Peggy Hagerty Duffy
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.
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.
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.
90% Ready for Change, 10% Irritated
By Guest Contributor Lori Simpson, (who we’re 90% sure is CGG (Chief Geotechnical Genius) at Langan)
On a recent conference call my headset microphone wasn’t working and I couldn’t speak. Many people on the call didn’t notice the difference, well, because how often do women speak up on conference calls…or in meetings for that matter? Ok, ok, don’t get indignant. Of course we women speak. Some might say we are Chatty Kathys (no knock on Kathys) or that we “pick a little talk a little, pick a little talk a little, cheep cheep cheep talk a lot pick a little more.” (Any fans of the Music Man? I played Miriam’s mother in my middle school production). So how did we women get the reputation for talking too much when we don’t speak up enough?
They say that a woman needs to be 90% sure about something before she speaks up but a man only needs to be 10% sure. I see this in meetings all the time. When I was a junior engineer, I would go to meetings with a senior engineer (male, obviously, as there were no female senior engineers in my world). I would practically kick him under the conference room table because of some of the stuff that would come out of his mouth. No, he wasn’t being disrespectful; he was saying things that were flat out incorrect. As the junior engineer, I knew the details of the project,so I would know when he was wrong. Later, as I became the lead geotechnical engineer… (I’m not going to say I was senior, because well, that would speak to my age and we aren’t going there in this post…although there has been some previous discussion about my age, and I will speak to that in another post someday)…okay, where was I? Oh yes, being the lead engineer and sitting in meetings. Every time a question came to me I would take time to think and slowly respond with an answer that had a lot of qualifiers: “if”, “likely”, “might”, “could”, etc. Basically I knew there there was not an absolute answer (in geotechnical engineering there never is), so I made it clear that I was not asserting one definite position. So often in these meetings I would get a sense of dissatisfaction about my response. I think I was dissatisfied too. How come I couldn’t give a definite answer like EVERYONE else in the room? Note that everyone else was male (I’m sorry if I keep stating the obvious…but hopefully it’s not that way now so our younger readers might not think it’s obvious). It wasn’t because I was shy. It wasn’t because I felt like I shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t because I didn’t know what I was doing. So WHY?
At one point I attended a conference called Groundbreaking Women in Construction. This conference is alive and well and you should go. And while you are there, call me because it’s always in SF and I would love to meet you for a drink. But I digress. I attended a panel on the different leadership styles of men and women. This was the first time I had ever heard about this -what? Men and women are different? This was an eye opener. I mean, I grew up in the era of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, but I had never read it, and I didn’t think it applied to the working world (maybe because I had never read it?) One of the things that was presented was that women need to be something like 90% sure and men need to be only 10% sure before speaking up. GAME CHANGER!
I knew that when the senior engineer spoke incorrectly, he was saying what others wanted to hear—a confident answer. I also knew that he didn’t know all the details so he couldn’t give the entirely correct answer. What I didn’t know was that him knowing just enough about the project meant that he felt confident to give an answer. After that conference session, I noticed what was happening. All the men in the room knew just enough and spoke freely and sometimes incorrectly. The women (ok, woman) in the room wasn’t always 90% sure so she didn’t speak up…or when asked, gave an answers with lots of qualifiers so that the 10% she didn’t know was covered.
So does this mean that the outcomes of meetings with all or mostly men are based on an inadequate amount of information? Does it mean that the wrong conclusions are made? I would say generally no. Maybe it takes more meetings to get to the final answer because if you only know 10%, it might take you 10 meetings to get to the solution. And because women aren’t speaking up, even though they know 90%, they aren’t helping everyone get there. I don’t really believe in this math, but it makes me wonder -should men be more prepared and consider their responses before they give them? Or should women be more willing to “go out on a limb” when they don’t have all the information? On the one hand it seems obvious that the men should be more prepared and only speak up when they know more about the subject. And if a woman actually speaks up, you should put 9 times more weight on her answer. But I think there is value in the “brainstorming” method that I think occurs in meetings with men.
Ultimately, my observation is that people want you to speak up. They want to hear what you have to say. You are there for a reason, hopefully at a high billing rate, so contribute. You can put in an “if” or a “likely,” but they want you to sound confident. You might give the reasons why it is not a sure thing. Or you might say that this is the way you think it should go but there are some risks that you can explain. Either way–be confident.
After I heard the 10%/90% philosophy, my competitive nature erupted and now I try to speak up in meetings just to compete with the men for airtime. I watch how interruptions are made and how they speak over each other and join in the fun. And as long as I know at least 10% about what I am talking about, I’m on equal ground.
