Peggy Hagerty Duffy
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 email@example.com. 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.
My Favorite Things
Early summer brings many of my favorite things. I get to visit the local nursery and spend way too much money on every annual flower that catches my eye. Lunches, dinners, cocktails, brunches, and even afternoon coffee take place outside on patios, piazzas, decks, and sidewalks. And sundresses and espadrilles are parts of a daily uniform.
But one of my absolute favorite early summer occurrences is the annual emergence of young, eager new male construction workers on all my jobsites. Wait – did I just say male workers? Is this going to be the start of a new, lecherous, politically incorrect phase in the life of Underpinnings? As interesting as that sounds (and lucrative), alas, the truth is much simpler and more wholesome.
Every year, young men everywhere graduate from high school and follow their fathers and uncles and grandfathers and mothers along a natural path into a wide variety of construction trades. These guys usually, if not always, are amazing examples of self-confidence and enthusiasm. They volunteer for every task. They say, “I can do that” with unabashed ease. They take pride in outlifting and outdigging and outworking everyone around them. And they eat everything in sight, constantly talking about and thinking about food.
(There might be some girls who enter the construction field when they graduate from high school, but I haven’t run into them on my jobsites. And I would bet that those few that are out there, somewhere, don’t have the ten-feet-tall-and-bulletproof attitude of their male counterparts).
Of course they have their obstacles. The older guys hide their tools. The jaded, experienced workers scoff at their swagger and interject a thousand cynical retorts for every ambitious proclamation. And the young guys’ inexperience and hubris often trips them up as they try to climb to the top in 20 seconds.
Regardless of their faults, I love these guys. I am in awe of their complete lack of angst. They don’t worry about letting anyone down. They don’t agonize about whether or not they can handle their jobs. They don’t overanalyze every co-worker’s words to determine if anyone is secretly disappointed in their performances or upset with them. And I think it goes without saying that any sane person would envy the ability to down three sausage egg biscuits and be hungry 30 minutes later.
Conversely, I have noticed that most women, when entering a new position or moving up into a new role, proceed at a much more cautious pace. We worry that we’re not smart enough or efficient enough or resourceful enough to do our jobs. The normally low buzz of panic and self-doubt that is the background music in our brains swells to a roar of incessant trepidation. Instead of being thrilled to have a new opportunity, we’re scared. We don’t need obstacles to crop up; we imagine them and spend all of our time dodging their looming specters in our brains.
The role of biology might have a partial role in this gender difference, particularly for women who are in male-dominated fields. We have the responsibility to nurture and protect our offspring, so we have to be a little less damn-the-torpedoes in our approach to life. We also have to be careful in a world where we’re typically smaller and weaker than the opposite sex.
My older brother would say that this natural caution is not natural at all, because he believes that there is no nature in the nature versus nurture debate, only nurture. His theory is that men and women would behave exactly the same if they were treated identically from birth. I don’t agree with him, but many people do. I believe that biology is part of the equation, but social development contributes as well. And maybe that’s where we can advance. A little bit of evolution in how we raise our daughters could produce a little less angst and a little more “I can do that!” We can do so many great things when we think about our jobs in terms of opportunity rather than potential failure.
My best friend (we’ll call her Environmental Girl, or EG for short) is a great example of how far a woman can go when she doesn’t hold herself back. A number of years ago, her company successfully bid on an environmental remediation project at an abandoned army airfield on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean populated only by endangered birds. (The blue footed booby frequently holds raves on the airstrip). The project would last several months, and the crew would travel to the island and stay there for the duration. No TV or radio, and hot coffee only when there was enough generator time available. EG said, “I want to go!”
This might seem bold, but it was particularly fearless given that her youngest daughter would be only 5 months old when the project would start. What??????
