When Everything's Right on Schedule but Your Social Life

For The Times

Who says you can't have it all? James L. Brooks, writer/director of "Broadcast News."

The central character of his wise and witty new movie--set behind the scenes at a Washington news bureau--is a TV producer, played by Holly Hunter. She's bright, attractive, impatient, hard-working--a compulsive with a sense of humor. She's risen to the top of her field while still in her early 30s, only to find that she has scheduled everything except a social life.

The movie examines Hunter's relationships with two men she meets on the job: a dedicated journalist (Albert Brooks) and a handsome airhead (William Hurt). Their pas de trois raises significant issues for career women:

Should you date co-workers? Do men resent your ambition? Is sexism alive and kicking in the workplace? How--and when--do hubby and kids fit into your agenda?

Single Life talked with two fast-tracking county women this week to compare movie notes with real life. Both make good money, drive nice cars and work in the upper reaches of banking--one of Orange County's booming industries. Neither has been married or has a child. Both requested that their real names not be used.

"I thought the movie was fabulous," said Ellen, 31, a bank executive. "I could definitely identify with (the Hunter character), probably because she was real intelligent and real impatient."

Like the fictional TV producer, Ellen, a Newport Beach resident, lives by the notes and appointments in her datebook.

"I'm absolutely compulsive about scheduling," she said. "Even my weekends are scheduled--get this bike ride in; read this book between these hours; call these friends. I just got back from a vacation in the mountains, where I did nothing but lie around and read books. It was wonderful."

Yet even in the mountains, reading books, Ellen wore a watch. "I went to Club Med once," she said, laughing, "and they tell you not to wear a watch. I couldn't handle it for more than a day."

In the movie, Hunter periodically unplugs her phone and cries. After a few minutes of heart-wrenching sobs, she replugs and dries her eyes. Her crying jags take place when she's at home, in hotel rooms between assignments--even at work. Ellen sympathized:

"I think that was an exaggerated portrayal, but to a lesser degree I've experienced that kind of frustration. In fact, it happened to me recently, for the first time in years.

"I was in a very emotional situation," Ellen recalled. "I was fighting for something I believe in strongly with people very senior to me. I'd given everything I had in me to this daylong conversation, and by the end I was just drained. I felt my mouth quivering, my voice quavering. I never actually cried, but everyone in the meeting knew what was happening.

"I don't think having that kind of female reaction is necessarily bad. As a woman, I bring different things to the table. I had a boss real early in my career--a man--who taught me that concept, and I think it's made things easier for me. I never had to go through a stage of trying to be more like men--wearing a pinstripe suit and acting real tough. Of course you don't want to cry, but if it happens, it's not the end of the world."

As for "the inevitable male chauvinist jerk," as Ellen put it, "they're definitely out there."

"It's affected me in terms of sexual advances, verbal advances. When I was younger, I found it more difficult to handle the innuendo, not being quite sure if we had a clear business purpose at hand or what. These days, it's just another part of doing business."

And one that Ellen thinks will eventually go the way of the pterodactyl.

"We're talking about predominantly older men, of the old school," she said. "The younger men I work with, the ones I see coming up through the ranks, don't seem to have that attitude."

On the subject of dating co-workers, Ellen's opinions were somewhat muddled. At first, she called it a "very bad idea. I've done it, but it's something I've outgrown."

Then again: "In today's environment, the workplace is a real viable place to meet people. I spend a lot of time on the job, and I meet a lot of interesting men. I can't really say that ethically or morally I would never date a co-worker again, even though it's probably not the greatest idea."

Will you, won't you--which one? Ellen laughed.

"Ok, so I can't make up my mind. Hey, I'm a woman!"

"I would never date a co-worker," said Mary, also 31 and a Newport Beach resident. "I did it once, very briefly. I was growing up at the time and still assessing--or maybe not assessing--a lot of things. I finally looked at the issue and decided that in the long term, it would be too difficult, politically as well as mentally. I simply made a rule not to do that again.

"I've sat in many a meeting," she added, "and looked across the room and thought, 'Oh, that could be interesting.' But that was as far as it went."

Hired as a corporate trouble-shooter straight from business school, Mary moved six times in six years--to U.S., Canadian and European locations.

While Ellen acknowledged that she had "probably avoided furtherance of certain relationships" to keep her career on track, Mary's methods--at least during her high-transit years--were more extreme.

"After the first or second move, it came down to purposely not starting relationships because it was just easier than forming a bond with the knowledge that I would be transferred," she said. "The likelihood of somebody picking up and leaving (his) city or country to follow you is very slim."

Three years ago, Mary "got off the merry-go-round" of job transfers, choosing Orange County as her new home and investment banking as her new career. She has "absolutely no regrets" about her career to date, she said. "The experiences were outstanding, and they brought me to what I consider one of the best parts of the country to do what I'm doing."

Which she does without shedding a tear, thank you very much.

"I've never cried in a meeting," she said. "Ever. When I was younger, there were moments when my voice might get shaky, or my eyes well up. But I never wanted to demonstrate that weakness. I learned to control it. My way of dealing with anger and frustration is to get up, get moving, get away from the subject, get away from the situation.

"It's not just crying. It's crying, screaming, pounding, swearing--I don't think any strong show of emotion is appropriate in business. It's a sign of being out of control."

Control comes in handy when she runs into sexism, "something you never anticipate or enjoy, but if it's part of the deal you're trying to get done, you live with it," she said.

"I've met some major male chauvinists in my day. I used to think it was just guys who were from a certain generation, older guys. But now I've met 'em at 18, and I've met 'em at 72. I think it comes from a person's prior experiences, background, upbringing. The only way to fight it is by gaining credibility through your knowledge and skill--strutting your stuff, if you will."

Like Ellen, Mary's a serious scheduler, booking her workdays from dawn till way past dusk.

"I probably have four breakfast meetings, five business lunches and four or five appointments for drinks or dinner each week," she said. "The kind of work I do requires a lot of interaction with clients."

Mealtime meetings are good business for several reasons, including fewer interruptions, less formality and a detour around commute hour. "You can beat the crunch on PCH if you meet in Fashion Island for a 7 a.m. breakfast."

For the most part, the men in Mary's life accept her datebook gridlock--with one notable, recurring exception.

"I have a lot of friends in other parts of the country and from other countries," she said. "When they fly in for business, or pass through L.A., they'll sometimes call and want to meet spontaneously after work. There's an expectation that since they're in town--in my town--I will drop everything and meet them. Usually, I just can't do it. I'm not in a line of work that leaves a lot of room for spontaneous get-togethers."

Both Mary and Ellen said they would like to get married and have children.

"I've never thought about it in a really calculated way," Ellen said, "but lately I've begun to realize that with life the way it is, being so busy with career and community work and social life--all of the sudden you find yourself 31 (years old), and you wonder when it's going to happen.

"I definitely want to have children, so I've given myself an out on the whole subject by figuring that if I'm not in a serious relationship that might lead to marriage and family by about 36, I might think about having a child anyway. It's a comforting thought, anyway."

No such comforts for Mary: "I've had a 10-year, five-year and one-year plan since I was in grade 13. All those plans included being married by 30."

Although she's right on schedule as far as achieving "a certain amount of financial success and success in terms of position," no husband looms in Mary's immediate future. And she can live with that.

"As I matured through my late 20s, I readjusted," she said simply. "If (marriage) doesn't happen for me, I'm not going to become an unwed mother and the whole bit, just for the sake of having a baby. That wouldn't suit me at all."

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