Yes, I’m Supposed to Be Here
Confidence is a subject we have covered extensively on this forum. It should not be a surprise to anyone currently engaged in our dialogue about women’s issues in a male-dominated workplace that a lack of confidence runs rampant through our ranks. Yes, there are women who blaze a trail unencumbered by self-doubt, and they are our heroes. But the rest of us continue to wage a battle for our place in the working world with compromised armor.
I am always fascinated by those women who sail through sexist-infested waters with no apparent recognition of the doubters and haters around them. These are the women who don’t hesitate to state their opinions, do their jobs, and tell any obstructionists to get the hell out of the way. So I study them in hopes that I might learn their secrets. No retraining orders have been filed thus far, so apparently my approach has been anthropologist-worthy. In any case, I have observed some of the most inspiring attitudes from a completely unexpected source.
The first twelve years of my education (plus kindergarten) were overseen and influenced by Roman Catholic nuns. My grade school nuns were Ursuline Sisters, and my high school nuns were Sisters of Mercy. In addition, my great aunt was a Sister of Charity. I still deal with nuns from a number of orders regularly at church and through charity work. I have the utmost respect for the dedication, work ethic, organizational skills, and focus of nuns as a whole. (I left out integrity, honesty, humility, etc., because I think those are givens). I’m also in awe of the fact that they tolerate spending their whole lives in boring, sensible shoes. That’s grit.
I cannot recall a single nun who appeared to be tentative or lacking in confidence when it came to executing her duties. Yes, I have known sisters who were shy, but the vast majority in my experience have been downright commanding in their work lives. I certainly never saw a nun defer to a man simply because he was a man. Surely you have seen or heard jokes about drill sergeant-like nuns as teachers? Plays and musicals have been written about hard core, rigid nuns issuing orders and demanding respect from masses of obedient students and adults alike.
If you read the Outlander books, (and if you don’t, we cannot be friends), the author, Diana Gabaldon, wrote a passage in which the main character reflects on where she learned to have a commanding presence in her role as a battlefield nurse during World War II. She observed nuns ordering soldiers around who were twice their size and gaining cooperation by not accepting anything else. She learned by their example that if she barked an order and acted authoritative, many men would simply comply. In a major role in one of the books, the Mother Superior of a hospital in France directs men and women about equally, never giving either subordinates or colleagues the opportunity to disagree. The character would be called “fierce” in 2018, and she serves as inspiration for the heroine when she needs to marshal her courage.
It might seem a bit counter intuitive to look for help with confidence from a group of women whose very vows could be perceived as subservient. They do not attain positions of commercial success in our society. They are forbidden from accumulating wealth or possessions. They are committed to advancing the work of their order and the church instead of their own desires.
But nuns are also some of the smartest and most well-educated women around. Sister Mary Prisca Pfeffer, my former high school principal and English teacher, died at the age of 96 with more college degrees than I could count. My great aunt insisted that my dad speak only in French during the summer so he could learn the language better. And these two examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
So where does their example leave the rest of us? More importantly, how do they achieve such confidence, and where can we get some of that?
Of course, part of the answer must include the fact that the sisters believe God is on their side. How can you not go about your work with forcefulness and aplomb when you believe that your mission has divine approval?
But beyond the obvious, I feel that many nuns stride purposefully through their vocation because they truly believe they are supposed to be there. Well, of course they do, you say. That’s no revelation. Otherwise they wouldn’t have taken vows and devoted themselves to the lives they have, right? So, if they believe so strongly in their rightful places in their roles, why don’t we?
History, of course, is one answer to that question. Nuns have filled the roles of nurses and teachers and missionaries feeding the hungry for years. They don’t have to overcome the fact that there were few, if any women in their roles 50 years ago. In fact, nuns are all women!
But what if we borrow their attitude? What if we simply decide we’re supposed to be here? We adopt that don’t-waste-time-arguing-with-me-because-it-won’t-do-you-any-good demeanor and make those around us believe it?
Before I learned that it was okay to be my age (see this post) I often joked that I graduated from college in 2007. I have told many people that others will be believe even something improbable if you look them directly in the eyes and sound confident in your statement. Actually, that’s usually true. So what if we just deal with others in the workplace every day as if it’s understood that we should be there (BECAUSE IT’S TRUE), and completely tune out any doubters. It would be even more fabulous if we could slap the knuckles of all of those doubters with a ruler, but I think there might be various local and federal laws against that.
