Peggy Hagerty Duffy
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.
And In Second Place…
First Runner Up in our anniversary contest, Lucky Nagarajan is a powerhouse in a tiny package, a true spitfire. She is never without a smile and tackles every new task with a positive attitude. She obtained her Master of Science in Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington and since then has been flexing her dirt muscles all over the United States. She currently is Business Development Manager and official Skirt in Dirt for Skyline Steel. If you know her, Elizabeth Taylor in “Giant” (1956) will come to mind as you read this story.
Being in the field was and is still fascinating to me. Just getting up at the crack of dawn and working till the last ray of daylight, safety meetings, no restrictions to working in extreme conditions (well most of the time), working with people of different cultures and personalities, etc. The list can go on and on. Another best part about my field life was that I got to visit some of the remote locations of the country. Everyday posted a new and interesting challenge.
A few years ago, I was in Aberdeen, SD for a project. It was October and winter was starting to kick in. I checked in to the hotel and saw pheasant “bird” pictures, awards, beautiful taxidermy birds and noticed safe hunting posters in the lobby. It was late in the night, I was totally exhausted and cold, so I didn’t feel curious enough to ask about any of this. After “not so good” sleep, I came down to get breakfast bright and early. I see only men in the breakfast area in camouflaged clothing. They all looked up at the same time to see who I am. Not knowing what is happening, I asked the courteous lady who offers me piping hot coffee what’s going on. It happens to be the first day of pheasant hunting in good old Aberdeen. Curiosity got my ear and I started listening to people’s conversations. I got to know successful and not so successful stories about their hunting, challenges of transporting the meat after skinning the animals and so on and so forth. This is like entering an unknown, exciting world of Americans to me. So I finished my breakfast and headed out to the site.
In Aberdeen, once you leave the college town, you don’t see too many people around. Miles and miles of flat farm lands, houses every mile or 2, dogs outside the house just waiting for their owners to let them in the house, horses and cows happy to see daylight and eating away; I am enjoying the rising sun. Winter is beautiful even in this tiny little town.
Finally, with help from my GPS on the phone and borrowed Garmin, I reached the site. There was a crew on site already waiting to start our safety meeting. I saw the truck but no human beings. The farmer at the site had his cattle for grazing out in the open and strong barb wire fence to avoid losing them. I drove up to the manmade fence gate, got out of my car and tried to open it. If you know what I am talking about, these are not like any other fence gate, where you have a latch or have a handle. Mostly, it is a loop of barb wire that is attached to a moving post. You drag this moving post to the stationary post and then throw the barb wire loop onto the stationary post. This loop goes over the stationary post almost 1/3rd of the length of the post itself. Finally, I got it open and drove in. Now, the next thing is to close it so the cows don’t get out.
If you have seen me, you know how tiny I am. This type of fence gate usually needs a good amount of muscle on you to close. I struggled for a few minutes then realized this is definitely not my cup of tea. I walked down to the area where the crew was and shared my dilemma. These guys were somewhat young and huge compared to me. They were surprised to see a female from a different country and someone as tiny as I am. One of them agreed to go over to close the gate.
Without any further delay, we started our safety meeting. First question they asked me was “How old are you?” I was taken aback and not sure what to say. Of course, it made me feel very young and I contemplated if I should really disclose my age to the strangers. I smiled at them and went on with our meeting. I figured out that our roles were independent on this site and they might be done with their task before me. So, before we get to our tasks, I asked them politely to somehow keep the gate open so that I don’t have to battle with it again.
I started getting everything I needed out of the trunk. One of the guys came up to me and said, “So, where do you stand? Boyfriend, engaged, separated or divorced”. I am mortified to answer this question. I am thinking, “Who are you? Should I answer his question?” Then to be polite, I told him, “I am married.” The guy asked, “Happily married?” I was even more confused, but I said yes with a smile! Then the guys asked, “Do you have any sisters?” I burst out laughing. Then I told him that I do have a sister and she is happily married too. The guy gave me a flirty smile and told me I can join him for a drink if I am in mood for after work. I thanked him for the invitation and went on with my work.
