Peggy Hagerty Duffy

The Others

More is Better

By Guest Contributor Lori Simpson

(Editors’ Note:  Lori is our hero.  You can read her brilliance here.  If you are lucky enough to meet her in person, pay attention).

The “Member Voices” article in the May 2019 ASCE Civil Engineering magazine hit home for me. Hannah Workman, a student at Fairmont State University in West Virginia wrote about sexism in engineering. No, this is not what you are thinking—she was referring to a different kind of sexism: the kind that we women perpetrate on each other. Her angle was about senior female engineers who show favoritism or give a preference to male engineers over female engineers. After giving some examples, she concluded that it is a territorial issue: senior female engineers were probably the only one at their firm and had to fight just to obtain that spot. They would see other women as competition.

I am a senior female engineer. I have been in the industry since 1986 and have often been the only woman in the room (or jobsite). This still happens, so I know many of you can relate. There are many reasons why having limited diversity on a project may not result in a project’s best outcome – not enough diversity of thought or experiences can prevent some great ideas from coming out. But there is another effect that happens, and I am here to testify to my own shortcomings: I take pride in being the only woman in the room. There. I said it. It is a badge of honor that I have enjoyed wearing, and if I am being really honest with you, deep down I still do. Being the only woman in the room means you are tough. The problem is that you can only wear this badge if you are the only woman in the room. The side effect of this situation is that I did feel competitive with other women and did not do what I could to help other women achieve in their careers.

The good news is that I am working on reforming myself, with the help of many of my peers in the industry. Initiatives like DFI’s Women in Deep Foundations (WIDF), the SE3 Project, AIA’s Equity by Design, and my own company’s Women@Langan have opened my eyes and are providing me strategies for mentoring and advocating for women. When WIDF had its inaugural meeting, one of the women in the room asked, “How many of us come to the DFI conference and never say hello to other women?” Guilty. Even at a conference I felt competitive with the handful of other women there (glad to say – there is way more than a handful of women at DFI now). As I am confessing this, it seems so silly – it’s not like I’m competing for attention from the men at the conference. I was competing to be the Toughest Woman. But guess what? It turns out that it is way more fun when there are many of us. Now I revel in walking into a room and seeing LOTS of bad-ass women.

So I realized that I need to help make this happen, especially in my position as a senior female engineer in the industry. At first I thought that because I figured it out, others would too–that just being an example was sufficient. I saw a lot of smart, hard-working women around me and figured they would know what to do. But when you really start to talk, you realize that you need to tell your story. And while we have a lot of shared experiences, we learn from how we each dealt with them. So I tell the stories of being out in the field with no proper facilities, being the only woman on a construction site, not being listened to. I share how I got the flexibility I needed while raising my daughters, how I advocated for fair pay, and how I presented my qualifications to get the promotions that I sought. I talk about how I developed my confidence, my voice. It’s not bragging—it’s making sure we know we aren’t the only ones going through this.

I’ve also realized that I can use my hard-won position to advocate for change.  I can give a hand to those women working up the ladder, both in my company and in others, because one of the spoils of being a Tough Woman for so many years is that now I’m part of the decision-making team.

So let’s keep the conversation going. If we don’t help each other out, we are perpetuating the isolation of women in our field. Madeleine Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. I don’t want to end up in hell.

Damaged

Bent, Folded, and Fine

During the past few months, all of my available Underpinnings time has been consumed with work on a video for the DFI Women in Deep Foundations Committee to educate women and girls about our field.  Every bit of my “Go Team!” energy has been focused on that effort, so blog posts have been moved to the side.  Until last week.

I happened to be scrolling through news headlines on my phone while sitting through a particularly painful meeting when I spotted a story about actor Ryan Phillippe’s court case.  The headline mentioned something about ex-wife Reese Witherspoon being drug into the mess, and I immediately went from zero to furious, assuming his turmoil was unfairly spilling over onto someone who had managed to pull herself out of his dysfunctional orbit.  What I found had nothing to do with Witherspoon but made me even madder.

The gist of the saga is that Phillippe and an ex-girlfriend both claim the other engaged in harassing behavior.  Text messages were brought in as evidence.  One of Phillippe’s messages to his then-girlfriend was listed in the article as,

“…you’re too great as you are bb. you’re so smart and funny and complicated and damaged, and stunningly beautiful – all traits i find the most engaging and attractive.”

And that’s where I went through the roof.

Have you noticed the use of the word “damaged” in our current culture?  It is often brought up in book reviews and synopses, describing the heroine of a touching memoir or the main character in a dark romance.  “This book explores how the damaged, fragile young artist finds her way back to creating a real relationship after she thinks she has lost all hope,” – or some such nonsense.  Movies capitalize on the idea, sometimes even working the word “damaged” into exposition.

Have you also noticed that the same word is rarely used to describe a man? No, damaged is all about women.  It’s an expression conveying tragedy or heartbreak or mistakes that somehow have managed to ruin the main character.  But ruined for what?  What does damaged actually mean?  More importantly, why has the term become accepted as some sort of romantic asset?

The word damaged typically means that someone or something is no longer in perfect condition.  To take it a step further, it conveys the idea that someone or something no longer works properly.

Either definition begs the question, “What is perfect?  What is proper working condition for a human being?”  To be more pointed about it, what is “undamaged” condition for a woman?

We all are aware of societal stereotypes regarding the “perfect” life for a woman.  You grow up in a loving house and work hard to be an obedient, accomplished young lady.  You develop into a well-behaved woman who maybe has a tasteful career or maybe doesn’t.  You have several beautiful children with a fabulous man, and you spend every last lick of energy giving them perfect lives and telling the world how #blessed you are. You are upheld as a paragon of selflessness and good sense, and you are told that you are beautiful when you spend what little time you have for yourself on getting your hair and nails done in whatever is the currently-accepted fashion.

So what constitutes damaged?  Based on my study of current books and movies using the term, damaged involves a woman who made a bad decision and took a turn off that “perfect” life route.  Damaged includes women who have dealt with emotional problems and diseases like addiction.  Damaged includes women who have been victims of other people’s problems, women who have been beaten and oppressed and ignored.  Damaged also covers women who have made a decision that led to problems, even when those problems weren’t of their own making.  Damaged is anything beyond “perfect.”

Wait – isn’t that just life? Isn’t life all about making mistakes and learning from them?  Aren’t we supposed to mature and evolve and get smarter as we get older?  You don’t do that by sitting in a bubble and conducting a faultless life unscathed by reality.

Somehow we reached 2019 and we have managed to hang onto the term “damaged” to describe women who have strayed from some outdated norm.  Let’s face it – the label is actually a shortened version of the term “damaged goods,” a phrase that used to pertain to women who were unmarriageable because they weren’t virgins.  Even if they were the victims of horrible crimes, they were considered soiled and unworthy of a respectable match.  So they were tossed out as defective, basically useless in polite society.