I urge you to try the “Nun Approach” in your workplace this week. Of course it should be accompanied by all appropriate courtesies, particularly if you work anywhere that could be construed as southern. (“Yes, sir, you have inadequate clearance around your rebar for shafts C12 and F7. Those need to be fixed ASAP or your concrete is going right back to the plant. Thank you for getting this done right now.”)
The most important part of this plan is the change that will take place in your own head. If you don’t let anyone else stop to question your presence in your job, you’ll forget the question it, too. Sister Mary Prisca NEVER let anyone question her authority or her expertise, and she was right. I can diagram the previous sentence for you as proof. So we need to put her and other sisters on a pedestal and follow their lead. We’ll just wear different shoes.
We’ve been a bit absent here at Underpinnings lately, and I was going to lead off this post by apologizing. I’m so sorry that I am overloaded with work, that I’m in charge of various parts of three separate charity fundraisers in three months, that I’m trying to run a group of 25 community volunteers, and that I have ongoing chaos in my family right now. But I’m not. (And Superwoman Helen shouldn’t even dream of apologizing).
I’m not going to apologize. All of these activities and situations are important to me, and it was my choice to prioritize them. More importantly, I’m not going to try to ameliorate a failure or bad situation that exists only in my mind by offering an apology.
Studies and statistics and charts and graphs and barroom conversations all state that many women tend to apologize routinely in business and in life in general. We use the apology as a means to do a number of things, none of which are good. (Some anomalous women don’t do this – you know who you are, so just sit there and be smug).
1) We apologize to soften the blow of a difficult conversation. We assume that if we explicitly take some of the blame for a bad situation, the other person or persons will be less likely to be confrontational and a resolution might be reached.
2) We apologize to show that we are accountable, even if we had nothing to do with the problem at hand. We want to show that we are willing to share the blame for a bad situation, thus showing our willingness to be a team player in effecting a solution.
3) We apologize to keep another person from feeling badly. We willingly take unwarranted blame so that another person won’t be upset, thus regulating the emotional barometer of the room.
4) We apologize because we want people to know that we’re just lucky to be here and have a chance at a seat at the table. We’re willing to fall on our swords to express our humility.
5) We apologize because the 4,000 demands of our everyday lives cannot be met and we feel inadequate. See paragraph #1 of this post.
None of these reasons are okay. Some, particularly #4, are downright upsetting. Should I really still be trying to make nice after all these years? Am I still worried that if I make trouble or if I don’t appear to be a martyr that someone will decide that I’m not worthy to have my job/family/life?
Unfortunately, apparently many of us still feel this way, even if it’s only subconsciously. We apologize to create a buffer in our lives. In effect, we apologize for who we are.
When was the last time you apologized? Have you told a client this week that you’re so sorry the foundation cost turned out to be higher than he expected? Have you messaged your best friend and said you’re terribly sorry you haven’t called her this week and you’re a bad friend? Have you apologized to a co-worker because you were already scheduled to be on a site in San Francisco and he needs help on a job in Miami? Stop it. None of these things are your fault. You are not a bad person. Falling on your sword will only ruin your outfit.
Just this week I found out that a manufacturer supplying products for a volunteer project of mine had neglected to tell me that he didn’t start producing the planters we ordered until about three weeks after he originally intended. The delay meant that my volunteer organization would not be able to place the planters on the new city medians and fill them with flowers in time for a big fireworks show being held where I live. Keep in mind, not only was the delay not my fault, but I’ve given hundreds of volunteer hours to this project. But my first reaction was to contact city officials and apologize for the delay. “I’m so very sorry that we will not have those flowers out for the tourists, and I feel very badly about it.” Yes, I did feel badly about it, because I was looking forward to seeing the street planters spilling over with beautiful flowers. But should I apologize? Absolutely not. It would send the wrong message – that my best wasn’t enough, and that any problems should be attributed to me. In actuality, I worked my petunia off on that project, and everything but this one item worked out. But we women rarely emphasize what we’ve done right. Instead, we dwell on what we’ve done wrong, even if we didn’t do it!
It took all of my strength to contact the various city officials and never say the words “I’m sorry.” After I was done, I had the horrible urge to call them all back and stress that I REALLY WAS SORRY. But I resisted, and I have to say I’m pretty proud of myself.
For many of us, apologizing is a salve to the open wound that is our feeling of not being enough. We have decided that the only way we can justify having the jobs we have and the family lives we want and the shoes we love is to acknowledge to the world that we somehow are falling short. It must be perfect, or someone will come and tell me I’m fired. What in the hell is perfect? And who is making all of these impossible standards for us that no one could attain? We are. And we need to stop. We need to go after the job and kiss the guy and have the kids and bake the cake and buy the shoes and not get to the end of it and decide that the cake was a little dry and the kiss should have been longer.