Many, many people said she was crazy. Her mother told her she was going straight to hell and she would need any profit from the job to pay for her infant daughter’s inevitable astronomical therapy costs when she got older. Female colleagues expressed shock and ran home to embrace their kids. But besides the fact that EG’s husband was a completely capable caregiver, as were her other 142 kids who all lived at home, the project only spanned a short time period. And it was a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! So she said yes, and she went. Damn more than the torpedoes – damn the whole fleet.
The experience was phenomenal, and EG learned things about herself she never would have otherwise. I am pleased to report that the endangered infant has grown into a daring chip off the adventurous old block, and she might be inclined to take on a project in the middle of the Pacific or take a position as chief of staff for the president of an international company and never doubt herself. When we doubt ourselves and hesitate to take chances and always put ourselves last, we teach our daughters to do the same. When we go after what we want and trust ourselves to be enough, we increase the chances that they will succeed.
Not every situation warrants a fearless attitude. Caution has its place. But self-confidence shouldn’t be an unknown quantity to women in the work world. We shouldn’t spend our time worrying about what we might do wrong, we should envision how high we can fly. Repeat after me – I can do that!
Diluting Workforce Quality for the Better…Or Not
How did you get where you are? No, I’m not referring to your route to work this morning or whether you took a plane or a train to get to the conference you’re attending or how you managed to sneak out of the office to go shoe shopping. (But bravo to you, and find me some of those cute Jeffrey Campbell mules, would you?) How did you achieve your position? Was it years and years of 80-hour weeks and steady promotions? Did you take advantage of an equal opportunity hiring program? Or did you poison your previous supervisor? Don’t worry – there are no right answers here.
A friend of mine who works for a large company recently told me that her engineering manager decided the company needs more female engineers. She then was told that a recent hire of that very gender would be joining her group and would report directly to my friend. Hooray, right? Do that girl power cheer right there at your desk (or in front of the Manolo Blahnik display). This could be considered particularly good news given that my friend is quite the glass ceiling breaking pioneer herself. But, alas, her expression as she relayed the news didn’t hint at any joy. In fact, she was downright moribund.
After I persuaded her that tomorrow was another day and those Yankees can’t hurt us anymore*, she explained that the new hire was less than sterling. In fact, she was difficult to work with, defensive, unresourceful, and prickly. These characteristics had revealed themselves in short order as soon as the new employee had started work. In fact, administrative personnel even had complained about her. And now my friend was tasked with molding this young professional into a productive and valuable team member. Have you ever tried to mold brick? My friend was understandably torn between wanting to advocate more women in technical positions and envisioning numerous scenarios in which a freak act of nature demolished the company building and her new hire was the only unfortunate casualty.
This situation highlights the always pertinent question of whether equal opportunity programs are a help or a hindrance. It is an intensely complicated issue, and the answer varies significantly based on the year and the location.
Many years ago, highly qualified (and pleasant) women and minorities didn’t have the opportunity to even apply for many jobs, particularly positions in technical fields. There was no question of unqualified applicants slipping through the system because most women and minorities couldn’t even get close to the system. Applying for a job was almost a humorous proposition.
A prime example is a very prominent geo-structural engineer who applied for a position at a consulting firm in the early 1970s when she graduated from engineering school. She reported to the firm’s office and chatted with the principal engineer for a short time about the company and what type of work the firm did. As lunch approached, he apologized profusely and said a job emergency had come up and that his secretary would be taking her to lunch. The young engineer happily went to lunch, not knowing whether such an occurrence was normal or not. When she returned to the office, the boss found her, apologized again, and said it was time to talk about her desired position. He then led off by asking how many words a minute she typed. “Excuse me?” she said, confused. “I don’t really know.” He was appalled that she didn’t know and asked how she possibly could expect to get a job without being able to present her credentials. She timidly inquired how typing would figure into an engineering job, which brought the boss up short. “You’re here for an engineering job??? But you’re a…I mean…Are you serious?” Rest assured our outstanding young engineer left that interview and went on to do quite fabulous things. She still doesn’t know how many words a minute she types.