They finished their task and sometime when I am not paying attention, left the site. If you have worked in the wind industry, you know sites are not right next to each other. Sites may be few miles apart. I finished my task, packed up everything that was scattered around the test area and started driving towards the entrance. As I was getting close to the fence gate, I realized that the gate was closed.
I started thinking about how to close the gate once I drive out of the site. What do I have in my car that can help me close it? Also, I wondered if I could call someone from the crew to come back and close the gate for me. After our first interaction, I think maybe it’s a good idea. So, I called the guys to know their whereabouts. They were about 20 minutes away which means it will be 20 minutes to drive in to free me and drive back to where they were. I needed another option.
During all this time, what I didn’t notice is that the cattle were gathering around my car to see what was happening. This is not good. If I left the gate even slightly open, that meant they could get out. In the midst of all this, it’s starts to snow and believe me I LOVE snow. However, not this time. I battled with the fence gate and barb wire loop for more than 10 minutes. I got the post close to the opening but I couldn’t pull it enough to throw the barb wire loop on the post. Then, I realized my arms were too short and I had no strength at all. I saw a house a mile or so down the road. I thought about walking up to the house to get some help, but then what if the cattle got out? Not a good idea.
Now, I needed a Plan B. Plan B is to stop any vehicle driving by and ask for help. So, I drove out and parked my car few inches from the gate and stood at the edge of the grassy entrance. I was wearing my fluorescent safety vest and I am positive that everyone could notice me from a mile away. In these parts of the town, people just don’t drive cars that often. You mostly see farmers’ tractors driving 5 miles per hour. Time went by and I don’t know how long I stood there before I saw a tractor down the road. So I was all excited and start jumping up and down, waving at the tractor. The tractor started getting closer and closer and suddenly turned right and faded away. Then time went by and I saw a medium sized car down the road and of course, I got excited again. I was praying for the car not to turn right. The car started getting closer and closer and the driver happened to zoom past without noticing me at all. But I still kept waving at him and realized I need to find another way.
Now I started thinking about Plan C. A few minutes went by and then I heard an engine roaring in the background. I turned around and there was a truck coming my way down the road. What a sight to the eyes. I realized there were a few survey flags in my car. I got them from the trunk and started waving at the truck. The truck slowed down as it got closer and stopped! Hip Hip hooray! I felt the weight off my shoulder. So the guy rolled down the window and looked at me with a blank stare. I noticed them all decked up in camouflaged clothing coming back from their hunting trip. He and his friend/partner in the truck were not sure how to react to the situation. Then I started explaining them how it was so difficult to close the gate and if they would help me close it. The driver got out of the truck and closed the gate for me. I thanked him 5 times before he got back in the truck and drove away. But there was no exchange of pleasantries on his part.
Even today, when I see hunters or people in camouflaged clothing, a smile creeps up on my face and I thank them in my mind for stopping to help a stranger.
We Have a Winner!
We women in the foundations industry may have lots of questions about how to forge ahead in our chosen positions: When do we draw the line with suggestive comments from co-workers? How do we reconcile ourselves with the sacrifices necessary for life balance? How do we know if our gender is affecting our advancement within a company? If we could never wear cute shoes again, would we give up this career?
What is not in question is the fact that we have a community of truly outstanding women. They are smart, they are funny, they are creative, and they can tell a really good story. We so enjoyed reading the many exploits and adventures of our Underpinnings friends, and determining a winner for our contest required a long and politely contentious conversation among the Underpinnings staff. But our winner was clear, and we’re so pleased to announce ….