I do want to mention that I’m not speaking against compassion (“I’m so sorry that you’re not feeling well”), and I am a firm believer in accountability, a virtue that seems to be escaping many millennials (“I’m truly sorry that I was busy talking on my phone and knocked over your ladder and caused you to fall two stories to the pavement. I’m also sorry that I stayed two extra days on my ayurvedic retreat, causing us to lose the contract for the project I was on”). Always always be considerate and compassionate. However, doing so doesn’t mean giving away situational power for no reason. You are not doing a good thing by assuming blame for something out of your control or an error committed by others. And if your life includes the things you want it to include, don’t second guess your choices and apologize. The new hashtag to replace #sorrynotsorry is simply #notsorry.
We Can Do It…Even Better Now
If you follow our little blog and read the comments from our readers, you might have seen a rather pointed comment on our introduction of our contest winner, Lori Simpson, back in December. After we listed all of Lori’s lengthy accomplishments, I suggested that this was all very impressive because Lori was only 25. The implication, of course, was that it would be more desirable if Lori were 25 than her actual age, which is not my business to disclose. (I wasn’t raised by wolves). One of our readers expressed her dismay at the joke and suggested that we stop acting like younger is better and start showing some respect for the accomplishments and benefits of age.
Okay, just between us chickens, my initial reaction was not one that appreciated her insights. In fact, I think the mumbling alone in my office went something like, “Oh sure – you’re probably, what? 35? If that? I’ll bet you don’t spend a good portion of your time trying to keep your rear end from hanging down to the backs of your knees. You probably don’t even know what Retinol is. You have maybe one wrinkle? And you probably told all your friends about how horrible it is. Just wait until your face looks like a topo map and then talk to me about how great age is. You’ll just love it when you look like Mrs. Claus and all the guys just want you to bake them cookies.” There might have been some uglier rambling, but I’ll spare you that.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking about her comments. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was right. I hate it when that happens. My attitude about my own age in fact does nothing more than contribute to accepted social negativity. As long as I focus on the drawbacks of maturity and fail to celebrate the benefits, I’m just making the problem worse.
So I need to embrace the beauty of maturity and wisdom and stop acting like younger is better. This is nothing we all haven’t read in a thousand magazines. Extol the mystique and allure of my accumulated years and celebrate the fact that I have a lot more career experience and knowledge than the average bear. Appreciate that I am in a position now to help my clients and contribute professionally with a unique perspective based on a long history of project execution and successes.
Fabulous. So I conceded my error (even though our beloved reader never knew of my solo rant) and issued a retraction in the form of a Solution Feature that embraced the value of age.
But the issue kept bugging me. There was something missing from this newly accepted perspective. Even though I was not drinking wine at a café in Paris, adorned with an artfully arranged scarf and chatting with the most recent in a string of fabulous lovers, I could see myself better in the framework of an accomplished woman of 50. (There, it’s out there. It only took 45 minutes for me to type that number). But the career side didn’t fit. So I had to sort through it to understand why.
Many times I’ve been with my dad at a site, and an owner or a contractor or another engineer has listened to him and not me. I can’t count how many times he’s said to me, “You just don’t have enough gray hair.” To which I usually replied, “I have a salon to make sure that never happens.” It’s been our running joke for years. When I tried to figure out what piece of the maturity puzzle was missing, I realized that this was it.
Women only began working in our industry in visible numbers in recent years. It’s reasonable to say that women only really began entering our field in significant numbers in the mid-1980s. If a woman graduated from college in 1985, she would be about 55 years old now. What does this mean? This means that most of the guys on jobsites and at design firms have no experience in dealing with a “gray-haired” woman in our industry. They don’t associate a gray-haired woman in our position with a paragon of wisdom, because they have no frame of reference.
So doesn’t that just mean that we’re creating a new identity and men in our field will start to recognize it? If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, in our business, we have trouble with our roles to begin with. Many guys don’t acknowledge us at all. Being older won’t have any effect on their apathy. Other men pay attention to us only because we’re female. (“You smell better than the concrete crew.” So do some horses, but the gist of the compliment was understood). We hope and pray that our expertise will widen their appreciation of our abilities beyond just physical appearance and they’ll eventually regard us as worthwhile professionals. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. For those guys, age cancels out any reason to pay attention to us. We’re old and unattractive to them. For another subset of guys, an older woman creates nothing but a worry or a hazard on a jobsite. “Don’t break a hip!” “Wouldn’t you be happier somewhere you can get your knitting needles out and work?”