We have to be the advocates who reinforce the idea that women can make mistakes and have problems, just like men, and that doesn’t make them damaged.  Furthermore, we can take paths in life that are not exactly like the #blessed route AND THAT’S OKAY. That woman who struggled with insecurity in high school and developed an eating disorder?  She has learned to deal with her issues, and she is strong now.  The girl you knew who misunderstood the jackass she married and found out too late that he settled arguments with his fists?  Her scars are proof that she survived, and she can handle anything you throw at her now in your high stress work environment. And your old friend who wandered between majors in college and “lost” 10 years figuring out what she wanted to be?  She probably knows more about herself than the average bear and will navigate the rest of her life with a clear vision. And that woman you know through work who unknowingly married an alcoholic and finally divorced him, only to marry another control freak because she had lost all perspective on what a good relationship was?  Well, that’s me, and I’m just fine now.  My life probably hasn’t looked like yours, but I’ve learned a lot and I have a life full of outstanding people.

The more sinister side of acceptance of the “damaged” label is the cultural use that is disguised as a romantic tribute by men who are actually hoping to control the woman in question.  They act as though a “damaged” woman is more complex. Phillippe composed his text ode to his girlfriend as if he were saying how wonderful she was.  But by calling her damaged, he was inferring that she was less than perfect.  Men that use the term in this passive-aggressive way intend to reduce a woman’s confidence by reinforcing her imperfections, even if they profess to love those same flaws.  It’s an insidious, degrading tactic that is anything but romantic.  And books and movies that employ the same technique are no better.  We must push back against this. Enough with calling the interesting movie heroines “damaged.”  Has anyone ever called Batman damaged?  No, he’s just dark, which is exciting.

The basic problem with the use of this word is that it implies that someone is not perfect.  And that idea suggests that perfection is not just attainable but quantifiable.  We, as women of 2019, should be able to just live and work and play and love.  Perfection should not be a goal.  Someone else’s idea of perfection should be something to avoid.  And using someone else’s idea of perfection as a weapon for control should be a crime.

Equal Pay! Equal Pay!

A Victory for All

Did you watch?  Did you cheer?  Did you cry every time they showed a commercial with a young girl with a hopeful expression?

I realize that not all of our Underpinnings community may have been interested in the recent victory by the United States team in the FIFA World Cup, but we all should be.  In fact, the victory by the United States isn’t the only significant takeaway from this soccer tournament.  (Sorry fans from the rest of the world – in my land, football involves helmets and tailgating and the use of hands).  The attention paid to all the teams and the tournament in general is a victory.

Until recent years, women’s sports were only of universal interest when there was some item of appeal other than just the female athletes’ performances.  Dorothy Hamill’s haircut, Florence Griffith-Joyner’s one-legged running suits, Misty May-Treanor’s uniform – all of these elements were used as additional allure to help get people to cheer for women’s sports.  Today, Serena Williams still gets more press for giving Meghan Markle a baby shower than for her 23 Grand Slam singles titles. In most cases, television networks and venue owners and, let’s be honest, most ordinary citizens in the past didn’t believe that women’s sports were exciting or interesting because women weren’t considered to be elite athletes.  Instead, the average bear looked at women in sports along the lines of “Isn’t that cute?”  It was the same attitude by which most parents view their first graders’ pursuit of local championships.  It’s cute that they’re trying, isn’t it? If you are over 30 and you think everyone you know took you seriously as an athlete, you’re sadly deluded.  You and your teammates were serious, of course. Your family? Yes.  Your school?  Probably a lot of them did.  The guy who owns the local hardware store?  Insert chuckle here.

I give you this jaded, cynical perspective as someone who can attest to it from the front lines.  I was on the volleyball team, the softball team, the cheerleading squad, and the tennis team in grade school, and the cross country and track teams in grade school, high school, and college.  I played Little League baseball right after the Supreme Court decided that girls had to be allowed to play. I also was in a bunch of other activities, like newspaper, Pep Club, French Club, student government, ASCE, Tau Beta Pi, etc., so I could see the contrast between sports and other areas.  (Yes, I “overscheduled” myself, but I had a deep, abject fear of being called lazy.  I have no idea why, and it certainly was not the fault of my very supportive parents, but there you have it.  My efforts often suffered from a quantity over quality issue).

This is not to say that I experienced full equity in every other activity, but I did hear the same statement made repeatedly about sports – “Okay, maybe women are equal to men mentally, but you have to admit that men are stronger and faster, so women will never be able to compete with men in sports.”  This assumes that all sports depend solely on speed and strength. The foregone conclusion then was that women’s sports weren’t worth watching because we are inferior athletes.  (It should be noted that strength is defined here solely as the ability to lift the heaviest weights.  As is demonstrated by concrete, one definition of strength does not mean that the material is “strongest”).

Many guys I have known have treated sports almost as if they are the last bastions of men’s superiority to women.  They reluctantly support our forays into “their” worlds – banking, medicine, construction – and fall back on what they think is a sure-fired argument, that being that women will never be equal to men in what they see as physical prowess.  Once again, their perspective is too general and transparently desperate.

In high school, a coach for a rival cross-country team was generous with his excellent coaching advice, often giving pointers to those of us not on his team.  We were a tight community and he was well-regarded, so no one objected.  In addition, one of the girls on his team and I looked a lot alike, and our people routinely mistook us for each other, so I became friends with most of the girls on their team.

After one meet, I made a passing comment to this coach that I wished I could have finished the race as strongly as my doppelganger, a girl named Jenny.  He patted me on the shoulder and said, “You know, she had a lot of trouble at the beginning of the year because she started looking like her mama.  We worked on changing her strength training to adjust to her new body.  It’s helped a lot.  You ladies have to remember that you shouldn’t necessarily train the same way the boys do.  You’re not less, you’re just different.” I was so taken aback that I stood there with my mouth open.  Luckily, he was a good man and gave me some encouraging words before he moved on.

What Coach was saying was that the girl in question had just developed a bunch of curves and grown 3 inches.  The same thing had happened to the defending State Champion the year before, and she finished 25th in State in her “new” body.

This was the first time anyone spoke to me about my physical characteristics as a female as if they were part of a different athletic machine instead of an inferior one.  I had a lot of good coaches, but most of them existed within the limited framework society presented for women’s sports.  We worked hard, we did what we could, but we didn’t get the same analysis and encouragement to push our limits like the guys did.

The world is a much better place for female athletes today, but many people still hold onto the same prejudices, regardless of what they say or how many daughters they have in soccer leagues.  How many times have you heard a guy say, “Some of those women athletes don’t even look like women,” or “Some of those girls need to watch what they say in their interviews,” or “The women’s games are fun, but they’re not real (fill in sport here) like the men play.”  These statements show that a lot of people still expect women to do what women are supposed to do – look pretty and behave.  We can do whatever we want as long as we strive to achieve those things and don’t try to barge into the men’s domain of physical prowess.