Lori Simpson, Vice President and Principal Engineer at Langan Engineering and Environmental, is many fabulous things but most notably a very interesting person. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Stanford and a Master of Science in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, so she’s earthy AND crunchy. Lori worked long and hard to move up the engineering ladder, along the way amassing a wide and variable catalogue of geotechnical experience. Oh – and she successfully raised several human beings along the way. (Note: Lori, of course, is only 27, so we felt it important to note that her kids matured VERY quickly and were fully raised by the age of 5. No one is suggesting that she’s over 30). Currently, she slays seismic dragons and conquers soft clay demons in the San Francisco area. In her free time, (which is between 2:12 AM and 2:23 AM every third Thursday of the month), she’s a mover and shaker on the DFI Codes and Standards Committee. She also has devoted much of her life to an in-depth research project intended to provide proof that an engineer can be married to a geologist and not get bored.
This week, Lori’s most impressive accomplishment is that she made us laugh. And she’ll make you laugh, too. Enjoy her story. She will be enjoying a fabulous basket of goodies right after Christmas.
After graduate school, I got married and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where my husband was going to attend graduate school. Things in the Land of Enchantment work a little differently than the San Francisco Bay Area, where I came from. My first introduction was in my first interview for an engineering job: I put on a dress and heels and all 5’ 1/4” of me showed up at the office of a small geotechnical firm. The boss looked at my fancy resume, and with amusement on his face, said he wasn’t sure I could do the job. As he looked me up and down, he explained that dirt was involved. I assured him that I was aware of the job description of a staff geotechnical engineer. I am not sure what got into my head—I guess it has something to do with the fact that I could bench press 145 pounds and felt the need to prove myself—I offered to do push-ups in his office! He declined and offered me a temporary position (he was a 3-person operation and didn’t need a full-time staff engineer).
One of the projects I worked on with him included drilling borings outside of town. Think hilly desert landscape with no facilities. At one point I needed to pee, so I told my boss I would go up the hill and find a secluded place to go. I am a backpacker, so no problem peeing “in the woods”…..er, well, actually peeing in the cacti. Yes, as I squatted down I misjudged the distance of my behind to the nearby cholla cactus. YEEEOOOOWWW! It was like the cactus saw my ass coming and, with glee, ejected as many spines as it could. Did you know that they have barbs on them like fishhooks? i.e. NOT easy to remove. I removed as many as I could, pulled up my pants, and gingerly walked back to let my boss know what happened. Of course, he howled with laughter….but was also sympathetic. We wrapped up our work as quickly as possible, and headed back. I could barely sit in the truck on the way back to the office.
P.S. We’ll be giving you a belated Christmas present next week when we run the story of our first runner up, Lucky Nagarajan, of Skyline Steel. Many thanks to all who entered!
Where’s the Smash Cake?
A little over a year ago we decided to do something crazy, and Underpinnings was hatched. We have built up a fabulous community, and we hear every day from one of our “skirts in dirt” how much they enjoy reading others’ stories and how much it helps them to know they’re not alone in the universe.
We deal with heavy subjects on a weekly basis, and we hope that we have helped make some progress in the world. But celebrations are not the time for serious conversations and heavy discussions. So we want to have some fun.
The flip side of the trouble involved with being a woman in a male-dominated field is the pure entertainment value. Most of us have been in some ludicrous/ridiculous/hilarious situation that stemmed from the fact that we were the only skirt at work. And not only is laughing good, but it’s important to recognize the positive side of our unique situations.
Underpinnings is celebrating our first anniversary with a contest. Yes – a contest! Below you will find a funny story from each of us. We are asking you to submit your favorite funny story from your life as a pink dot in a field of blue. The winner will receive a fabulous basket full of inspiring, weird, funny, sparkly gifts worthy of the effort we all make.
Entries are due by midnight, December 15th. A winner will be announced on Wednesday, December 20th. You may ask us to remain anonymous, if you would like, but we hope everyone feels like this is a safe space. Don’t worry about whether or not you write well – that’s not the point. We’ll clean up any little issues if necessary before we broadcast your hilarity to the world. E-mail your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t wait to read them. In the meantime, here are some examples.