We don’t have that magical role of a wise sage to attain, because it doesn’t exist in the female form in our industry. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some brilliant femmes d’un certain age in our field. But they are so few as to not be known by the masses.
What that means for us is that Joe B. Superintendent might ask me if I’m at a site to visit my grandson, or if I’m someone’s secretary delivering shop drawings. He might hold my elbow when I step over piles of rebar because he’s afraid I’ll break a bone and end up in a nursing home forever. He might ignore me thinking I have nothing useful to share.
This sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? On the contrary, much like everything else we have dealt with in our roles as women in a male-dominated profession, this is just another opportunity to blaze a trail. In fact, this gives us the chance to define what the image of an experienced, mature female engineer or contractor will be in the deep foundations business. I’m thinking we can do a lot with this. My contribution might be along the lines of Indiana Jones meets Dorothy Parker meets Reese Witherspoon. We are not conventional women and we won’t leave conventional marks. And all the boys on the jobsites will recognize that they will have no idea what to expect when they see a female “gray hair,” but we’ll have important things to contribute. I’m not suggesting this will be easy, but it gives us something more positive to reach for in our dotage when we start getting negative or apathetic reactions instead of the respect we deserve. I hope you’ll write this script with me.
(It’s important to note that I say gray hair symbolically and metaphorically. I honor every woman’s choice, but I’m southern. We don’t do that salt and pepper nonsense, and you will not convince me that it’s more authentic or honest or whatever other fairy tale you want to sell me. Hair colorists need jobs, and I won’t let them down. But I’ll project that “gray hair” aura with pride).
The Casualties Are Higher When It’s Personal
It didn’t take the #metoo movement for most of us to be familiar with being undervalued or disrespected or ignored at work or in school. Even our youngest millennials who work in progressive companies with open-minded colleagues have run into ugliness at some point. The trouble may have come from a backwards guy on a jobsite spouting obscene suggestions while he ignored your engineering evaluation of the problem with his soil nail wall. You may have lost a promotion to a guy with less experience but who the boss felt more comfortable sending out to construction sites. Or the issue may have been more subtle; a manager who professed to care about your career but who kept assigning difficult projects to others in order to “give you less stress.”
As we wade through these swine-infested waters, the implication is that all of our problems are work issues. The offenders are people from families that aren’t yours. The misogynists are other women’s husbands (bless their hearts). And when you leave the offensive situation at work, you get to go home to sympathetic people who love you and value you for everything wonderful that you are.
Yes, in the candy-canes-and-teddy-bears world in my head this is true. We all have supportive, understanding partners and close-knit, warm families. Diane Keaton will be playing your mom in the movie about how you took on the unequal power structure at your company and won, and Kelly Clarkson will do the soundtrack.
How often is this really true? Using the analytical side of our personalities, does it make statistical sense that all of us fabulous women in our field would have enlightened partners and families? Not a chance. We have to be realistic about the fact that our career choices likely will make waves for us personally as well as professionally. And it’s doubtful that there’s an HR office in your house to sort it out. So solving your inequality problems with people you are tied to legally and genetically probably will be much more complicated than taking care of your work issues. And much more painful.
I worked with a woman years ago whose father was an earthwork contractor. He had raised his two sons to work in the family business, and neither had ended up working with him. On the other hand, his daughter had spent her childhood begging to learn how to operate a backhoe, asking questions about grade stakes and stockpiles. He told her that girls had no place in construction. She tried for years, only to be rebuffed. Finally out of high school, she chose to go to engineering school, hoping for a “backdoor” into her father’s world. Sadly, he never accepted her. His disapproval and lack of pride in his daughter’s accomplishments led to bitterness and anger in her. When I met her she was in her late twenties, and her bitterness toward her father subconsciously controlled most of her actions. She slept with men of whom she knew he would disapprove; she slanted all of her evaluations on jobsites against the interests of the contractors; and she measured every career victory in terms of what her father was missing. It was tragic.
Could she have changed her father’s longstanding opinions if she had tried a different approach? Could she have proven to him through actions that his outdated beliefs were wrong? We’ll never know. They stopped speaking to each other years ago.
Many counselors and psychologists will tell you that insecurities are magnified a thousand fold with your “family of origin.” This sensitivity can make rectifying a bad situation seem insurmountable. The emotions involved can cloud reason and douse any flame of energy for being patient with ingrained prejudices and longstanding beliefs. With family, a woman must have a true desire to change her relatives’ beliefs and behaviors. And she must have patience above all. Because she is not just redefining another person’s beliefs, she is restructuring the family unit. Making progress may not always be possible, and it will be arduous when it does occur.