This World Cup team, and many people (at least in the U.S. audience), have ignored that attitude.  Commercials during the games have shown women inspiring girls to be…whatever they want.  We’ve had fabulous highlight reels and packed watch parties.  The festivities have not been afflicted by the condescending, patronizing air that in the past has plagued coverage of women’s sports.  This is sports.  Period.  Somewhere Bubba is out fishing with his friends and complaining that those “ugly manly women trying to play soccer shouldn’t be on TV,” but his opinion wouldn’t be a popular one at most watering holes this week.

And the effects reach beyond the field.  During this World Cup, the issue came up that the U.S. Women have performed (repeatedly) better than the U.S. men, but they are paid a fraction of what the men are paid.  The revelation caused quite an uproar, leading to yet another discussion of gender equity in yet another arena.  (Equal pay! Equal pay!) Even if you aren’t into sports, you owe this team a thank you for bringing the case for equity to a very visible, very popular format.  Don’t rail about how “more important” professions should have been given attention before this, and people in sports don’t do “real work.”  Say thank you for the shot in the arm and for putting the spotlight on pay equity to an audience of millions.

The important lesson from the success of the World Cup team as it pertains to our struggles as women goes back to the words of my rival coach.  People can say that men are faster or stronger or don’t have to worry about breastfeeding their newborns while overseeing installation of a slurry cutoff wall.  That just means we’re different.  Not less, just different.  The world is a better place when everyone recognizes this.

Being Small

Taking Charge of Your Presence

 

During the writing of this post, in which we decried The Spread, I happened to be talking to a member of the Underpinnings community.  When I mentioned the subject of the post, she said, “I would never say anything if a guy did this.  I always just try to make myself small in most situations.”  A few weeks later, I heard an interview with a movie director who talked about making herself small in a relationship.  In other words, she had tried to shape her existence to be most convenient for her partner.  She had recently made the realization that she was purposefully minimizing any of her needs in order not to seem needy or a bother, so that her partner would find it more appealing to be with her.  Making herself small also involved playing down her accomplishments so that he wouldn’t feel lesser.

I wish I could say I had no idea what either of these women meant by making yourself small. I wish I could say I’ve never acted like I wasn’t uncomfortable/upset so that a partner wouldn’t look at me in a negative light, and that I’ve never played down a big success at work so that a guy wouldn’t feel overshadowed.  I wish I could say I’ve never gone into a meeting and taken a seat in a back corner so as not to attract attention.  But I would be lying if I did.

With exceptions, women often have a natural instinct to take care of others.  Our roles as caregivers are hard to turn off, and we don’t stop watching out for those around us when we finish wiping noses and changing diapers.  (Yes, that includes wiping figurative noses at work). As such, we don’t think about what we do to ensure the comfort of others.  That guy on the plane is more comfortable when he Spreads, and part of us wants him to be comfortable. So often we sacrifice our own comfort and needs in our actual caregiving roles, and this tendency bleeds over into our interactions with others for whom we are not responsible.  It’s just an instinct.

But beyond our nurturing inclinations, many of us also don’t know how to take up for ourselves, either subtly or aggressively. We have been told for so many years that nice girls don’t demand things for themselves.  Nice girls go along with the situation and adapt and accommodate.  Oh, isn’t she a saint? We’re told that it’s aspirational to be a martyr.  News flash – martyrs are annoying and hard to be around.

Another member of our Underpinnings community also mentioned to me that she had changed jobs because she didn’t feel like she was appreciated and she didn’t think anyone at her company cared about her future there.  Another company made her an offer, and the attention and interest were impossible to resist.  Someone was paying attention to her career needs! After she left, she realized that she never actually sat anyone at her old company down and said, “I really like it here but we need to discuss my path forward.  I want to know how we’re going to make me an integral part of the management team.” She thought they would be looking out for her needs, and she worried how it would look if she took aggressive control over her own career.  She moved on to greener pastures, and unfortunately found Astroturf.

Yes, it’s a vital part of being a human to be considerate of others.  We all should look around and think about what our friends and family and co-workers need and want.  But we should not do this to the exclusion of our own needs and wants.  It’s certainly critical to any relationship to be a good, supportive partner.  But no healthy relationship is one-sided.  Ignore the “I-just-do-everything-for-my-family” crap.  You’re setting a bad example for your kids, particularly your daughters, if you give up everything for everyone else.  Do you want them doing that in 15 years?  It may make good Instagram copy (“Just spent 8 hours getting these huge blisters hand-digging and building my kids their own wading pool/splash pad. #supermom #mypainisworthit”), but it’s an unbalanced, unhealthy approach to life that will leave you feeling frustrated and resentful.

If you are not giving voice to your feelings because you are afraid your partner will view you less favorably, you are not giving the relationship the chance to be as strong as it could.  If your partner really would think of less of you for expressing your needs and emotions, you don’t need that person. Even worse, if your partner is someone who needs you to build him/her up by minimizing who you are…….you REALLY need to get a new partner.  No, no – don’t make excuses.  Anything you could say I’ve said myself before, and it was wrong.

We need to stop expecting others to respect us and appreciate us and help us only when they intuit that we need something.  We need to be more direct in voicing our needs in a fair and balanced way.  This doesn’t mean demanding attention or screaming at the guy next to you who is encroaching on your airline space.  There is a happy medium between suffering in silence and launching into a tirade.  And we need to feel comfortable walking into a meeting or working on a jobsite without feeling like we need to be small so that no one uses words like “pushy” and “bitchy” behind our backs.

In our careers it is vital that we make ourselves the opposite of small. Those above you should know that you are staunchly committed to an upward career path (as long as that’s the case).  Stating your goal is not “pushy” and “unattractive,” despite what you might have read in a magazine at some point.  Trust me, whoever runs your company wants people on board who want to succeed.  And they aren’t sitting around trying to figure out what you want and need – they don’t have time.  So tell them.  And give them a chance to help you realize your goals.  Success in business takes time and communication, not mind-reading and fence-jumping. Bosses are like spouses – they rarely know what you’re thinking unless you tell them.

If you want something in your life to change, whether that be your space on an airplane or your inclusion in Monday management meetings or HOW OFTEN YOU HAVE TO CLEAN UP SHOES FROM THE FOYER, you have to change it.  If that change depends on the actions of others, you have to actually tell them you want something to change.  Don’t make yourself small; make yourself effective.

Field Dressing

De-Coding Dress Code

 

I was having a conversation the other day with another woman in the geotechnical field.  I mentioned a dynamic woman whom I admire in our industry, and the other woman looked apprehensive and said, “Yes, she’s good, but she wears such tight clothes to meetings.”  To her credit, before I could become outraged, she said, “I know – that’s her decision, and it doesn’t change how talented she is.”