My story has less to do with being a woman and more to do with just being me and sometimes overthinking things a bit too much. Recently, I was headed down to the Washington D.C. office of my company for the first time. I successfully navigated Amtrak from Wilmington to Union station in D.C. as I have often done before, bought a Metro card and located the appropriate line, and got off to walk several blocks to the office. I had worn comfy slip-on sneakers for travel and planned to change into heels when I arrived. I also planned to slip into a bathroom to apply lipstick and make myself presentable. When I entered the building I found it was the type to have a doorperson where you sign in as a guest and they swipe their keycard in the elevator and press the floor number for you. I felt it would have been quite awkward to avail myself of the bench in the lobby to change shoes and freshen up, so I mentally adjusted my plan to find the bathroom first when I arrived on the floor.
Having spent the last 15 years of my career in offices in suburban PA, I had forgotten that city offices often have separate locked bathrooms with a key available as needed to the office tenants on each floor. I stepped off the elevator, found the restroom, and got the stark reminder. So I scanned around for other options and found the next best thing- a door leading to the stairwell.
In the stairwell I completed my shoe change and used my cell phone as a mirror to fix my makeup. Satisfied, I gathered my briefcase and purse and turned to exit. That’s when the cold reality hit- the door handle wouldn’t move. I was locked in! Noooooo! What were my options? Continue down many flights of stairs back to the lobby, but what if it ended in an emergency exit or something? Climb up or down to see if all the floors were locked? Likely futile, and then I would have to get back on the elevator again which probably wouldn’t let me select the floor I needed. So, I had to bite the bullet and call the office to have someone rescue me. The office manager answered and failed to suppress her astonishment that I was locked in the stairwell. She came to my aid and reassured me that no one in the office was a stickler for dress code. I happened to glance down at her feet- she was wearing rain galoshes.
I spent about ten years doing construction-phase engineering for several hundred transmission structure foundations. Often the jobsites were in very remote locations that were only accessible via old logging roads or park service paths or yellow brick roads to magical wardrobes in vanishing train stations. Even more often the construction crews resembled the Pirates of the Caribbean crew with corresponding charm and social skills.
One particular project was on a steep peak east of Morehead, Kentucky, three hours from my house. Concrete was an hour away and placement typically involved getting the truck situated in some non-OSHA-approved arrangement. Construction started at the beginning of December during a year in which Kentucky had experienced more than its annual snowfall total by December 5th. None of the concrete truck drivers wanted to come to the site, so dispatch often “lost” the order for the day. Days were long and made even longer by the fact that my husband (at the time) had decided it was more dangerous for me to stay in a motel in eastern Kentucky than to spend six hours on the road every day in addition to 10 hours on the site.
The crew on this site was nice and minimally endowed with cartoon-worthy facial features. Not a single guy wore an eye patch. Three of them were under 25 and quite taken with having a “girl” on the site. One gentleman in particular appeared to be smitten with me, an amusing fact considering that I usually was covered in mud and bleeding from some random tie wire/rebar injury.
The third week of the project the amorous worker became more aggressively charming. I made frequent references to my husband, to no avail. He was never touchy or obnoxious, he just flirted a lot and let me know how much he admired my intelligence, my boots, (yes, boots), my understanding of different kinds of mud, and my ability to drive in the snow. Our last concrete pour was scheduled for that Friday, so I figured we would finish up and that would be that.
The last day of the job, more snow blew in. By noon, we had several inches on the ground and visibility was low. My admirer was unusually distant, but I figured he was just trying to get his work done amidst the bad weather. Oddly enough, the superintendent on the job was not rushing at all and kept backing the concrete plant off. “It’s Friday!” I kept saying. “If we don’t pour soon the drivers will all have their 40 in and we’ll get no concrete.” Nothing. The afternoon crept on and the only person seeming to be experiencing any anxiety was my “boyfriend.”