A relationship with a partner is a completely different issue. A partner is someone who has been chosen. The implication is that the chosen person loves you and wants what’s best for you, no matter what. Even if such a person would have outdated beliefs, they would be easy to convert to a more progressive mindset because they think you’re fabulous.
If only it were that simple. As Annie Schmelzer said so brilliantly in this post, most guys don’t go around with a T-shirt that says they’re insecure sexists who will try to undermine you the minute they feel threatened. Wait – threatened? If you love a man and he loves you, why should he ever feel threatened? If you really love each other (and you didn’t get together just because all of your other friends were getting married and it was “time”), you both want nothing more than the health and happiness of the other person. Anything less isn’t real love. But close-but-no-cigar love often comes disguised as real love. Unfortunately, the voids usually don’t appear until it’s too complicated to just walk away.
My mistakes in this area have been spectacular, the product of my leap-before-I-look personality and my perpetual optimism. (Really? That alcoholic who flirts with me every time I come out on site doesn’t respect me? But he said he likes me…) My longtime boyfriend in college was very supportive of my engineering career until I ran into a problem with a guy on my second co-op job in school. When I told my boyfriend that I had brought it up to my boss, he said, “Hey – I didn’t sign up for any feminist crusade.” A guy had just been extremely disrespectful to me, and all my boyfriend could think about was not being involved in a conflict. And I was too stupid to get out of the relationship at the time.
Even though I broke up with that guy later, my obliviousness continued. Probably the most painful experience I had was when I got married to a man who professed to think that my job was “cool” and that he was proud of me. I had always thought that the best part of marriage was sharing yourself with another person, not being afraid that the other person will judge you or use what you share against you. Both of you are supposed to always be on the other’s side. But what I found is that every time I did well at work, my husband would use something I had told him against me. If I solved a dispute on a construction site, he would remind me that I had stomach ulcers and was “weak.” If I gained a new client, he would work into conversation that I get my rights and my lefts mixed up often. If someone else complimented me on my work at a party, he would tell the crowd that I told him how nervous I was when I had to deal with a particular client. I didn’t recognize the pattern – or the motive – at first, but as time went on his comments became meaner and his acknowledgements of anything I did well fewer and far between. Needless to say, he loved some idea of me, but not the actual me. Not the me who wades through mud in deep sinkholes. Not the me who changes her own tires and doesn’t automatically ask a man to perform tough jobs. And being with someone who didn’t want me to be the best person I could, whether as a muddy engineer or in a more traditional role, wasn’t healthy.
As difficult as our professional problems with gender inequality may be, solving the same problems in our personal lives is far more complicated and burdensome. The emotions involved can distort our perceptions of what is best for us and distract us from the truth in our lives. There is no handbook, no company policy, no legal recourse for being narrow-minded in a personal relationship. But we have our sisterhood in this, too, and we owe it to other women to support them when they need us, whether the problem is personal or professional. People we love and who allege to love us should love us for who we are, not who they want us to be. And just like in our professional lives, we owe it to ourselves not to settle for less.
Part II – Us
Previously we addressed the unsuitable behavior of some men in the workplace, and we offered guidelines for those men who were either sincerely or disingenuously unable to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate actions. The other variable in the equation that adds up to a happy workplace is our behavior. Yes, us, the women who are the subjects of this stramash. We may be the victims, but that does not mean we don’t have certain responsibilities in moving toward a solution to the problem.
Wait, what? Somehow the wrong attitudes and actions of other people create responsibilities for us? But we didn’t do anything. Why should we have to work to take care of a problem caused by someone else?
We have a responsibility here because this isn’t Candyland. This is real life, and we live in a world that has been evolving for about 4.54 billion years, give or take 10 to 50 million years. Every ice age, every extinction, every social change, every shift in hemlines has been a product of interdependent factors in a complex environment. You can sit on your princess throne and say that men should just change and life should just be fair. Good luck with that.
For our part, it will only help our cause if we are proactive and do everything in our power to stop the bad guys and enlighten the good guys. Sure, you could just sit around and be mad, waiting for social change to sweep across professional society like a special effect in a science fiction movie. Your desired results will take much, much longer that way, and you will be disconnected from the end result. Instead, we can all take some basic steps to help create an environment that is fair and beneficial to all of us.