Obviously the line between inappropriate work clothing (short shorts and a tube top) and risky work clothing (a tight leather skirt and a sheer blouse) can be murky and worse, a moving target.  Sometimes it is difficult to know whether you’re expressing yourself or committing career suicide.  Often the older you get, the less you care, but the questions persist.  We all want to meet a professional dress code, but…what is it?

We women have a very complicated relationship with clothing.  On one hand, some of us love it.  (Yes, I’m raising my hand here). We shop and read magazines and study the outfits of everyone around us.  For us, our attire is part of our self-expression and even a necessary creative outlet.

On the other hand, some women don’t care.  Clothing is a necessary utility, but they couldn’t tell you the state of hemlines this year or whether cargo pants are back.  (If you just said, “They were gone?” then you’re part of this latter group).

Neither opinion is right or wrong.  The same could be said for many similar items that we use every day, like phones and cars.  My stepdaughter knows what changes have been made to the bumpers and roof lines of most auto models every year; I have a hard time finding my own car in Kroger’s parking lot on a weekly basis.

What differentiates clothing from these other necessities is the fact that what we wear has a direct effect on how others see us.  From first impressions to professional situations, clothing is integral to our public persona.  Even women who don’t care about fashion have to put some effort into what they wear, lest their lack of attention to their attire be mistaken for a lack of care about themselves. Show up sloppy and you’re telling the world that you don’t respect yourself.

This situation is complicated by the fact that even those of us who do like clothes aren’t always happy with how we look in them. Body image, internal perceptions, long-held erroneous images of ourselves – all of these things add hundreds of layers that color our opinions when we stand in front of a dressing room mirror and in front of our own mirrors every morning.

And if our internal baggage weren’t enough, we have historic social tensions that affect how we see other women.  Until recent history, women couldn’t own property in most parts of the world, so they were dependent on relationships with men to survive.  Women also weren’t valued for their minds, so men typically chose women based on their looks.  Even if “clever” women resented their lack of prospects compared to pretty women, there was little to nothing they could do about it.  Unfortunately, even though women now are valued more often for their minds and don’t starve just because they’re not married, we still retain that base competitive nature.  “Yeah, she just got by on her looks.”  “Of course she got the job – look at those legs in that skirt.”  Tragically, we unconsciously reinforce those historic cultural views, that women are either pretty or smart.  And we regard the blatantly “pretty” with catty envy disguised as lofty intellectualism. Magazines, movies, and 50-ft billboards don’t help by constantly telling us that we are not pretty or thin or tan or fill-in-the-blank enough. The world insists on sending us a constant stream of mixed messages, and few of those messages say that we look fabulous today AND we’re smart as hell.

Yes, you could say that women who obviously use their sexuality to get attention or get ahead are…what?  Using an unfair advantage?  You know that those looks will only go so far if the woman is question just landed a geo-structural position designing complicated retention systems.  What if she’s actually smart, too, but she feels comfortable putting her sexuality more front and center than you do?  As we’ve said before in this space, she’ll have to deal with the consequences.  Those consequences frankly are often exhaustingly complicated and make me tired just to think about them, but if that’s the road she wants to travel, I fully support her choice.

I believe we should be celebrating each other and helping the women around us realize what fabulous attributes each one of us has.  It’s hard enough to deal with the Hamlet-esque soliloquy in your own head when you get dressed and look in the mirror in the morning, much less if you feel like others around you are piling on.  The aforementioned woman with the tight outfits at meetings?  I am in awe of her and would sell a kidney to look like her.  I think she should wear what she wants, because someday she’ll be looking at wrinkles in the mirror and thinking, “Wow, I wish I had worn that short leather skirt before my legs looked like a sharpei.” (Yes, anyone who wants to show her legs should do so and be proud, but those of you in the over-50 category will understand what I mean).

All of us deal with everyday fashion issues, like packing for a 5-day work trip using only a carry on suitcase.  Or what about that arctic conference room where you go for a monthly meeting and need to look professional but not in the Inuit style?  Are there fashionable heels that can be worn safely when running between meetings at opposite ends of the Philadelphia Convention Center?

In the spirit of our ongoing quest to create a supportive community here at Underpinnings, we are introducing a new feature.  Yes – a new feature!  One of our members has extensive fashion knowledge and exquisite taste (in addition to being a brilliant contractor).  She has agreed to come on board as part of our team to help answer your fashion questions.  The name of her feature, “LA’s Closet,” is a nod to her West Coast vibe and the title of a new page on the Underpinnings site.  She will remain anonymous so she doesn’t get mobbed on jobsites by people desperate for wardrobe advice. We encourage you to send in your questions, and she will provide answers and suggestions. Some examples might be:

“I have a dress that I love that I feel like might be a little too short for work events.  Is there something I can add to it to make it work appropriate so I can get more use out of one of my most confidence-building pieces?

“I never know what works on my body type, so I just wear clothes that are baggy.  Any suggestions on how I can figure out what works for me?”

“Can you help me come up with a capsule collection that I can use to minimize luggage on work trips?”

You get the idea.  As my dad would say, there are no stupid questions, and if you’re thinking it, six other people probably are, too.

E-mail your questions to underpinningsgeo@gmail.com.

We look forward to hearing your questions and comments.  Our regular posts will continue to appear, as well.  The Underpinnings team is trying to give you as much useful content as possible.

Sweet and Salty

For All Our Galentines

This is a week of treats, and we all like something salty and sweet, don’t we?  So here is our offering to you for your morning or afternoon snack – or your midnight munchie.  Something salty and something sweet.

Salty: The Spread

This morning was the fourth time in the past few months that I was subjected to what I have come to call The Spread.  Sitting in my airline seat with my belongings tucked beneath the seat in front of me, I suddenly felt pressure on my right leg.  I looked over and… there it was.  The man in the seat next to me had settled into a comfortable position that included his legs forming a 90 degree angle, aka The Spread.  About 25% of his leg mass had drifted into my seat space and was encroaching on my useable area.

I did what I normally do when this happened today – I ever so slightly pushed back, giving the guy a subtle “Hey, you’re in my space” nudge.  But, as so often occurs, he was oblivious.  I spent the rest of the thankfully short flight with even less room than current airplane seat measurements allow. By the time I got off the plane, I was irritated and resentful.  The whole situation was even more puzzling when the guy turned out to be a very considerate gentleman when it came time to unload bags from the overhead compartments and disembark the plane.

I realize that this issue is but a small slight in the general realm of sexism, and I should be happy that I was on a plane because I have a job where I am unconstrained by sexist bosses and I get to travel to work for enlightened clients.  On the other hand, the plane scenario, and its commonality in other places, feels a bit to me like a metaphor for women’s places in the world and the current state of our progress.  There seem to be a number of guys who still want to stress that this is their world and they’ll encroach and make us uncomfortable if they want.

