I Can Do That

My Favorite Things

Early summer brings many of my favorite things.  I get to visit the local nursery and spend way too much money on every annual flower that catches my eye.  Lunches, dinners, cocktails, brunches, and even afternoon coffee take place outside on patios, piazzas, decks, and sidewalks. And sundresses and espadrilles are parts of a daily uniform.

But one of my absolute favorite early summer occurrences is the annual emergence of young, eager new male construction workers on all my jobsites.  Wait – did I just say male workers?  Is this going to be the start of a new, lecherous, politically incorrect phase in the life of Underpinnings?  As interesting as that sounds (and lucrative), alas, the truth is much simpler and more wholesome.

Every year, young men everywhere graduate from high school and follow their fathers and uncles and grandfathers and mothers along a natural path into a wide variety of construction trades.  These guys usually, if not always, are amazing examples of self-confidence and enthusiasm.  They volunteer for every task.  They say, “I can do that” with unabashed ease.  They take pride in outlifting and outdigging and outworking everyone around them.  And they eat everything in sight, constantly talking about and thinking about food.

(There might be some girls who enter the construction field when they graduate from high school, but I haven’t run into them on my jobsites.  And I would bet that those few that are out there, somewhere, don’t have the ten-feet-tall-and-bulletproof attitude of their male counterparts).

Of course they have their obstacles.  The older guys hide their tools.  The jaded, experienced workers scoff at their swagger and interject a thousand cynical retorts for every ambitious proclamation. And the young guys’ inexperience and hubris often trips them up as they try to climb to the top in 20 seconds.

Regardless of their faults, I love these guys.  I am in awe of their complete lack of angst.  They don’t worry about letting anyone down.  They don’t agonize about whether or not they can handle their jobs.  They don’t overanalyze every co-worker’s words to determine if anyone is secretly disappointed in their performances or upset with them. And I think it goes without saying that any sane person would envy the ability to down three sausage egg biscuits and be hungry 30 minutes later.

Conversely, I have noticed that most women, when entering a new position or moving up into a new role, proceed at a much more cautious pace.  We worry that we’re not smart enough or efficient enough or resourceful enough to do our jobs. The normally low buzz of panic and self-doubt that is the background music in our brains swells to a roar of incessant trepidation. Instead of being thrilled to have a new opportunity, we’re scared.  We don’t need obstacles to crop up; we imagine them and spend all of our time dodging their looming specters in our brains.

The role of biology might have a partial role in this gender difference, particularly for women who are in male-dominated fields.  We have the responsibility to nurture and protect our offspring, so we have to be a little less damn-the-torpedoes in our approach to life.  We also have to be careful in a world where we’re typically smaller and weaker than the opposite sex.

My older brother would say that this natural caution is not natural at all, because he believes that there is no nature in the nature versus nurture debate, only nurture.  His theory is that men and women would behave exactly the same if they were treated identically from birth.  I don’t agree with him, but many people do.  I believe that biology is part of the equation, but social development contributes as well.  And maybe that’s where we can advance.  A little bit of evolution in how we raise our daughters could produce a little less angst and a little more “I can do that!” We can do so many great things when we think about our jobs in terms of opportunity rather than potential failure.

My best friend (we’ll call her Environmental Girl, or EG for short) is a great example of how far a woman can go when she doesn’t hold herself back.  A number of years ago, her company successfully bid on an environmental remediation project at an abandoned army airfield on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean populated only by endangered birds.  (The blue footed booby frequently holds raves on the airstrip).  The project would last several months, and the crew would travel to the island and stay there for the duration. No TV or radio, and hot coffee only when there was enough generator time available.  EG said, “I want to go!”

This might seem bold, but it was particularly fearless given that her youngest daughter would be only 5 months old when the project would start. What??????

Many, many people said she was crazy.  Her mother told her she was going straight to hell and she would need any profit from the job to pay for her infant daughter’s inevitable astronomical therapy costs when she got older.  Female colleagues expressed shock and ran home to embrace their kids.  But besides the fact that EG’s husband was a completely capable caregiver, as were her other 142 kids who all lived at home, the project only spanned a short time period. And it was a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! So she said yes, and she went. Damn more than the torpedoes – damn the whole fleet.

The experience was phenomenal, and EG learned things about herself she never would have otherwise.  I am pleased to report that the endangered infant has grown into a daring chip off the adventurous old block, and she might be inclined to take on a project in the middle of the Pacific or take a position as chief of staff for the president of an international company and never doubt herself.  When we doubt ourselves and hesitate to take chances and always put ourselves last, we teach our daughters to do the same. When we go after what we want and trust ourselves to be enough, we increase the chances that they will succeed.

Not every situation warrants a fearless attitude.  Caution has its place. But self-confidence shouldn’t be an unknown quantity to women in the work world.  We shouldn’t spend our time worrying about what we might do wrong, we should envision how high we can fly. Repeat after me – I can do that!

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