In such an environment, it was necessary to pave the way to allow women and minorities a chance at, well, a chance. I can say from personal experience that the interviewing environment is not so harsh today, and it wasn’t even that awful 15 years ago.
So the initial barrier has been broken. Does that mean we still need help? Are equal opportunity programs, both formal and informal, necessary? Or are we now setting ourselves backwards by forcing unqualified applicants into the pool in the name of equal numbers? Even worse, are we creating doubt about even the qualified candidates by diluting the quality of the overall disadvantaged workforce? The answer is nowhere near easy.
Of course you could say that there are plenty of sub-par and unpleasant representatives of the white male workforce, so why should we be any different? Maybe we shouldn’t be. In fact, that’s the general idea. If the percentage of women and men in any profession correlates to the general percentage of each gender in society, both groups should have some rude, insecure idiots in most fields. But do we want to force our idiots into some roles just to balance the ranks? Or do we want to reinforce our progress by concentrating on maintaining the quality of our gender in professional positions? As I said in the beginning, there are no right answers.
It is possible that the young lady my friend will be beating managing is brittle and defensive because she has grown up in a sexist, repressed environment. She hailed from a small rural community, so maybe her original ebullient personality was dimmed by a barrage of oppression and denied opportunities. Maybe she’ll turn into a shining star of an employee once she finds security and acceptance among her peers. I’m a perpetual optimist, so I like to think this might happen to an upbeat soundtrack followed by a cygnet-to-swan montage showing her transformation into a new engineering star. This is the theory behind equal opportunity programs.
There is a stronger possibility that my friend has been saddled with her own personal albatross, and this young woman’s troubles are simply the product of really bad genes and bitter parents. Although a great job opportunity can sometimes turn a person around, it is more likely that we will soon be making an advent calendar-ish wall hanging to creatively mark the days until her inevitable termination.
The question of equal opportunity probably is one that must be determined for each specific circumstance, defying convenient sweeping conclusions. Should we throw a party someday when we can say that there are as many female idiots in engineering and construction as male idiots? (Minorities, I’m not going to speak for you, but you’re in the same boat). I’m usually first in line to plan any party, but I don’t know that I’ll be ordering the centerpieces for this one.
*In order to understand many of the references in my Underpinnings pieces, you really should be familiar with football terminology and the classics, starting with Gone with the Wind. Move on to Love Actually, The Mummy, When Harry Met Sally, and The Devil Wears Prada after that. This is the bare minimum, but I can provide a full curriculum upon request.
Hey – Your Ambition is Showing
By Ann Schmelzer, Guest Contributor
(Editor’s Note: Ann is a top-level manager for a major international manufacturer. Someday we will all be working for her, and that’s not a bad thing. Although she is not in the deep foundations industry, she spends all day every day with men, most of them engineers. It’s no wonder her right brain takes over on the weekends, doing things like starting one of the most successful food and beverage festivals in the Midwest and coaching
raging hormones girls’ soccer).
The other day I sent Peggy a screen capture of an article I was reading that made me think of her. What I subsequently learned is: Be careful what you text your friends who have a blog that is topically relevant… I’m kidding.
The article I sent was Reese Witherspoon’s recent essay in Glamour on ambition (Glamour October 2017). The screen capture itself highlighted a study that single female Harvard MBA students downplayed their career ambitions in front of male classmates for fear of possibly hurting their marriage prospects. I’m not trying to share business that isn’t mine (we’ll get to my business later), but Peggy had a dating experience in which her full life and busy schedule were questioned by an unnamed gentleman in the following way— “But don’t you want to be happy?” Dear God… what year is it? Hence, why I sent Peggy the screen capture, and hopefully a much-justified chuckle.
