments on the merits of one’s work, and they don’t use their positions of power for inappropriate personal agendas, right?

Until recently, at least, that was my experience with female bosses.

With an iron fist and a nurturing heart, an editor in Butte County taught me everything I know about newspaper reporting, and she taught me well. After just two years of working with her at a small newspaper, I landed a job as a reporter with the New York Times Company.

Before I got the job, I went to Florida for a day of interviews. I immediately assumed that I was in for the same kind of inspiring tutelage I had enjoyed with my editor in Butte County, partly because the publisher, the executive editor, the managing editor, the bureau chief and the assistant bureau chief at this Florida newspaper were all women.

My interviews were charming. We chatted. We joked. We related.

Great, I thought. I can just focus on my job. I won’t have to consider wearing low-cut blouses and high heels to gain anyone’s attention. My work will speak for itself. And I won’t have to battle through the all-too-usual notions about women’s inability to stomach covering breaking crime—my favorite thing.

A month later I had my dream job—covering the cops beat in a crime-infested area, pulling a much fatter salary than I was used to.

I was extremely busy, with a series of front-page articles about a cop who was being investigated by internal affairs for threatening people, specifically immigrants. Violent crime in the area erupted, with a record number of convenience store shootings. Caught up at crime scenes, I often didn’t make it home until 10 p.m.

But it was all too good to be true.

Through the grapevine, I learned that my bureau chief, who was also my editor and boss, slept with one of the reporters, and that the reporter felt coerced into it. He was not attracted to my boss in the least.

It made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know all of the details and it wasn’t my business anyway, so I looked the other way.

Then, my boss, who should have been spending her time teaching me and the other staff writers how to become better at our craft, began sexually harassing another reporter right in front of me. The reporter sat at a desk across from mine, so there was no ignoring it.

This pleasant, talented, quiet and somewhat mousy middle-aged man held his breath and shrank down into his chair whenever our boss came around, draping her arms over his chair, running her fingers through his hair, asking to read his work.

“I’ll take you to lunch today,” she would say to him in an authoritative tone almost every morning.

He was expert at forcing a smile. He seemed miserable. When I walked by his desk, I often found him surfing the Internet for another job instead of working on a story.

Other reporters noticed it, too, and wanted to ask him why he didn’t go over our boss’s head and report her behavior to the executive editor.

But they didn’t have to ask. Everyone knew that the alliance at the top was tight, and to question one in power was career suicide.

I began to take my boss’s behavior personally. After all, she was the Fat Cat they warned me about in my college women’s-studies classes. I think the classic fat cats are supposed to be overweight and smoke Cuban cigars, but they’re almost guaranteed to be rich, successful, ruthless and white.

They lean back in their leather chairs and look you up and down—slowly. Sometimes they shut their office doors first.

They use their positions to manipulate the desperate and hungry (reporters are often hungry) into fulfilling their personal desires.

“Come to dinner with me and we’ll talk over a bottle of nice red wine about how I can help you,” is a signature phrase of the Fat Cat.

They are supposed to be men. This female editor threw me for a loop. How could she, a woman who undoubtedly had to battle the sexist misconceptions and obstacles that women almost always face on their way up, behave this way?

She had no appreciation for the decades of struggle that produced precious sexual-harassment legislation meant to protect employees like this milquetoast reporter who sat across from me, people like me and, just as important, people like her.

I lost all respect for her. I quickly learned that she was corrupt in other areas. She twisted and embellished stories she knew nothing about to sell papers and please her bosses. She favored employees who had connections in high places, and she climbed ladders without any regard for fingers she might be crushing on the way up.

No man could have done it better.

The longer the reporter put off her advances, the crueler my boss became. She ridiculed him in front of the entire newsroom, shouting that he was slow and unproductive and that she would make him stay late if he didn’t finish a project he was working on.

The gap between workplace ethics and her behavior was wider than the Grand Canyon. All of this was happening in a business, journalism, that is supposed to be rooted in unwavering honesty, truth and integrity.

She showed me that women have a long way to go in the workplace.

Yes, we are still not paid as much as men for the same work, and we often have to work harder than men to prove our worth. But as Audré Lorde, a black feminist poet, wrote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Equality and women-friendly workplaces can’t and won’t exist if those women in power use tyrannical methods, or tools, to get to their positions.

Repeating the same deplorable behaviors of fat cats who came before them is like spitting in the face of feminism.

I hold powerful women to a high standard. As far as I’m concerned, they have a responsibility to ensure that the blood, sweat and tears of suffragettes and feminists who came before them were not shed in vain. I believe women can find another way to operate.

As far as the dream job goes, it was short-lived. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about the way I felt about my boss, and I confronted her about her behavior. She did what any self-respecting fat cat would do: She fired me.

My new boss is a man who, last time I checked, does not smoke Cuban cigars or own a leather chair. Maybe now I can focus on my work.

Robyn Moormeister is a former reporter for the Paradise Post. She is now a free-lancer and lives in Chico.