Certainly some of you are yelling at me right now, “Just tell him to move!”  And yes, this also illustrates that not all of us are comfortable with just calling a guy out directly for his rude or sexist behavior. My southern sensibilities discourage it.  My feeling is that it’s not a big enough deal and it will make the rest of the trip uncomfortable.  What I actually would like to do would be to say, “Look – if you have a fungus and you’re uncomfortable, go get some medicine, but get out of my space!”  But my sensitivity to other’s feelings tells me that maybe he doesn’t even know what he’s doing and perhaps he would be really embarrassed if I called him out directly.

‘And maybe that’s the real lesson here.  Maybe he doesn’t realize what he’s doing.  Of course, some percentage of the guys who Spread are completely aware of their actions, because there will always be jerks EVERYWHERE.  But maybe some of these guys on planes and in stadiums are just like guys at work who interrupt us and push us out.  Maybe their behavior was learned at an early age and they don’t realize its implications.  So the proper response would be to clearly point out the issue, but without animosity.   “Excuse me, would you mind moving your leg?” might be in the same league with “Could you work on not interrupting me during meetings?”  If he responds badly, he’s a jerk being a jerk, not a good guy being clueless.  And you can proceed accordingly. In fact, perhaps you can diplomatically educate the men in your life (husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, shoe salesmen) that to Spread is to be inconsiderate.  Revolutionary behavior doesn’t always involve hostile confrontations, and sensitivity to other people being human often results in allies.

Sweet: Happy Valentine’s Week!

If you have been reading here for a while, you know that I am a perpetual optimist.  On a crowded, noisy train I remind myself that some people never travel more than 5 miles from their homes.  When my basement flooded, I said it was an opportunity to remodel.  Other than the first week after football season is over, I can almost always find a way to summon a positive angle on a situation.  It’s my survival mechanism.

As such, no one should be surprised that I love Valentine’s Day.  Even absent a current Significant Other, I think it’s quite a fabulous holiday.  The decorations are pretty, the movies on TV are sappy and hopeful, and every person has an opportunity to tell the people around her that she loves them.

Some among us are very cynical about the holiday, citing pressure on gifting, commercialism, and “It’s a made-up holiday”, as some of their reasons for being negative.  (What holiday isn’t made up?  Not even Jesus said, “Hey – make a really big deal about my birthday.”)

But I feel the opposite.  I think this is a gift-wrapped chance to appreciate people, in case you’ve been too busy to do so.  There is no law that says the person you are honoring is your sweetie.  It could be your mom, your former teacher, your kids’ nanny – anyone!  A positive sentiment is never a bad idea. And reminding yourself of all the good things in your life is a beneficial exercise whenever it may occur.

I have said something here before that bears repeating: Happiness is hard.  Cynicism is easy.  Negativity, skepticism, distrust, disbelief – all of these are conditions that some people would have you believe are the signs of intelligence.  In fact, they are signs of fear.  It is easier to be cranky and cynical and tell everyone that you didn’t ever expect to be treated equal to men in your job anyway, and all the men out there are malicious jerks. It’s hard to have hope.  It’s brave to take the chance that your new boss really will support you in a male-dominated environment, and you’ll get to explore your career opportunities unfettered by the ignorance of others.  Optimism and love are accompanied by the risk that your hopes will be dashed.  But if the potential win is that you will realize your own goals and aspirations, or perhaps you’ll find happiness in another person, how can you afford to be negative and skeptical?

In the spirit of the season, I would like to say how much I care about all of my sisters in arms and everything you give me on a daily basis.  I am constantly inspired and supported and encouraged by you, and you make my life a richer, more fulfilling existence.

I also appreciate all of the men who treat us as equals, fight for our progress, and don’t encroach on our figurative airline seats.  I heart you guys, and I thank you for the daily dose of happiness you give me and others.

There will be crises and problems in our lives, but there also always will be goodness and love. I hope you can find some reason to be optimistic and grateful during the Valentine’s holiday. If you’re at a loss, message me and I’ll send you a list of shoe sales.

When You Get Squashed

Happy 2019!  Is it fabulous so far?  Don’t let the weather color your answer – it is January, after all, and January must be true to itself.  As a landscaper friend of mine once told me, “How do you expect all those beautiful things to emerge in the spring if they don’t die back in the cold of winter?”

In the spirit of the sharp, clear cold winter days, let’s cut right to the chase.  I have been a bit absent here.  No, actually, I have been a lot absent here.  In truth, 2018 squashed me like a smooth drum roller.  There is no other way to explain what happened last year, and the only chance of making the situation better is to be honest about it.  I was Squashed with a capital S. I played chicken with 2018, and it won.  It laughed in my face and spat on my crumpled, broken body.  If I weren’t so terribly Irish and stubborn, I would be sitting on a frozen riverbank right now, trying to decide if frostbite really was a bad thing.

The source of the squashing was not one thing, so it was not easy to identify the problem, formulate a solution, and put a plan into action.  I tried repeatedly to retaliate with engineering ninja skills (evaluate, formulate, execute), but there were just too many aggressors.  Heavy Workload was the engine on a train that included Exhausting Travel, Bottomless Charity Causes, Family Drama, and a long line of other heavy cars that ran me over as I was tied to the tracks. 

Have you seen this old cartoon?  https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1hac6w  My brothers and I used to watch this after school when they showed ancient cartoons in reruns.  Yes, this was me in 2018.  I got the dog plasma.  I spent the last few months of the year scratching for fleas and barking at cars.  It wasn’t pretty.

As the year drew to a close, I mentioned to one of my close friends that I was about to lose my mind.  (About to?  Who was I kidding? I exaggerated my real level of sanity because I didn’t want her to have me committed).  But this was the point where my little saga took a turn for the better.

What do people usually do when you tell them that you’re overwhelmed?  You know the answer to this.  It’s giving me hives just thinking about it.  The standard answer is, “You just need to learn to say no.”  Just like that.  Oversimplification, table for one?  Sweeping Generalization, come on in!  Seriously – how many times a week do you hear this?  People of all intelligence levels say it, as well as friends and family of all intimacy degrees.

How ludicrous is this statement?  (You can’t hear me, but I just shouted that).  To tell a person that the solution to her complex problems is just to “learn to say no” is to imply that she is stupid and that her problems are simple.  Think about it – the person who is overwhelmed is miserable.  Let’s assume she is moderately intelligent and of at least average emotional maturity.  If “just saying no” were the answer, WOULDN’T SHE BE DOING THAT?!  Of course she would.  But she’s not, because the situation is NOT that simple.

In truth, most people’s lives are complex and contain multi-layered problems.  The “solutions” to those problems often have far-reaching and sometimes hard to predict ramifications.  When you tell someone that she should just say no (or give her some other simple answer), you are implying that she isn’t very bright and hasn’t really tried to figure out solutions.  It’s insulting, so just stop it if you have indulged in this behavior.