Reese writes an eloquent essay on the topic of ambition. The fact that she had to is somewhat saddening to me; but, at least we’re talking about it. At one point she states “Run away from a man who can’t handle your ambition. Run. So many men think ambition is awesome and sexy!” I agree Reese, but a lot of men don’t wear “I find drive emasculating” on a T-shirt to the first date. You learn that the person in question says one thing and actually wants another over time—sometimes a little time, sometimes a lot of time.
In my case, I learned it slowly– death-by-a-thousand-papercuts-style over the course of four years. In my early twenties I dated a guy who, at the time, I was very much taken with and it seemed that the feeling was mutual. He talked a great game; I mean a great game. When we talked about my career ambitions there wasn’t a whiff of hesitation in his voice. He seemed to be genuinely into my ambition.
Things eventually crashed and burned during a period of time when his career was floundering. I, by contrast, was in the middle of two masters’ degrees and a career that wasn’t floundering. I’ll spare you, dear readers of Underpinnings, all the gory details but, in hindsight, the thing that made me the angriest was that I found out he had been cheating on me with the Sunday school teacher from his family’s church. The. Sunday. School. Teacher. The cheating alone was a bitter enough pill to swallow, but the chosen partner was really the icing on the cake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m guessing she didn’t know I existed. (If she did, the irony there is on an almost incomprehensible level). Upon Monday morning quarterbacking the whole situation, it is my assumption that his need for that relationship was to shield his ego from the uncomfortable mirror I held up to his own lack of progress. Perhaps that’s me shielding my own ego from the fact that my relationship crumbled because I couldn’t pull off the perfect balancing act of non-threatening and go-getter.
The thing is that I had never hid who I was and, in the beginning, it was the greatest thing ever. By the end, the look on his face all but said “wow, you’re really like this all the time”… and not in a good way. Did he think I was lying in the early days? If I had been, wouldn’t that have been worse for everyone? These are questions not worth pondering.
So, I was the MBA-educated girl who did not tamp down her ambition. If I had, perhaps I could have nursed that relationship along for a bit but, in the end, I’m sure it would have come to a similar demise. Regardless, there are lots of different ways to interpret the Harvard study. Maybe the women being interviewed thought “What’s the harm in softening the wording here? I can still go get it done; that’s my business”; or, “These questions rarely go well for me so here is my canned response”; or, “Remember when you beat that boy in the math bowl in middle school and got uninvited to the dance on Friday?”. There are a lot of possibilities but, in the end, what a difficult commentary on the state of gender equality.
Judith Warner, who is a senior fellow at The Center for American Progress writes “Although women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988, they have earned at least a third of law degrees since 1980, were fully a third of medical school students by 1990, and, since 2002, have outnumbered men in earning undergraduate business degrees since 2002. They have not moved up to positions of prominence and power in America at anywhere near the rate that should have followed. In a broad range of fields, their presence in top leadership positions—as equity law partners, medical school deans, and corporate executive officers—remains stuck at a mere 10 percent to 20 percent. Their “share of voice”—the average proportion of their representation on op-ed pages and corporate boards, as TV pundits, and in Congress—is just 15 percent. In fact, it’s now estimated that, at the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country.” With statistics like that, who can blame the women of Harvard?
Later in the article Reese comes back to “All we can do to create change is work hard. That’s my advice: Just do what you do well. If you’re a producer, you’ve got to produce. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to write. If you’re in corporate America, keep working hard to bust through the glass ceiling. If you want our voices to be represented in government—and I think we’re all getting behind that idea now—encourage women to run and help them with their campaigns. If you are one of those people who has that little voice in the back of her mind saying, “Maybe I could do [fill in the blank],” don’t tell it to be quiet. Give it a little room to grow, and try to find an environment it can grow in.” I couldn’t say it better myself.
What Does That Even Mean?
Are you a feminist? What exactly does that mean? And is it important to you to identify yourself as such?
Megyn Kelly, former Fox News host and current NBC news personality, was widely derided in 2016 by her refusal to label herself as a feminist. She stated that the term had become divisive and had negative connotations. Many women took that position as a cop out and an avoidance of the true issue: that being branded a feminist would alienate many of the average Fox viewers. They said that she needed to stand up for women as a whole, even if it meant losing her job at Fox.