1. Repeat after me, “Not all men are bad.” (Okay, you get a pass on this if some guy just broke up with you on a Post-It and you’re out drinking with your girlfriends). It’s funny, because even most guys I know will say, “Men are pigs.” The implication is that men are led around by their baser instincts and, therefore, will always be low quality humans who make bad decisions. But that’s just not true. Even from a statistical standpoint, it is highly unlikely that 49% of 7 billion people would ALL have sub-par character. And assuming that all men are bad is a negative attitude that will ill prepare you for helping your co-workers and bosses and clients evolve into more enlightened colleagues. Saying that all men are bad is a defeatist attitude that will not move us forward even an inch (or a centimeter for our Canadian and European readers).
2. We have to be aware of our own behavior and how it affects the perception of the men around us. I will admit that I sometimes have difficulties with this. I am a toucher – if you’ve met me, I’ve probably hugged you. I routinely grasp the nearest person’s arm to make a point, and I’ll squeeze a colleague around the shoulders to offer congratulations. I have learned that this sometimes generates confusion with my male colleagues. Yes, I’m proud of you for getting that journal article published, but no, I don’t intend to sleep with you as an attaboy. Unfortunately, many men will admit that they are less than adept at reading subtle signs and differentiating between behavior types in various situations. Simply put, some guys think you must want to sleep with them because you squeezed their arms. They are not pigs, they’re just…clueless. It has taken me awhile, but I have learned that I need to be more restrained in many situations to avoid confusion. It doesn’t mean I have to be cold and unfriendly, I just have to pay more attention to men’s reactions and err on the safe side until I feel like I know someone well. This doesn’t mean I’m being unduly burdened, it just means I’m being a responsible adult.
It goes without saying that flirting on the job will broadcast the idea that you might be receptive to inappropriate actions. Certainly, no means no. But you can avoid the pothole more easily if you don’t steer the car in that direction.
3. We have to speak up every time. Sometimes we endure an ugly situation and we emerge unscathed. The temptation is to let well enough alone and move on. Say your boss got physical with you, you gave him what-for, and now he’s acting respectful and giving you a wide berth. You consider just chalking it up to a bad memory and never speaking of it again. But what about the next woman? Maybe she’s not as brave as you are. Maybe she has four kids at home and she’s petrified she’ll lose her job. So the boss just moves on to harassing her. When she finally gets up the nerve to blow the whistle, the supporting evidence you have that would have helped her establish a pattern of behavior isn’t there. Management doubts her claim, because they usually do at first, and when you finally come forward, HR says, “If this really happened, why didn’t you complain?” When you say that the issue was solved, people inevitably look at the other woman and say, “Why didn’t you just do what she did?” Everyone becomes distracted from the fact that what the guy has been doing is WRONG. We need to address bad behavior every time.
It should be noted that at some point in time your justifiable whistle blowing most likely will result in an accusation that you’re just a whiner. You’re too sensitive. You caused the problem. Or, my favorite, you’re just hard to work with. Almost every woman in our field over the age of 30 has been told this at some point because she made public some guy’s bad behavior. I wish I could say don’t worry about it, it won’t happen. But it will, so you have to tell yourself in advance that you’re doing the right thing, and you’re a delightful person. No one can make you feel bad about yourself if you don’t let them.
4. We must always use our power for good. On the opposite side of justifiable whistle blowing is using sexual harassment as a tool to get back at a man with whom you have a personal dispute. Just like sexual harassment, false accusations are wrong. Ruining a man’s reputation because you don’t like him is wrong. Claiming sexual wrongdoing when a workplace romance goes horribly awry is wrong.
I once worked with a woman who actively pursued one of the engineers with the company, even seducing him at his desk after hours. When the short-lived affair went south, she got angry with the engineer and went to the boss to say that she was offended that Playboy magazines were kept in the men’s restroom by this engineer. She felt sexually harassed by this. Obviously, her campaign was personal, and I didn’t back her up when the boss asked me if I also felt compromised. She was furious with me, but I told her that her claim would make it difficult the next time a real problem happened.
This list is not comprehensive, because the best defense is a great offense. But probably our biggest responsibility in our very complicated campaign to rid the workplace of sexual inequalities is our need to support our sisters. This does not mean you have to agree with every opinion of every woman you know, and we don’t all have to be friends. But when another woman needs support, whether it be help reporting a problem or a sympathetic ear to try to figure out how to deal with a difficult boss, you owe it to YOURSELF to give her whatever she needs. The military doesn’t teach the infantry to stick together just to promote good social skills. Don’t ever leave anyone behind and you won’t get left behind.