Your friend whose brother constantly parks himself on her couch and asks her for money?  She’s exhausted from supporting him and bailing him out of constant scrapes and bad business decisions.  She’s worn out and broke, and he just showed up again.  So you say, “Hon, you just need to learn to tell him no.”

What you don’t know is that her brother has three kids and their mother is just as irresponsible as your friend’s brother.  The only chance these kids have to receive food and warm clothes is from their aunt.  She loves them dearly and would never let them go without, so she keeps giving their dad money.  In addition, she can’t stand the idea of such young kids being disillusioned by their dad, so she tries hard to gloss over his mistakes.  She feels like someone needs to try to give them something of a childhood.

So….now where are you on that “just say no” platitude?  It wasn’t as cut and dried as you thought, was it?

People like to think they can just reach in and solve your problems, and they’re doing you a big favor by doing so.  I’m told all the time “You just need to hire some people” because I have such a heavy workload.  Really?  What kind of people?  What exactly do I do all day – do you know?  Are there people out there who can do exactly that?  Is it more economical for me to train new people or to suck it up for a short time until some projects taper off?  Do you see my face in the mirror in the morning?  If not, then you don’t know the answers to those questions.

Back to my saga….when I said that I was overwhelmed and teetering on the brink of spontaneous combustion, my friend just listened for a while.  Not listening as in, “I feel your pain,” or “I’m validating your feelings,” (ugh) but actually listening to the situation as if it were a problem at work.  A few weeks later, she had planned to come over and hang out one evening, and I got this text: “We’ll need a whiteboard or a big notebook.  I’ve been thinking about your situation, and I have some ideas.”

I will not lie – I cried.  Yes, we have established here that I cry at the drop of a puppy, but the happiness was real.  THIS IS THE KIND OF FRIEND WE ALL NEED TO BE.

When she arrived, we talked about all of the train cars that were barreling across me, and she was sympathetic.  But she didn’t blithely “solve” things in one sentence, and she didn’t just listen.  What she did was to suggest a way to sort through all of the stressors and see if any of them could be reduced by targeting the most critical stressful elements.

The most important part of this story is the fact that my friend’s approach acknowledged that there was no simple solution for my chaos.  She didn’t suggest that the answer was easy and that I was just making life hard for myself.  Her approach implied that she supported my right to make my own choices in life, but that sometimes those choices come with problems.  And she reinforced her status as a real friend by offering to help instead of questioning my choices.

I suggest that in 2019 we all follow my friend’s lead.  We need to support other women and be good friends.  But we need to do this in a way that acknowledges and supports their choices and situations.  Life is neither simple nor easy.  Don’t assume the reason the woman next to you is overwhelmed is because she is spending too much time making perfect meals for her family when they would be happy with peanut butter.  Maybe she is caring for her mother, who has dementia, at the same time she is trying to figure out why a slope is failing in a critical military complex.  Can she solve any of that by just saying no?  Absolutely not.  Is there an easy solution for her issues?  Nope.  Can you be a good friend/colleague/fellow skirt by asking her about it and offering to sort through to find some way to achieve minor improvements?  You bet your pea-picking heart, you can.

Here’s to an un-squashed and vertical 2019.

No, That Doesn’t Make Sense

Just Stop

We are all in agreement that we, as women, need to stop apologizing, right?  We covered the subject here, and we aren’t the only ones who believe that women undermine ourselves when we constantly apologize as a conversational tool.

Now that we have that out of the way….Okay, we probably don’t.  It doesn’t take one article and an afternoon to change a lifetime of behavioral habits.  We have to concentrate on our interactions and slowly cut the self-sabotaging behavior out of our daily lives.  Maybe we should have accountability partners?  One-step programs? (Step One: Don’t apologize when you’re not at fault).  In any case, we recognize that this process will take a while, but the results will be empowerment, promotions, higher salaries, fame, and perhaps induction into the engineering/construction/marketing/Girl Scout cookie sales Hall of Fame.  Aim high.

So, while we’re on the subject of behavioral changes, we might as well address another very current issue that has infiltrated our ranks.  When was the last time you said, “Does that make sense?”  Probably you had just laid out a new program for your company.  Or maybe you were explaining to a client why his wall just fell over.  Perhaps you were politely outlining to some mid-level cookie manager why helping your daughter sell Girl Scout cookies is important but cannot be the priority in your day.  The possibilities are endless.

Yes, you just realized that you’ve used this phrase six times in the past four hours.  But wait, you say, isn’t that just being polite?  Am I not just acknowledging the other person’s need to understand and giving him/her the option of admitting that the subject isn’t completely clear yet?  Isn’t this sensitive and inclusive and all those other things we accuse men of not being in the workplace?

The lesser answer is yes.  Absolutely, you are a more effective communicator if you give another person the opportunity to ask for clarification.  You are exchanging ideas, not lecturing.  You are being a good consultant/contractor/cookie manager. Obviously you are not doing your job well if the other person doesn’t understand what you are trying to say.  This is why I once seriously disciplined a junior engineer when he said, “Hey – we’re not English majors,” after I told him his report was unclear and poorly written.  (Yes, there was also the issue of being disrespectful to his boss).

The more far-reaching answer is no.  True, acknowledging the listener’s ability to understand is critical.  But the wording is flawed.  “Does that make sense?” subtly implies that the delivery was insufficient or inadequate.  Even worse, it suggests that maybe the reasoning is incorrect. Once again, we put the burden on ourselves, suggesting that perhaps we screwed up in explaining the situation or even in coming up with the idea.  This question usually is accompanied by uptalking and passive approach, which are problems for another day.  But all of these tactics fall in the same category, the catch-all that says we are so grateful to be at the table because we know we aren’t really qualified.  While it is true that professional situations could benefit greatly from a more inclusive approach and less testosterone-fueled lecturing, modifying longstanding communication practices should not involve undermining our credibility and value.

A secondary reason why we should exorcise this phrase from our vocabularies is the fact that is used constantly.  Just like hackneyed corporate training devices like “That’s a great question,” these words lose their effect when they are used every five minutes for every situation.  (No one believes you think they have had a great insight when you have said “That’s a great question” to every other audience member/meeting attendee for the past 30 minutes, as has everyone for the past 10 years.  Just stop).

As alternatives, perhaps we could say, “Do you understand so far?” Or even “Do you want me to clarify any of this?”  If you are giving a presentation without audience feedback or filming a video, JUST DON’T SAY ANYTHING.  You’re smart.  You’re a professional.  Put it out there, and deal with questions or arguments if they appear.

I will confess to being a repeat offender in the “Does that make sense?” category, and I am on a mission to go cold turkey.  I would request that all of our Underpinnings members do the same.  I am happy to have Self-Sabotage Support meetings and accountability sponsors, as long as cake is involved.  If you hear me say the phrase in conversation, you are hereby authorized to command me to give you a dollar.  I encourage you to give your co-workers similar instructions. We can do this, together.  It does make sense.