So what does the average bear think a feminist is? The simple answer (obviously) would be that a feminist is a person who believes that women are equal to men and should be accorded the same respect and opportunities. But, unfortunately, many years of history have colored individual perceptions. In addition, the actions and words of some in the heat of the battle on inequality have generated a decidedly negative vision of what a feminist represents and who she (or he) is.
Gloria Steinem no doubt was the trailblazer in the modern world of feminism, though not the original pioneer by a long shot. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were the Lewis and Clark of the equality wilderness, raising issues and bucking the norm long before Ms. magazine challenged the accepted role of women in U.S. society. Julia Ward Howe, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth – these women functioned and rebelled in conditions we can’t even imagine. They made people face truths and answer questions that weren’t comfortable or conventional. Thanks to them, you’re sitting at your desk working on a tieback design or standing on a construction site yelling at people about clean bottoms.
Unfortunately, many of the men (and some of the women) of the times reacted to these women by assuming that since they didn’t want to fill a normal societal role, they didn’t want to be a “normal woman.” Translation: They didn’t like men and they didn’t want to be feminine. Although part of this was ignorance and part of it was an attempt at control through shaming, the ugly side effect was a lingering implication that feminists didn’t like being womanly and they were against men.
Organized feminist actions in the 1970s compounded this stereotype. The bra-burning, tie-wearing, loud, angry women that demonstrated for equal pay and equal opportunities reinforced the notion that feminists are rude, unfeminine, “coarse” ball-busters who don’t like men and have no interest in being nice to them. In fact, they want reparations for 12,000 years of oppression.
It’s often so easy to forget that people who start revolutions have to overcome years, decades, centuries of inertia. Society has been functioning as X, and now someone wants it to be Y. This doesn’t happen easily. It takes anger, it takes aggression, it takes breaking out of stereotypes just to get people’s attention. Changing the average person’s mind is another mountain to climb once you have their attention. It’s no wonder the early feminists seemed angry. They were trying to get people to listen! They were TIRED!!! They were exhausted from trying to overcome centuries of societal inertia. They were worn out from attempting to use logic to overcome fear and emotion. They were frustrated from worrying that they would be unsuccessful.
Despite the reason, the negative stereotype of a feminist still exists with many people. The purpose of all the hard work of Ms. Cady Stanton and Ms. Steinem and the others was to allow us all to be equal, regardless of who we are. They didn’t mean to support just women – they intended to establish equality for everyone. Purple, three-headed Martians would be accorded the same freedoms and rights as WASP males and women of east-central northern Irish descent who were born on the subway. But the residue of the battles remains, and the feminist brand often is not a positive one.
Some modern women, particularly those of a certain age, believe that to resist the feminist label is to abandon the cause. You are a failure if you don’t embrace the title and forge on with the battle. But are you? Do we shirk our duties as progressive women if we don’t deem ourselves warriors?
On a personal level, I have a serious problem with being given any label (except that of a University of Louisville Cardinal). Whether the label is true depends on how you define it. You might define it differently than I do. Beyond the definition, I might decide that I want to change in the future. The issue might change. DO NOT TELL ME WHO I AM.
I also don’t like the idea that being a feminist means tipping the scales against men. Equality means equality, not “We should get lots extra to make up for all that crap in the past.”
Here at Underpinnings, we have noticed an interesting development in this label issue. Younger women in our field are not as comfortable making a fuss about equality or their rights in the workplace, and they often aren’t ready to proclaim themselves feminists. In some cases, it’s because they don’t see their world as that bad. It’s not, because we’ve made progress. In other cases, they see us more seasoned professionals as being too confrontational and ready to raise hell. (See my previous comments on being exhausted from fighting the battle for so long). To them, the idea of being a feminist smacks of unnecessary and insensitive crusading.