Part I – Them
The recent Harvey Weinstein revelations, #metoo movement, and Time’s Up campaign have had a number of consequences, most of them quite fabulous. Let’s start by saying that I have ZERO problem with the fact that a bunch of actresses finally brought attention to a problem a lot of us have faced for years. Some women I know have complained that women in “fluffy” jobs are celebrating victory when women all over the world have been suffering with this scourge for millennia. Seriously? Do we care who caused the tide to turn? I don’t. If little green female leprechauns happen to be the ones to breach the dam of harassment because they complained about the male leprechauns grabbing their lucky charms, I don’t care. Kudos to Ashley Judd and Reese Witherspoon and the others for speaking for all of us. I’d thank them in person with a vat of chocolate chip cookies if I could.
Not surprisingly, the scandals have led to a lot of men claiming to not understand the rules. Some of these guys are sincere and concerned that they have been doing things inadvertently that might make women uncomfortable. Some of the men are irritated that they don’t get to do whatever they want and complain that the new rules are “just too hard to figure out.” As usual, they try to put the shadow of blame on us by characterizing our complaints as vague and arbitrary. They attempt to cast us as insensitive by insinuating that we’re no longer receptive to “nice” gestures. Other guys feign ignorance and innocence and claim the nuances are just too difficult for the average guy to comprehend. And still others are just hateful sexists who don’t care whether they make us uncomfortable and use the controversy to fuel their misogyny.
My favorite comments are from guys who very obviously understand what is suitable and what isn’t but claim that “There are just too many gray areas.” Really? I think in most cases the gray areas are products of willful confusion. For every guy who truly is trying to understand where the boundaries in his professional relationships should be, there are two guys who profess not to know whether or not they should be putting their hands on the thighs of young female employees. “What? That’s a problem? I can’t believe you’re faulting me for showing a gesture of comfort to my young, inexperienced subordinate.” Right.
For these poor, well-meaning, caring individuals, I offer the following test. Cut it out and hand it out as necessary when this question arises. When a guy is really confused about whether or not to do/say something to one of his female colleagues or employees, tell him to ask himself the following questions:
1. Would you tell your wife about it?
2. Would it be okay if another guy did/said it to your daughter?
3. Would you publish it in your church bulletin or company newsletter?
If the answer to any of these questions is No, then DON’T DO IT. If you’re not sure, then DON’T DO IT. See how easy that was?
If a guy starts to come up with clarification questions or comments (i.e. “Do you mean would I describe it in detail?” “Does it matter how old my daughter is?”), you know he doesn’t really want to know the true answer. Those are the guys who aren’t really asking to understand – they’re asking to try to prove why their historic pattern of behavior was okay.
On the other hand, there are a lot of very nice, caring guys out there who actually are concerned and well-meaning when they put a hand on your shoulder to ask if you’re okay. They tell you that you look fabulous today because it always puts a smile on your face. And they help you with your coat and give you a hand to get up from your chair because they weren’t raised by wolves. We have to appreciate the good intentions and manners lest we drive them away forever.
Actually, communication is a tool that men easily could use in these situations, but they don’t. If a man is not sure if it bothers his young female protégée when he takes her hand to help her out of the car, he can ask her. Direct communication is a revolutionary concept, but is rarely used, particularly by people in the engineering profession. (We’re not known for our social prowess). We women have to be receptive to such questions and answer honestly. If it looks like your boss is trying to be a good guy, help him out.
The concept that actually is difficult to grasp for men in supervisory positions is that a subordinate woman might feel she has to comply with whatever her boss does or she’ll lose her job. This feeling may not be evident to the boss…at all. But a 22-year-old brand new female employee is still a novice in the world, and her perception of the power structure at work might lead her to believe that her job would be in jeopardy if she expressed how she felt about her interactions with her boss. As such, the boss should ALWAYS err on the side of caution. Is it really necessary to pat a young engineer on the back when he tells her she did a good job? Must he tell the young project manager that she looks great in that outfit? It’s not essential to the job and the supervisor doesn’t know the employee well, the answer is no. If it’s going to create all of this mental angst and confusion (for both the supervisor and the employee), why do it?
As a caveat, it should be stated that there are many, many male and female professionals who have longstanding friendships with members of the opposite sex, (contrary to what you learned in When Harry Met Sally). Theoretically, if you have a good friend who is not your superior or subordinate, the lines of communication are open, and a guy can ask a woman, “Can I put my hand there or does that offend you?” If she can’t give him an honest answer, they aren’t really friends.
The problem of sexual harassment is not simple, and no one set of rules can answer every conceivable question. But the cat is out of the bag, the worms are out of the can, the grout has busted out of the pipe. We need to have a real dialogue with those great, quality guys we work with every day, to help them understand how to move from unsuitable cultural customs to behaviors that benefit all of us. For the rest of the guys, the ones who “just don’t understand,” we’ll make flash cards.