Perfection, Part II

Are These Our Only Two Choices?

No doubt you have taken part in at least one discussion, if not endless discourse, on the cultural rift we have today between our Millennial generation and the rest of the world in the working environment.  Trust me when I say I understand why this division exists, because I have analyzed and investigated and listened until I can’t stand to hear the phrase “work-life balance” one more time.  I get it, and I understand it.  Whether or not I agree with many of the current recommendations for coping with it is a minefield for another time.

Pertinent to our exploration of perfection here at Underpinnings is a thread that runs through most examinations of why Millennials act the way they do – the idea that we, the parent generation, are at fault.  As a friend of mine so aptly put it, “We always swore up and down that our kids wouldn’t have to work as hard as we have.  Well, they don’t.  At all.”

Before this turns into an ugly digital brawl over whether or not Millennials are worthless slackers or hapless victims, (do you love the fact that those are the only two choices?), I would divert your attention to the same hypothesis, but for a different issue.  Are we, the parents of the next generation of brilliant women, promoting perfection at the expense of personal growth and societal improvement? And are we doing it to spare ourselves from pain?

Many of us in the GenX and Baby Boomer categories have fought some bloody battles to get where we are and to smooth the way for women behind us on the moving sidewalk of life.  We remember when a woman would have very little recourse if a man on a construction site said something vulgar or, worse, didn’t pay any attention to her engineering recommendations.  We’ve had our asses grabbed and our chests groped, and we have been on the receiving end of drunken kisses from superiors at professional events.

So things are better now, right?  And that’s a good thing, right?  But are we, ourselves, sabotaging more progress by reinforcing the notion of perfection in our daughters, our protégées, and our co-workers?

The connection between the quest for perfection and problems with sexism have played around the edges of my brain for a long time.  There was something there that was truly bothering me, and I knew it was a very basic, very ugly problem.  It took a lot of runs and hours on the Treadclimber to jar the pattern out of my observations.  When I finally felt like I had made the connection I was sensing, it came down to two issues: stereotypes and sex.

Yes, we cheer on young women now in a variety of previously male-dominated fields.  If you are the top of your class and you get promoted to district manager at 25 and you receive an award for Young Contractor of the Year, the world will give you a medal and call you legitimate.  But if you are a female and you’re not in the top 10% of your class, chances are you will not get a rousing round of encouragement to “go for it.”  Why?  Because we all know that even in 2018, a woman has to excel to be considered average in a man’s world.  A woman who does not excel will not be considered average, she’ll be viewed as dead weight.  So, as often occurs, her loving family discourages her from moving forward in a career environment that they know will be difficult.  Our message: If you’re not brilliant, you’re a failure.  Even worse – if you’re not brilliant, you need to settle for being just a wife and mother.  (As if being a wife and mother is easy or unimportant or settling). Why are there only two extremes?  Because parents and mentors don’t want their loved ones to be hurt.  So we drive drive drive the young ladies to get perfect grades and be class president and captain of the lacrosse team.  And when our daughters get average grades and express interest in “unimportant” things like teaching or fashion or interior design, we write them off.  (Where would we be without teachers???) Or when they get average grades and still want to be engineers, we discourage them.  It will be too hard, we think. Being who they are isn’t enough to break the glass ceiling, so being who they are isn’t enough. We then relegate their career importance to whatever children they may someday have.

I work with a lot of men who aren’t very smart.  (Insert jokes here). Many of them are successful because they work hard, they’re creative, and they come up with unique solutions to problems.  There’s no reason to think that a female engineering student with middling grades couldn’t achieve in the same manner.  But we know she’ll be underappreciated at the start, and we don’t want her to get discouraged.  So we recommend different routes.  We imply that anything less than perfection isn’t good enough to join our sisterhood.

The other side of this issue involves our personal, not professional, expectations of our younger generation.  One could (try to) make the argument that some parents press their children of both sexes to be top notch academically and give up when they aren’t. But no argument can be made that we view our daughters and sons equally when evaluating their personal decisions.

Take pregnancy. Obviously, all parents and mentors want their young people to become parents when it is appropriate and feasible financially.  (Spoiler – it’s never financially feasible to be a parent).  But if a boy gets his girlfriend (or Friday night hookup) pregnant, chances are his family will be upset, but mainly concerned about how he’ll be able to support the child and how it will affect his future.  If a girl gets pregnant by her boyfriend, her family is worried about the same things, but they are also ashamed.  They are disappointed in her.  As much as you can try to say that the concern is just about her future, 9 times out of 10 the parents and friends are disappointed in her moral choices.  She let someone touch her.  If the boy was a Friday night hookup instead of a boyfriend, the shame is tenfold.  You can try to say all day long that all of the crying is about practicality and futures and finances, but you cannot deny the fact that many parents will look at their daughters differently in these situations.  She had sex.  Everyone will know.  So they push their daughters to be perfect.  Don’t dress improperly.  Don’t flirt.  You don’t need to pay attention to boys, you need to study. Isn’t it great that my daughter isn’t interested in boys?

A sad component of this problem is our own selfish worries about what others will think.  “They’ll think I’m a bad parent.” “People will know my daughter decided to have sex and they’ll think less of me.”  Needless to say, such concerns are shallow and only reinforce sexist societal attitudes.

Along with shame from pregnancy comes fear of our young women being seen as sexual beings at all.  Our sons get lucky with a hot girl at work?  At least one person will say, “Atta boy.” You find out your daughter had sex with a construction worker on one of her sites?  Instead of, “Well, that wasn’t brilliant, but making mistakes means learning,” we say, “Who knows about it?  Oh no.  You’ll be ruined.” (No one EVER says, “Atta girl.”) In many cases, she will be ruined.  Because we, the older generation, are freaking out about the fact that an adult woman in a free society made a choice.  Again, you can say all day long that we are just trying to protect her, but perpetuating double-standards isn’t protection.  It’s fear.  We are limiting our daughters’ freedom because we are afraid they’ll get hurt, and that hurt will hurt us.

Our over-protection is just another version of trophies-for-everyone, no-grades-until-fourth-grade, and gifts-for-every-party-guest.  Our generation and the generation before us got where we are by dealing with the ugly side of sexism in the workplace and in society.  If we want progress to continue, we have to allow the current generation to participate.  Let your young protégée take that job with that nasty old superintendent, and let her figure out how to show him who’s boss.  She’ll probably make some mistakes, and she might even end up quitting the job, but at least she got out there. Support your daughter when she admits that she hates school and she’s always dreamed of being a magician on a cruise ship and VIEW HER CAREER AS VALID.  Treat your niece like the shining star she still is when she comes home from Coachella pregnant.  She is a smart, strong, ball-buster, and she’ll figure out a way to get her PhD in agronomy with a toddler on her hip. We have to stop telling our girls that their only two choices are perfection and mediocrity.  And we need to respect them as the fierce individuals that they are instead of trying to cram them into some ideal that helps us sleep at night.