Finally, about 3:00, with snow driving in my face, I turned around when I heard an odd noise. There on one knee was the amorous crew member. He had taken the pine tree air freshener from his truck and folded it into the shape of a rose, and he was holding it out to me and serenading me with a country song about soul mates. (The image is still emblazoned in my brain). Stunned, I said, “Oh, sweetie, that’s lovely. But I’m married. And more importantly, we have to get concrete in the ground.” He stood up, gave me the “rose,” and said, “Well, you know where to find me.” Still stunned, I turned around to find the superintendent there watching. I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say, so I just asked why we still hadn’t poured concrete. He got a big grin on his face and said, “That boy has been mooning at you for three weeks. He thought if concrete was late today you would have to stay overnight and he could make his case. I told him I would play along as long as I could, but we’re starting to get some cave-ins, so I gave him a deadline. I’m all about true love, but I’m not digging these holes again.”
We finished pouring concrete and I went home. But pine tree air fresheners still make me smile.
Thanks Are Not Relative
Here at Underpinnings, we strive to figure out how to level the playing field for women in the deep foundations industry and in other male-dominated fields. We try to listen to the women in our professional and personal communities so that we can understand the many facets of the obstacles women face in our positions. We work to address the situations we call problems.
But down the street from us, there are women who haven’t eaten today. In other countries, women are not allowed to go to school. We protest catcalls at the same time women are being raped in the name of military superiority. While we complain about juggling the busy schedules of our spouses and kids, women in war zones are watching their families die. Yes, we have problems, but we have first-world problems.
It might seem logical to feel guilty and ashamed for complaining when we live in such fortunate circumstances. On the contrary, we should be thankful. We should view our success and progress as the front end of the movement. Instead of settling for the flawed conditions in which we work, rationalizing that it could be so much worse, we should continue to move forward. We women are a unit, and the more ground we cover, the farther forward we pull the whole group. By improving our “station,” we increase the power of our outrage over the plight of women elsewhere in the world. The more we push the idea that it’s not okay to demean or limit women anywhere, the better the chances are that we can prevent it from happening everywhere.
This week we are thankful that we have the right to have a meaningful discussion about our place in the world. We are grateful for our opportunities. And we appreciate the power we have to make things better in the future.
We also are thankful for our Underpinnings community. Next week, we will have our one-year anniversary, and we’re going to celebrate with something new and fun. No, it’s not wrong to be happy and have fun when others are not. You can rest assured they would be happy if they had the chance. We can’t let any of those chances slip away, because our happiness and our hope are the sparks that fire our lives.
Happy Thanksgiving from the Underpinnings Team!
Was Frank Singing About Balance?
Are you familiar with the 50/50 theory? This concept might be considered part of today’s earthy crunchy “mindfulness” movement, a nebulous buzz word-y school of thought that encompasses everything from recycling to snacking. However, the 50/50 theory seems to have some actual merit, so I’m kicking it out of the 2-inch thick mindfulness puddle and giving it credit for some real depth.
According to the 50/50 plan, 50% of a person’s time should be spent being, and 50% should be spent doing. Okay, yes – this calls for a clarification. Aren’t we “being” all of the time? Doesn’t the entire day require “doing?”
Simply put, being means experiencing life and doing indicates proactively engaging in a pursuit. For example, spending the morning preparing food for 40 and setting up a pregame tailgate would be considered doing. Enjoying the football game and a few cocktails would be labeled being. Another example would be a professional conference. Participating in a discussion reviewing upcoming changes to a federal guideline would be doing – enjoying cocktail hour with your professional posse would qualify as being.
The originators of this philosophy might have a stricter interpretation of being than given in this example. Meditation and reflection could be interpreted as the only true form of “being.” But spending 50% of our time meditating would be unrealistic for most of us, so I’m not going to address this concept in such extreme terms.
So why is this pertinent, and does it have any merit? After thinking about it for a few weeks, I finally decided that this idea might be brilliant. In fact, it might be a rather simple start to figuring out how to balance the many complications that we all deal with in life.