In the case of Ms. Kelly, I believe that the whole point of feminism is to get us to the place where women can do what they want with their careers. When she was at Fox, she wanted to be at Fox. Was she wrong to monitor her language so as not to alienate the very audience she wanted to court? Yes, you say – she has an obligation to do what’s right for the advancement of all of us. Does she? Maybe the success of feminism is that she can express her opinion, whatever it is, and she gets to be the person to figure out what strategic moves she needs to make to have the career she wants. Whether that career is worthwhile is her business.
A necessary component of succeeding in war is unity. When the war is over, troops often have a difficult time establishing themselves as individuals, particularly if the issues from the war aren’t completely resolved. There is even fear of functioning outside of your unit, outside of the war. The need for determination and grit are so compelling during the battle that to give it up seems suicidal. Those women who fought the hardest of the wars of the past no doubt fear we will lose all the ground we’ve gained if we give up for even a second. They say that women are traitors who won’t go by the name “feminist,” lest we all end up back in the kitchen, illiterate with no freedom.
Perhaps we need a new word, one that represents our goal of equality for all, which was the original purpose. Allofusist? Everyoneist? Peopleist? We need to refocus on the fact that we celebrate women, not that we denigrate men. And we need to acknowledge that one of the spoils of this war was supposed to be our right to call ourselves whatever we want and carry out our personal and professional lives however we want. Ms. Kelly doesn’t have to call herself a feminist as far as I’m concerned. It won’t affect my ability to be what I want, which of course is a Cardinalist.
How to Avoid Killing Your Colleagues
It’s Thursday afternoon at 3:50 PM. You’ve managed to end a phone call with a very talkative client who just happens to spend $3 trillion dollars with your firm every year. If you can make it out the door in the next 15 minutes, you’ll blow through the parkway before traffic gets bad, swing by the sitter to pick up the little kids, make it to the dry cleaner before they close, and have dinner on the table by 6:30, assuming the older kids didn’t eat the dinner ingredients when they got home from high school this afternoon. (Seriously – I can’t even count how many times I said over the years “You know where Kroger is. I suggest you get there and back VERY fast and replace what you just ate so the rest of us can have dinner. Who cooks ground beef as an after school snack?!”) If anyone delays you by even 10 minutes, you’ll sit in traffic for an eternity, have to pay a late fee at the sitter, the dry cleaners will be closed so you’ll have to wear your suit with the Gogurt stain on it for your big presentation tomorrow, and no one will eat dinner. Maybe ever. Are you getting tense just reading this? Did you check your watch? Drink some wine.
Back in our horror film scenario, just as you start to slip out your door, a familiar refrain can be heard from the next office door. “Leaving already? Wow. I never knew this was a bank.” Yes, it’s Carl. Carl is the engineer in the next office who has made it his life’s ambition to provide the public with a living history exhibit of a 1955 stereotypical male, cartoon-style. He sits down at his desk at 7:55 AM, he goes to lunch from noon to 1:00 PM at the same artery-clogging spot every day, he leaves at 5:05 PM, and he observes every little fragment of standard company protocol. He only knows that his kids wore diapers because he doesn’t trust his wife’s financial skills and checks over her purchases every week. He gets his oil changed every 3,000 miles because the manufacturer says to, and he enjoys halting construction projects so he can tell everyone involved that he’s “the engineer, and the engineer has the final word.” Carl is lucky no one has killed him.
Carl’s words burrow under your skin, even though this is the 3,712th time you have heard them. Seriously? Is he kidding? You haven’t slept in three years. You put in 60 hours last week, and a big chunk of it was when Carl was sleeping like a baby in his old man pajamas. You have an agreement with your boss. She said it was okay to leave now. She says your work is great. So why can’t you just shut the #$@% up, Carl?!