Perfection, Part I

I Just Want It To Be Perfect

When I was young I used to haul around a sketch pad with me everywhere.  I spent hours and hours drawing…dresses.  I was fascinated by fabric and design and endlessly intrigued by art that one can wear.  As I grew older, I found out that my passion for art was balanced by my interest in science and engineering.  I thought the Great Pyramids were beautiful, but I also constantly found myself saying, “But how did they build that?” I think you know which direction I chose when I hit the unavoidable fork in the career road in college.

My artistic beginnings are probably some of the reasons I’m such a big fan of the TLC show “Say Yes to the Dress.”  No, it’s not the family drama.  It’s not the suspense. (Will she find a dress?! Or will she go to her $150,000 wedding in a sundress from Target?) It’s truly the dresses.  At the end of a long week when I’m trying to decide if I want to be an engineer again on Monday, I can sit on the couch on Friday night and say, “Ooo – look how well that drapes!”

On the other hand, the quickest way for me lose my Friday night happy coma is for one of the brides to implore, “But I just want it to be perfect!” This statement typically is said in the same tone a defeated peasant uses as she watches the invading army ride into town – “I just hope they let some of us live!”  The desperate brides who use this phrase lead us to believe that their lives will be over if every detail in their weddings is not exactly as they have envisioned it.  The cynic in me often yells at the screen, “You mean not perfect, as in something might happen that you haven’t imagined in your short, limited little life?  Something that might be better than what you dreamt of in your narrow-minded pursuit of an impossible goal but that you’ll be too myopic to appreciate?!” Okay, I try to keep my blood pressure low by ignoring this part of the episodes, but sometimes I can’t help it.  And it seems as if this illusion of perfection is everywhere these days.  It drives me crazy.  More importantly, it seems to me that the goal of perfection is much more prevalent among women than among men.

My distaste for this idea of perfection turned into a more mature interest when I heard this TED Talk.  Throughout Ms. Saujauni’s presentation, I kept saying, “Yes! Yes!” The idea of having to attain perfection is much more than a dramatic moment on a Friday night reality show. Her insights made me see that my revulsion on Friday nights was a response to a much larger condition than simply a tulle vs. silk predicament.  Soon after I listened to her talk, I read this post . I think both ladies have very similar messages, and I think we need to sit up and take notice, for our daughters’ sakes.

Human beings are, by definition, imperfect.  Our world also is imperfect.  We might use the word with abandon when it comes to spring days and d’Orsay heels and men who play James Bond.  But the truth is that none of those things and none of this world actually are perfect.  And those who pursue the nonexistent are doomed to the frustration of futility.

So why do we ask our daughters to be perfect? Why do we encourage them to attempt only things in which they have some chance of succeeding?  Why do we do everything in our power to protect them from making mistakes? Why are we so petrified that they will make mistakes?

As a perpetual optimist, I like to think the root of this problem is in biology, not in maliciousness.  As our species was becoming established, it was necessary for women to be as “perfect” as possible to be attractive to potential mates.  Women who did not reproduce and who weren’t married often did not have the protection of a man and could end up in dire straits. Families wanted to make sure their daughters didn’t end up poor and at the mercy of a less-than-benevolent society, so they pushed them to be without any possible flaws that could be construed as unsuitable for a potential mate.

This anthropological analysis (without any expertise to back it up), would explain an 1850s frontier family’s extreme concern over their oldest daughter’s penchant for wearing men’s pants while doing her farm chores.  In 1850, the negative reaction from the rest of the people in the small prairie town could lead to more than just some counseling sessions over bullying at the general store.  Being unmarriageable on the frontier could lead to problems for the whole family, including lack of protection from hostile raids and exclusion from pooling of resources.

But this isn’t 1850.  Even if your grandmother scolds you that you won’t find a man with hands that dirty (I proved her wrong more than once), the family is not likely to end up starving and surrounded by pirates/bandits just because you spend your days smeared with unladylike mud from various construction sites.

And yet, we continue to hold onto this idea of perfection.  We cringe at the thought of our daughters doing anything to generate negative attention.  If I hear “But in this age of social media, their mistakes will follow them everywhere” one more time I’ll scream.  Yes, your mistakes will be preserved for all eternity, but so what?  They are mistakes.  By teaching our daughters that mistakes should be avoided and covered up at all costs, we are telling them that they are not okay if they make a mistake.  We are saying that evidence of a mistake made 15 years ago might very well ruin an entire life.  And, in doing so, we discourage them from taking risks.  We teach them not to be brave.

I would be willing to gamble some hard-earned pennies that most of the women reading this post who have succeeded in engineering or construction careers have felt during at least part of those careers that they could not make any mistakes.  They knew that any one mistake, whether it be professional or personal, could spell the end of their careers.  After all, there were many men just looking for reasons as to why those women shouldn’t be in their jobs.  A mistake of any sort would provide just the ammunition a misogynist would need to say, “See?  I told you she didn’t belong here.”

When was the last time you heard about a guy who slept with his secretary or his foreperson or his IT expert and it didn’t affect his job.  The answer is yesterday.  Even better, when was the last time you saw a male co-worker get completely ripped at a company party and dance around with the proverbial lamp shade on his head?  Again, the answer is yesterday.  Many people would say, “Wow, that guy…” as they chuckled to themselves.  But the philanderer and the drunk both would keep their jobs.  “But, he’s good at his job, right?”

Now put a woman in both of those scenarios.  She’s not going to survive either one of these incidents.  Because both involve mistakes.  And both involve a lapse in judgment, which we are not allowed to have.  “What else will she do?  She might end up sleeping with the whole second floor IT department!  And if her judgment is bad in this area, how can she possibly size a beam for a load test?  Off with her head!”

So we tell our daughters to be strong and ambitious and go get a great career….as long as they do it perfectly.  If any mistakes are made, we’ll hire social media experts to wipe away the evidence, and we’ll spirit the girl off to an isolated location for trauma control. Yes, go get that engineering degree from Berkeley, but be sure to get straight As and make sure you agree with everyone you encounter.  They’ll call you a star if you’re perfect! Of course, you’ll never have an opportunity to learn from any mistakes, and your risk-avoidance will prohibit you from trying anything new or innovative.  But have a great life!

Is this what we want?  I know I don’t.  Over the years some of my most spectacular mistakes have taught me the most.  And I don’t want the false sense of security that I’m only okay if I’m perfect, which I’m not.  (I think there is a full astral plane between me and perfection).

So what do we do about this?  Or do we do something about this – is perfection the right goal?  Stay tuned for Part II.

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