My initial reaction to the plan was absolute resistance. Only 50% doing? Are you kidding me? There is no part of my personality that doesn’t say, “Let’s get this done!” My zodiac sign is Aries, for heaven’s sake – there is very little about a charging ram that involves just sitting back and experiencing life. And my to-do list is 4.6 miles long. Who has time to just be?
On the other hand, I kept thinking about that football game example. I do love to plan all week with my BFF for our tailgate menu, and I can’t imagine not making gallons of bourbon punch and figuring out the best way to serve potato salad without giving half the crowd salmonella. But the experience would be incomplete if I didn’t spend the three hours after the tailgate watching the game and chatting with family, friends, and random opposing fans. Sure, at some point during the game I usually offer to use the rest of my college athletic eligibility and play offensive line (because NO ONE IS BLOCKING), but I don’t really mean it. That three hours of non-participation feeds my soul, and the fact that I’m NOT actively in charge of the outcome of the game is one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.
We women spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to balance the long list of work/family/shoe shopping demands on our schedules. There are bridge foundations to design, shoring systems to inspect, bids to complete, and groundwater conditions to evaluate. There are also appointments for the kids at the pediatrician and the dentist, dinner to cook, groceries to buy, and the house to clean. (Hahahahaha – just kidding on that last one. But we’ll pretend). None of these things smack of “being.” And none of them are exactly optional. For some reason those clients insist on having their projects completed this year, and the kids want to eat EVERY DAY.
But what about the rest of the list? What about that extra white paper you promised to finish for a professional association committee? What about the Pan-Asian cooking class you signed up for to make your dinner offerings more interesting? What about the American Girl reading group you enrolled your daughter in (that’s 75 minutes away from home) because you were afraid Girl Scouts and soccer weren’t enough and because some of the other girls in her class were going?
Many of our “required” activities are prompted by our fear that we’re not enough. We’re working, so we must be shortchanging our kids, so we must make up for it by enriching their poor abandoned lives. We have families, so our careers must be suffering, so we must make up for it by engaging in more professional activities to prove that we’re still relevant. (What about the shoes? Why does no one ever worry about the poor shoes that are being neglected because of work and family demands?) Let’s call it what it is, the G word. Guilt. Most of us are so accustomed to carting guilt around that we would have phantom guilt, much like phantom pain with a severed limb, if it weren’t there.
The 50/50 plan says that increasing our efforts doesn’t necessarily put us ahead. It says that we’re losing something in all of that overcompensating. Maybe our daughters would benefit more from sitting on the couch with us gabbing about where we would go if we had a ticket to fly anywhere in the world rather than spending an hour and a half in a car to go to a book club meeting about a book that she’ll forget in 6 months because she doesn’t really like the other girls in the club and she’s tired from all that driving around. Maybe our professional brains would be sharper if we sat in the park for an hour at lunch and contemplated squirrel behavior over a cup of soup. Maybe we would appreciate our partners more if we spent the drive home thinking of all the reasons we love them rather than making a bunch of client calls. We need to get ahead, but what is ahead?
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the last 15 minutes of a Hallmark Channel movie where the heroine figures out that she needs to “follow her heart.” In the grand scheme of things, life is a lot more complicated than that. (But isn’t it nice to spend a couple of hours watching a world where life is that simple? I heart the Hallmark Channel). Yes, you might miss out on an opportunity for advancement at work, but that advancement at this point in time might not be the thing that is optimal for your soul. We do want our kids to be well-rounded and have lots of opportunities, but having too many opportunities might be as detrimental as having not enough. All of these decisions involve consequences – it might be our perception of the consequences that is slightly off base.
Each one of us have to evaluate what constitutes a proper life balance. The 50/50 plan might be a way for us to take a little pressure off ourselves and spend some of life actually enjoying it rather than just getting through it. Your interpretation of what constitutes being will be entirely up to you. I’m going to try to rein in my inner ram and spend a little less time charging ahead and a little more time thinking about all the shoes I’ve loved before.