Actually, you mumble something about you wish it was a bank ha ha, and you sprint out the door. But Carl has ruined your afternoon. Again. And why? Does he really think you don’t belong here? Is he implying that your work is suffering because of your non-traditional hours? Is it suffering? Maybe the boss is just being nice. Maybe she’s been trying to find a way to tell you that you’re falling way behind. Maybe you never should have become an engineer. Maybe your kids and your husband think you’re a failure, too. Who were you kidding to think you could do all this?
(For the men in our audience, yes, this is how it really sounds in a woman’s head. It’s like a constant Hitchcock movie, in terms of tension).
On a calmer, saner note, let’s take a look at Carl. First, he’s an engineer, so chances are his personality really needs order and rules and consistency. Yours does, too, but there are ranges within every group. Carl happens to be at the psychotic end of the spectrum. In addition, who actually says something out loud to their co-worker about when she’s leaving, even if they’re speculating about it mentally? Is that Carl’s job? No. So that means that Carl is a meddlesome, arrogant, passive-aggressive control freak who constantly tries to compare others to himself so he can feel superior. In southern Indiana, they call that nibby. It’s not a good thing. So Carl is not such a great person, regardless of whether he’s a guy or a woman. Sexism is just one of the many negative attributes of his crappy personality.
Let’s go back to you. Do you have an agreement with your boss saying you can work this flexible schedule? Does she appear to be pleased with your work? Are you getting it done? Are you being sure to point out to your boss when you do things well so that it won’t get lost in the day-to-day fray? If the answers to these questions are yes, then what’s the problem?
Well, you say, the problem is that I’m sick of hearing Carl say these things, and I want him to leave me alone. As ideal as that may sound, life is truly just one long stretch of seventh grade. Carl has a personality problem, and it’s probably not going to change. And you’re going to work with a lot of other people who will have other personality problems, and they won’t change either. None of this has anything to do with your choices/position as a woman or as an engineer. This has everything to do with life being like seventh grade. The real lesson in life is learning to deal with the other seventh graders and developing enough confidence to believe in yourself.
It’s true, Carl is dreadfully annoying, as are the concrete guys who say every day, “Are you just getting up? I’ve been up since fill-in-the-blank.” These people have an insecurity and need to have a way to feel like they’re better than you. Just ignore Carl. No, he won’t go away. But you have lots of options to give it right back to him, if you choose to expend the energy. (If you do, be sure you are doing it for entertainment purposes only. You don’t need to lash out at Carl to prove your worth). You can say in your sweetest voice, “I KNOW! Isn’t it fabulous? I think I’ll go shopping!” Or you could send Carl e-mails every hour in the middle of the night, beginning each subsequent message with, “Well, I guess you’ve already gone to sleep. I’m glad someone gets to. Please try to respond whenever it is that you’ll be working again.” For a quieter offensive attack, you could just say, “Am I?” Is it?”
Carl’s sexism is just a symptom of his poor character, so don’t concentrate on the wrong disease. You won’t cure him with earnest talks about equality and opportunities.
For your part, you have to be very careful not to do the same thing Carl is doing. Maybe you think your job as a mom is very noble, and you comment to one of your friends that can you believe that new project manager gets to come in early on Fridays so he can leave at 2:00 PM to go backpacking every weekend? Here you are slaving away 23 hours a day, and this kid gets a flexible schedule so he can go play. No. You chose to have kids, just like he chooses to go backpacking. You can’t go getting outraged about others criticizing your choices and then attack someone else’s choices. It’s good for everyone or it’s good for no one. This isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale, and you aren’t being forced to breed. So tell that backpacker to send you some great photos of the Red River Gorge, and you’ll have your kids draw adorable sketches of mountains for him. Everyone will appreciate the variety of choice that is the spice of life, and you’ll all be in a better mood to get your work done. Except Carl. He’ll be too busy documenting for the boss how much time you and the backpacker spent talking, and he’ll make her a spreadsheet of lost productivity. Give your boss some of your wine – I guarantee you she needs it.